Mysteries unsolved

August 28, 2010 § 2 Comments

I could never be you, you sneaky wench

I’m in the midst of reading Elizabeth Peters and Susan Sontag, which is a very odd combination. Recently thrown into the mix is Alan Moore, and this whole book party starts to resemble the ill-fated housewarming fete thrown by Tim and Daisy in Spaced. A motley crew of characters, my books, and it does not help lessen the general confusion in my brain, either –a confusion that has taken root and grown an orchard throughout the month of August.  But I’m sure this will pass.

As for the books, I mainly want to talk about Elizabeth Peters right now, because I wouldn’t know where to even begin with Sontag. I discovered Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries when  I was about 11 or 12, when my sister came back from the States with boxes and boxes of books that were mine for the taking (or rather, borrowing, but we’re sisters – what’s hers should be mine). I loved them. I have not read them in forever, but I loved them at the time. I went through those books like I did a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. Like I still do with a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. I later moved on to Peters’ Vicky Bliss mysteries, of which there are only six.  I remember the Vicky Bliss books as being rip-roaringly fun. I remember enjoying the steamy chemistry between Vicky and her erstwhile lover, art thief and smuggler John Smythe, whose name may or may not be his real one. I remember the mysteries as being pleasantly intellectual (art history being The Thing) and pleasingly tidy.

I felt the need to revisit Vicky Bliss and her erstwhile lover this past week. I don’t have the second book in the series, Street of the Five Moons, or the most recent one, but I needed something to read that was both familiar and vicariously adventurous – sort of in the style of the Famous Five, but less juvenile and badly-written.  Fiction-wise, I’ve been unable to handle any demanding reading this month, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me. So I dove back into the musty half of my bookshelf and dug out the Vicky Bliss books. Except it was not that much fun this time around. The steamy chemistry was more like being stuck in a tiny room filled with stale, humid air with a couple that just wouldn’t shut up. The mysteries put me to sleep – literally. I was astounded. How could something that had such pleasant associations in my memory be so unremittingly underwhelming upon a reread?

This isn’t new, of course, especially with books one has read as a child – the aforementioned Enid Blyton comes to mind. I still have her books, but I often can’t read more than a couple of pages at a time (usually, the descriptions of food involving picnics of tongue sandwiches, packets of chocolate, and lashings of Cola). But I had faith in the Vicky Bliss mysteries because I read them when I was semi-grown up; while still in high school and college, in fact. Perhaps that’s what makes it rather surprising; it’s amazing how much “growing up” a person can do in the space of a year, a month, or even a few hours, but when it comes to our favourite books, films or music from the past it seems almost sacrilegious and somehow inherently wrong to imagine that we would dislike it now simply because we’ve grown up. Or matured, or evolved. Or perhaps even regressed. Favourites should always be favourites; it’s hard to reimagine or reconfigure the like or love that we have for something from the past. It seems necessary that past favourites remain frozen in time, effectively certain and firmly embedded in our personal history. When things like this change, it feels as though the very foundations of the house you’ve built are seemingly made of smoke and air instead of brick and mortar.

That was a long, meandering opening before I got to the heart of the matter, which is: the Vicky Bliss mysteries suffer from a distinct lack of pacing. The books always start off light, and witty, and full of asides and observations by Vicky (a sharply-drawn character, blond and buxom, learned and clever and angry in the most appealing way) and then quite suddenly they devolve into the mystery, which almost feels like being dropped off in medias res in a hasty and awkward attempt at excitement, although it’s not. Peters takes time to elaborately sketch out  the premise of the mystery before it begins, but perhaps her voice (and Vicky’s) is better-suited to the playful meandering instead of the almost banal reporting of facts and events that Vicky usually does once knee-deep in the mystery. Too much exposition, not enough anything else. It’s almost as if Peters, whose academic background is in Egyptology, wants to juggle all her interests in European art history with the academic rigour it requires to present it accurately and with minimal fudging.  One almost wants to tell her: “It’s okay – let go of the facts and the details and just write a fun story… of which you’re more than capable.”

I apologise for this post; I initially set out to write it as a fun romp through the Vicky Bliss books but after reading them it’s clearly no more fun. I want to assure you that I’m not one of those tiresome people who demand FUN out of every damn thing they read, watch, listen, or do, but this post makes me sound like it, so perhaps I am, a little bit.

But I’m also feeling a little sad that comfort reading is a little less comforting these days, especially when I reconsider all the books of yore that I remember loving unreservedly. But mysteries tend to work on a vicarious level; as someone who basically grew up on Nancy Drew but grew up to be someone committed to a soft, comfortable life of safety – preferably in a rocking chair with a cup of coffee – it allows me to feel that I could, if I wanted to, grab a flashlight and explore an abandoned bungalow in the middle of the night, leaving behind the familiar and the routine for a glimpse of how adventures are made and remade. When a mystery fails to do this, it’s almost like the flashlight dying out right when you’ve found the dead body in the cellar. Then it all comes back to you – your actual life, the brightly-lit hallway, and the detritus of a ruined, failed imagination.

That it all comes back to you in the form of books that are no longer what you remembered them to be seems even more depressing. Rereading the Vicky Bliss books was supposed to have cheered me up and instead seems to have made me more morose. And the worst part is: it’s both Elizabeth Peters’ fault and mine.

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False face must hide what the false heart doth know*

August 24, 2010 § 2 Comments

Quite recently, I’ve begun to become obsessed with the notion of owning a smartphone. I’m not quite sure why; my little dumbphone more than admirably serves my needs, especially when you consider that my feelings for the mobile phone are rather mixed: I appreciate being able to call people whenever I want to, but I greatly dislike being available to others at all times.

But the idea, once planted in my mind, would not dislodge. I looked up reviews of mobile phones online, determined to believe that my choice to NOT choose an iPhone indicated a superiority of character. It is strange how we know it’s ridiculous to think that our choices in consumer products reveals something intrinsic about ourselves, yet we continue to make “choices” that speak to us exactly in this way. So I looked up Android phones because I was convinced this made me different.

The interesting thing about reading phone reviews is the way in which reviewers talk about affordable phones – because the new smartphones are bloody expensive, let’s not forget that – as being somehow “introductory” phones, for the low-end user. It’s not so much a culture of looking down at someone for not having enough money to have a new-fangled smartphone as it is more about looking down on adults who don’t make an effort to upgrade their phones as they move up in life. In this sense, life is presented like a very linear progression, where the cheaper, less-sophisticated phones are “alright for students and those new to smartphones” (and here I paraphrase a random review that stuck in my mind), while people who are serious about their life and/or who have already purchased smartphones before cannot simply revert back into unsophiscation and backwardness. We must march on. Forward. The upgrading of a phone is a sign of progress, and a proper adult would participate in this culture of progress, because not doing so is kind of shameful, like asking for a caramel latte when every other person is ordering a skim or soymilk latte. In fact, it’s almost similar – how can you ask for a caramel latte when you know how many calories it has, how fat it can make you? As a responsible adult who is only going to get better, you have to make the right choice to indicate your commitment to Improving Yourself.

Similarly, how can you simply settle for an ordinary phone when it’s clearly the lazy option? The effort of working on your life includes using the technology that best reflects your continuous need for self-improvement. An ordinary, regular, dumbphone is simply slob-like; it shows a marked disregard for hard work (that is, working hard on acquiring the right symbols to reflect your continuous progress) so that the message to you, dumbphone user, is: Whatever, you slobby person, stop whining about how much smartphones cost, we can’t help you, don’t blame us if you atrophy, etc.

This struck me particularly because a local daily published an article on the increasing rate of cosmetic surgery among men, women, children, and well, EVERYONE. On parents who bring in their children for cosmetic surgery, an “expert” cosmetic surgeon had this to say:

“Parents are more aware of the competition out there. They bring their children for enhancements to put them in same or higher category than their peers.”

Although not stated explicitly, this statement seems to come right out of the school of Doing Better, Wanting More. In an accompanying piece on cosmetic surgery – among children – The Star wrote:

Lim draws a distinction between the child seeking cosmetic surgery “because I hate the way I look” and “because I want to look even better”.

If the child is okay with himself and the way he looks but has the means (or the parents have the means) to make himself look better, then “why not”, he reasons.

If you want to do better – and this means cutting into your face and improving what is already very nice – it’s OKAY, because it signals a very reassuring need for improvement.

In yet ANOTHER accompanying piece on cosmetic surgery (The Star outdid itself, what can I say?), there is a section that bears reprinting at length:

“Like it or not, people judge a book by its cover. Looking good has become a necessity all over the world. It has become a part of life,” says aesthetic physician Dr Alice Prethima.

She says that in the old days, when a person was out of shape and looked bad, people accepted it and merely said “she has aged, she has put on weight”. For a male, they would comment that “he’s prosperous, he ate too much good food”.

But things have changed.

“These days, people think the person is lazy and won’t do anything for himself.”

She believes that just like exercise and supplements, cosmetic surgery and procedures are becoming a way of life as the country becomes more prosperous and people have the means to strive for good health and to look better.

Dr Prethima: ‘More men are coming in to look good and teenagers too are being brought in by their parents.’

“It’s in the subconscious. It is common in any living species that they will be attracted to a better-looking person. The reason is that a better-looking person is supposed to be more fertile and healthier and that will go towards progeny.

“If a person looks good, is fit and takes care of himself, then people would think they can take care of the family, the office or the community. The brain thinks that way. It’s natural,” says Dr Prethima, who has been running an aesthetic clinic for 11 years.

While I do think that our dear Dr. Alice Prethima is a bit harsh, I do also believe that she’s very right and has accurately described our present modern cultural condition. An ugly face or a flabby bum is seen as a very real symbol of one’s presumably inherently degenerative and lazy nature, just as an old phone represents your lack of will. The phone is no big deal, in a sense – people who get annoyed by criticisms of modern capitalism love to shout: “We’ve always wanted new things! The history of mankind is the history of wanting new things!” – but it’s a sign of the times, indeed, when a new face and a new body are also pre-requisites for admirable, sturdy, progressive characters. If you make an effort to fix get a new phone and a new car and a new house and a new face, you’ll make an effort to care for the people in your life, and others will want to marry you.

I’m not sure what slope we’re sliding down here, but the descent seems steep.

*Much thanks to Shakespeare for the title.

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i’ve got soul but i’m not a soldier

August 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

I took some time off the Internet for the last seven days because I needed to find myself.

*smirk*

I needed to find my Walden Pond. The Twitterverse – too much noise. The silent stalking on Facebook – too damn creepy. The articles, blogs, tumblr, online news – too many thoughts; few of them pleasant.

Of course, completely staying away from the internet is not possible. There is The Email. It seems that it has been decreed that we must all use it, especially where work is involved. But other than that, it was a largely successful experiment. It was… restful. In the mornings, instead of drinking a cup of coffee to news and tweets about news, I watched my dogs romp after terrified tree-shrews in the garden. I know that there’s nothing worse than a pretentious bourgeois urbanite writing about “How I stayed away from the internet… and rediscovered my garden!” but that is exactly what I’m doing. I stayed away from the internet, and reader, I rediscovered my garden.

Aaah. (But this is not my garden.)

I am not the first to note that the moment you step away from a machine to which you’re connected to for a large part of the day, you tend to feel more at home in your body. I don’t know how to say this without sounding twee, but the humanness of your human body is returned to you when you disengage from the computer for long periods of time. Thus, when people pissed me off in the malls – as they tend to do here in Kuala Lumpur, Valley of Malls – I simply took a good look at their tired, defeated faces and realised that their expressions mirrored my own. The moment – a few seconds, really – of attention that is required of humanity; the few seconds it takes to look at someone else’s face and reconsider your own response or expression; that is the first thing that dissolves into the ether when you’re plugged into a machine. Which is how I felt, for most of the day, doing most of my work and freelance writing on the computer, switching screens to check email and read tweets, switching screens to read articles and Op-Eds, then taking a break, then deriving my entertainment and my mental nourishment from DVDs watched on the computer, books reads as PDF files. I had forgotten what is what like to just be.

As of now, I’m back in the fray, and it’s already making my head spin. I’m not sure why this should be the case, but I suspect a lot of what I need to learn to do in our new age of digital noise and unlimited information is to learn where to draw the line. Learning how and where to draw the line is harder than it seems; it’s precisely why Oprah has become filthy rich preaching it to millions. But perhaps, with a little Faith, I will find My Way. *cue the violins*

*UPDATED to include this thoughtful rumination by Amit Varma on Coates’ blog post, and also on the nature of society and communication and “internal noise”.

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Virtues of wifeliness

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

By coincidence, I found myself reading two books about marriage and wifehood at the same time: Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife and Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. That one was a staid historical investigation and the other a genre romance seemed to me to be a rather serendipitous and fitting reflection of the current conception of Wifeliness, particularly here in Southeast Asia; one that requires a wife to be appropriately sober and sensible in tandem with being the ideal embodiment of femininity and the as the supreme gatekeeper to romance. Or perhaps not. I wouldn’t know, not being a wife. But from my perspective as wildly unleashed Single Woman it was vicarious fun to romp in satin sheets via the Quinn book and take a long, detailed walk through the history of Western wives via the Yalom book.

Yalom tries to be specific with her title, yet one still feels that it should have been subtitled: “The White Wife of America and Western Europe”. Full of historical facts and figures, and plenty of primary sources including letters and speech transcripts, Yalom’s book attempts to paint a broad yet cohesive picture of the white wife from the time of antiquity until the present day. I realise that my use of the term “white” is also fraught with complexities, but it refers precisely to Yalom’s focus of the book. In sections where there was a need to mention black wives (such as during the time of slavery) or Native American wives (during the conquest of America), Yalom, to her credit, does give a few pages to the subject, and then carries on with her primary subject – the white wives.

But this is not to devalue Yalom’s focus or historical approach, as a whole – typically, historians who set out to write a complete history of anything will naturally find themselves as at an impasse that must be breached or simply avoided when it comes to the curious matter of which groups of people to focus on, and why. While reading it, I tweeted about this book being a “sprightly romp” because it is – an extraordinary feast of historical nuggets ably extended to 400 pages thanks to Yalom’s strong sense of narrative and the genuine enthusiasm she seems to display for her material. It’s an able historian who’s able to draw attention to the changes societies have accrued over the years while still pointing out the many ways in which the changes can sometimes be at best, superficial, or limited to only certain groups of people. To wit:

In ancient Greece, a young woman was her father’s possession until she married. Then she was “given by her father to her husband. Remnants of this idea still exist in the Western marriage ceremony when the minister asks, “Who gives this woman?” and the bride’s father response, “I do.” A marriageable woman was a human commodity, to be transferred from her father’s home to her husband’s, where she assumed the latter’s name and was subject to his control.

When Yalom tells us that “legal wife beating did not disappear with the Middle Ages”, she contextualises the beliefs and mores of past societies that condoned the practice and assumed it to be as natural as breathing, while leaving readers with the uncomfortable reality of beliefs that persist in brutality and in number even when it stops being normal. The history of a wife, as Yalom tells it, is also the history of a husband – and because marriage was necessarily an integral part of life for all adult males and females up to the very recent 18th century – it is, also, quite simply the history of humankind.  Mediaeval Europe, heralding the birth of courtly or romantic love, emphasised flattery and wooing as means of winning over the female, but also sanctioned – in fact, promoted – rape and forcible sexual overtures as a way of breaking down the female’s “natural modesty”. It’s endlessly fascinating, the inherent conflicts that seem to be weaved into the very fabric of society itself, because a woman’s “natural modesty” is a construct of society, while rape also becomes a societal construct that is used to break down those defences that everyone knows might not really reveal a woman’s true feelings. That is, she might be shy and retiring because she is expected to be, but if you really love her and she really loves you, push her into a corner and sexually coerce her, because who knows? She might be really into you!

To that effect, Yalom’s book is also a fascinating glimpse of how “woman” is continually being made and remade to fit the exigencies of society. As she writes in her chapter on ‘Victorian Wives on Both Sides of the Atlantic’: “In keeping with the new view of woman as angel, she was stripped of all physical desire. The distinguished English doctor William Acton opined that ‘woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him.’ “

Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever is set just before the Victorian age in that small bright flicker of a flame that was the Georgian/Regency period – where simplicity governed fashion but social norms and mores were given to controlled, elegant flights of fancy. In this time, women were still not expected to make the first move and actively lust after or pursue their delicious man-dish of choice. They could, however, primp and preen and display a little bit of delicious bosom in order to subtly and deviously get the right man-dish to be served at their table. Enter Miranda Cheever, only 10 years old, but already maligned for not looking the way pretty young girls who will soon be potential brides should. Enter also Nigel Turner, elder brother of Miranda’s best friend, Olivia, who on one particularly serendipitous day, tells Miranda this: “Someday you are going to grow into yourself, and you will be as beautiful as you are smart.”

Miranda goes home that night and writes in her diary: “Today, I fell in love.” As would anyone fall, 10-years-old or not, for the person who finds in them the promise of beauty. We’re not so much enraptured by the idea of being beautiful as much as we’re charmed by someone else’s revelation of the potential they see in us. How much more energising and vital to hear about our potential for beauty – which could be life-changing and GREAT, as it’s not in evidence yet – than it is to be told that “You’re beautiful”, which could mean nothing, really, once you go back home and look in the mirror.

And so the stage is set for the drama of love in Quinn’s book. Quinn is a clever writer with a great ear for fast-paced dialogue that’s ripe with casual wit and banter. Yet it still feels like she keeps reminding herself to stay well within the boundaries of genre, lest she go too far and allow her characters to say or think things that grasps the narrative by its petticoat and shoves it toward an unplanned direction. Because of this, situations or dialogues that initially develop with ease and spontaneity often end on a note of cliché or predictability. No doubt, that’s one of the challenges of writing intelligently in a genre. But in the case of this book in particular, it often feels lazy and uninspired.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of the book or the occasional wit that transpires over the course of the narrative. Miranda is a character whom one is compelled to rally around, especially when she’s made out to be the underdog from the very first page. In a line of pretty, perfectly-behaved women waiting to be selected by men, Miranda earns herself the spot at the head of the line of the Interesting but Not Ugly women. In the Regency era, as is the case now, being interesting often left you with a good many men willing to dance with you, but none with the temerity to actually propose marriage.

Turner finally does propose marriage to Miranda, and that’s no surprise, because we pay for a romance novel in order to earn ourselves the right to enjoy the happily-ever-after. How it comes about is rather a twist; in this case, it’s Miranda who wants to marry for love, and because Turner has ex-wife issues that he has not dealt with, love is something that exists on the periphery of his consciousness. He likes Miranda, but marries her out of duty as he has “robbed” her of her virtue before they were engaged. The sex was consensual, but the handing over of virtue is the business of society. As Yalom outlined in her book, society was keen to look the other way in terms of pre-marital sex in pre-Victorian Britain, so long as the couple finally got engaged in the end. If this was pre-marital sex between the working classes, of course, no one really gave a flying chemise who did whom.

Miranda could have happily stayed single and enjoyed her father’s economic protection, if not his emotional one (he was distant and scholarly, if affectionate, and her mother is dead). There was no real urgency for marriage, unless she was pregnant (a scare that did come up as a momentum-creating plot device, but just as soon comfortingly dissolved). The fact that she could refuse Turner once doesn’t seem to have affected the relationship – as Turner is fulfilling his duty, he sketches out to Miranda a lifetime of good companionship, great conversation, and fantastic sex. She gives in, because she loves him. The thorn in her side at the beginning – that Turner never told her he loves her – is ably resolved in the end when she actually DOES become pregnant as a legitimate wife, undergoes a traumatic birth, and is recognised by Turner as the love of his life because she made a baby for him.

If Foucault wants to keep reminding us that power travels along a continuum and is never centred in one exact position forever, then perhaps Miranda and Turner’s marriage is a “modern” one that demonstrates how both husband and wife are able to antagonise and entertain each other, as well as keep the other in line. But in this particular world, it’s a power-balance that can be enjoyed only because Miranda herself is well-off. Furthermore, Quinn doesn’t so much write a central narrative that breaks the boundaries of the traditional marriage conventions as prescribe different methods of being within a marriage, assuming that all other factors – race, religion, class, and nationality – are all well under-control. But it’s clear, in the end, that Miranda is the only one who will ever play the role of the wife in this marriage.

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The Unbearable Paleness of Being

August 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

This book is one of the worst I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent memory. (Yes, let me just get that out of the way from the outset.) The premise is fairly hopeful enough for a book described as a “gothic romance”: six young strangers have been called forth to come together and form a Guard to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead. Though it must be said that using the term “world of the living” may be stretching it, as all six are based in Victorian-era London, and probably don’t really give a shit about regular folks being eaten by demons in say, China. But perhaps I quibble too much. When these six people – adolescents – are initially summoned by the Goddess / “Divine Creature” they are told that a seventh would come later on; this seventh member will be the Prophecy. But they will not be able to recognise the seventh member immediately, and the Guard is told to, well, be on guard against fake Prophecies and those who come to trick the Guard and thus… bring doom upon the world, etc.

Yeeeees.

Cut to about twenty years later in Athens Academy in the heart of London, founded by Rebecca Thompson and Alexi Rychman, two of the six members of the Guard. In case this glides over your head, which is entirely likely as you contemplate the narrative events of this book, the former adolescents are now adults. Rebecca is the Headmistress; Alexi is a science professor. Into their midst comes tentative, timid, pale-as-a-ghost Percy Parker.  Considering that her name is in the title of the book, I’m not spoiling it for you by saying that yes, Percy is the seventh member, the Prophecy, although no one in the book knows it yet. But even if you’re using slightly less than the mythical 10% of your brain while reading this book, you’ll KNOW that Percy Parker is the seventh member of the Guard.

But apparently, the purpose of this book, its sole raison d’etre, is to allow the Guard to undergo melodramatic and time-consuming trials and tribulations before they recognise and accept Percy as the Prophecy. They’re all incredibly stupid and obtuse and ridiculous in their united refusal to consider Percy as the likely Prophecy. In Rebecca’s case, it seems understandable as her years of pent-up love for the noble Alexi is likely to reveal itself in jealousy for the snowy-white Percy Parker who has caught the noble Alexi’s rapt attention, and perhaps Michael finally had a chance to get his own back because he’d like to put an end to Alexi and his nobleness and can’t, because murder is illegal, so he’ll contend with standing in Alexi’s way and seeing his heart ripped apart. I mean, power to him, really.

But the rest of them? Stupid.

All this is well and good, except that Percy is a snivelly, whiny mess. She is tender, she is sensitive, she is meek. She cries when she meets with Professor Rychman because she is just… bad at science and she doesn’t want the awesome, noble, regal professor to hate her any more than he already does, which he certainly does, because she’s such a freaky-looking person, weep, weep. Did we mention that Professor Rychman is like, so, NOBLE? Percy is albino, and because it was an uncommon occurrence or knowledge in Victorian times, or perhaps because people back then were ruder than we are now (ha!), Percy is stared at all the time. Some think she’s an apparition, a ghost. Percy drapes herself in scarves and wears dark glasses so that no one can see her pale hair and her pale, pale eyes.

I understand that Percy’s trials – being marked out as “different” by her appearance – are exceedingly difficult to bear. Yet, her constant surprise at and revulsion of her own face seems artificial and inauthentic; Percy appears to constantly see her condition through the eyes of someone else. We all have those moments, but it would seem that anyone who has grown up past the age of 12 learns to live with his or her own physical irregularities or shortcomings in the much of the same way one would accept that rain falls from the clouds in the sky, or that trees grow upward. It just is. It does not permeate your thoughts for the 14 of the 16 hours you spend awake. If it does, perhaps one can be said to be rather feeble-minded.

Percy Parker needs more things to think about. But sadly, this does not happen. She is apparently learned in languages, and can speak several fluently – this is her gift, you see, and the clue that marks her out as the Prophecy since the other six can see spirits and ghosts but can’t speak to them or understand what they’re saying. Percy can – she communes with ghosts. Understandably, because she’s young and a student at the Academy, Rebecca and the remaining four who don’t work in the Academy don’t really think much about Percy.

But Professor Alexi Rychman – ah, he of the NOBLE, dark, and regal bearing and bone structure, he thinks about her. He tutors Percy in private because she sucks at science. She, enthralled by Alexi from the moment she first laid eyes on him, simpers and ducks her head to avoid letting him see the rose-pink blush that starts from her toes and spreads to god-knows-where on her pale, lovely, milky-white, alabaster, flawless skin. Because, you see, even if she is strange-looking because of her condition, she is also beautiful. Alexi, the strong, arrogant, proud, aloof, NOBLE, regal Alexi with his straight nose and chiselled jaws and shock of dark hair, he sees this beauty and is discomfited. But he cannot… get… this girl… Percy Parker… out of his mind.

In the midst of Alexi falling in love with Percy’s milky-white skin, and Percy going, “Oh, Professor!” and “I’m sorry, Professor!” and wondering every two seconds if her innate ugliness is going to turn him off, we learn of other things that I alluded to earlier – like Rebecca’s loud unrequited love for Alexi, and Michael’s quiet unrequited love for Rebecca. These are interesting factors and dynamics within the group, factors and dynamics that could strip away the dull, faded patina of vitality that Hieber has painted in limpid, timid strokes to give shape to these characters,  but Hieber doesn’t focus on this. Oh, no. Instead, we get Percy and Alexi, making eyes at each other and swooning desperately in their own respective beds over their newly-awakened lust and their searing passion and their obsession. As their love starts to blossom, they start saying ridiculous things to each other like, “Pardon me, sweet girl. I must go,” and “Oh, my dear professor! I’ve been helplessly yours from the very first.”

Give me a Panadol and be done with it.

Most of this book is spent fetishizing Percy’s whiteness. It’s translucent, it’s otherworldly, it’s magical, it’s pure, it’s beautiful, it’s everything that is good and right in the world. I understand if Hieber wanted to naturalise the state of albinism – to show that someone with albino could and should be considered as beautiful as anyone else – yet the celebration of whiteness and the OCD obsessing over Percy’s luminous skin tone by Alexi, and Percy herself, proves to be incredibly disturbing and plain freakish.

If all these aren’t reasons enough not to read the damned book, consider some examples of its fine prose:

Diaphanous material wrapped her perfect body, sweeping layers and transitioning hues like the rest. Her eyes were crystalline lamps, sparkling and magnetic. There was no other answer but that she was a divine creature.

Eyes blazing like stars, hair wild and raging, snowy arms outstretched and glistening with light as her thin white gown whipped in the wind of her own power, Percy Parker descended through the fire and entered the circle where Lucy stood staring, struck dumb and quizzical.

Does this book fail as a gothic romance? It’s a classic example of much fiction and genre novels of the present: consisting of all the right ingredients but none of the flavour. Let’s just chalk this one up to a failure of the most basic kind: artistry.

 

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Deviously blogging elsewhere

August 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

I will like to take this moment to announce a new blog: We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.

I write it together with a dear friend and sneaky collaborator, Sharenee. The blog is about, well, Women’s Issues… yeah, I know… big YAWN, right? Women-schwomen, always complaining about every damn thing… what more do women-schwomen want?!?

Well, the short answer: we’re brown, we’re Malaysian, we’re women, and we’re tired. Also, we’re pissed. Hence, the blog.

Please go have a look; my posts are depressingly words-only, but Sharenee draws some amazing comics featuring a stupendous lead character named Miz Moe, who is also a dog. Miz Moe is one of the smartest people dogs I know.

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Lal on Gandhi

August 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Towards the end of his talk, in answer to someone’s question, Vinay Lal talked about the cultural capital that accumulates under Gandhi’s name – primarily as Mahatma Gandhi, and not as Mohandas Gandhi, the person who lived, breathed, wrote, wore the loincloth, slept in a room with his nieces, marched to Dandi. The person who was sanctified for having fought, and fought persistently, without violence. I’ve been very anti-Gandhi from the beginning. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s just something that grew out my rebelling against this idea of him, as Lal put it, as a sanitized, saintly nutjob. Everyone seemed to want to claim a piece of Gandhi; and everyone who knew nothing about India or Indian people, whether in the country or in its vast diaspora, would blandly parrot out “Gandhi” is response to anything with the word “India” in it. The cultural capital that Gandhi has accrued over the years has now far outweighed his actual arguments and ideas.

So I attended Lal’s presentation on ‘Gandh’s Critique of Modernity’ at Universiti Malaya yesterday not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the Gandhi aspect, only the Lal aspect. But the true worth of an academic presentation lies only in its ability to change your mind, or at least prompt you to consider doing so. And by that, I don’t mean that you’ll have to undergo an epiphany and change your worldview, necessarily (though feel free to indulge in life-changing epiphanies as often as you want), but that you’ll feel compelled to examine one aspect of your perspective on the subject, and be moved to place that tiny aspect of your perspective under the critical lens and go, “By golly, I never thought to think about it in that way.”

Having never read Hind Swaraj, I can’t comment on the text. This should be rectified soon. However, with Lal’s help, I was able to view Gandhi’s contribution to history beyond the “wear-a-loin-cloth-and-practise-weird-sexual-habits” perspective that sort of buzzes in my ear loudly, drowning out everything else, thanks largely in part to the ever-present Gandhi Industry of His Saintliness and Oddness and His Utter Futility. Gandhi’s eminently reasonable and reasoned critique on Western modernity and Western hegemony of history seems particularly resonant now, in 2010, as countries all over the world – Western countries, included – battle it out over whose conception of history is Right. Because, as the saying goes, “whoever forgets history is condemned to repeat it.” Therefore, we march on impenetrably, daring ourselves to remember history and to make the right moves that will absolve us of our past history.

Lal tells us that the Gandhian notion would have been: “whoever remembers history is condemned to repeat it.” It was a small epiphany, in that tiny seminar room, as I reflected on how Malaysia seems to be doomed to repeat May 13 in small and banal everyday ways the more we desire to remember it and entrench it permanently onto the national historical narrative. Events as recent as Muslim protesters using cow heads to protest the erection of a Hindi temple is firmly implanted in all our minds; sometimes, I have wondered – reading the tweets and the blog posts and considering my own steaming pile of thoughts, soaked in vitriol – wouldn’t it be so much more liberating to simply cease to remember?

Perhaps memory should be selective – limited to those who have actually experienced it. The rest of us should forget. As Lal pointed out, “Israel remembers too much.” We all do. In Malaysia, in particular, because it’s the country I know best, we seem to be remembering all the time, and with clear-eyes and clear vision, repeating everything that we remember faithfully and by the book.

I suppose the question would be: But at what price do we forget? I’m not sure. The cost may be a lot more insubstantial than we’d like to believe.  And then, the caveat: to forget, but to forget responsibly. (Note: This isn’t what Lal discussed, but more on where my thoughts meandered after he told us about Gandhi’s sense of ahistoricism.)

Lal also spoke about Gandhi’s fundamental sense of unease with how the knowledge systems of the West subsume all other knowledge systems under its rubric, ensuring that problems or shortcomings within the knowledge systems of the West can only be resolved WITHIN the knowledge systems of the West. Yes. Try reading that again fast, 3 times.

In other words, Gandhi’s problem with the West was not that it simply was the West – a stance that Tun Dr. Mahathir employed with indulgence as and when it pleased or suited him. The idea of the West having had to colonise itself before setting out to colonise others, the elements of surveillance and rationalisation that characterises the West’s project of modernity – including the subsuming of place and space –all these were factors that compelled Gandhi’s critique. Bearing in mind, even, that the phrase “the West” should be used problematically because there is no the West without fissures and delineations and segments and complexities.

And lastly, the idea of Gandhi’s inversion of the “think globally, act locally” catchphrase of the 60s into “think locally, act globally” – which, as Lal explained, had to do with being able to work with indigenous forms of knowledge related to the subject that don’t lead to repression, whether intended or unintended.  This again makes me think of failed modernisation attempts in developing countries, and particularly the quagmire into which Malaysia finds itself sinking, thanks to Tun Dr. Mathathir’s 22 years of exhortation to the Malaysian people to condemn the West, mock the West, castigate the West, and mimic the West.

There were other aspects of Gandhi not covered in this all-too-brief presentation – as it was, it was solely on the critique of modernity and the ability to envision a new cosmopolitanism, and these two topics were broad enough to probably have required a two-day conference by Lal. No doubt Lal would be able to carry a conference all on his own; I look forward to reading his books, especially since he was unafraid to be contentious and opinionated (i.e. “Economists have done nothing useful for us in the last 60 years”, “The field of social sciences should be abolished”, “England does not know what to do with food”.) With the exception of the last remark, I’m sure the other would have drawn rejoinders and counter-arguments had the seminar received more attention from academics, students, and the general public in a larger venue.

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Uh-oh – scary, unstable chick. Totally hot, though.

August 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

I’m still trying to understand what I feel about Chloe. It didn’t help that the cinema was filled with children who couldn’t have been older than 15 and who couldn’t handle a single intimate scene without snorting, giggling or whooping (I suppose a film with an SG-18 rating is the ultimate in naughtiness, especially in the middle of a weekend afternoon at the mall). It didn’t help that these highly-excitable children talked loudly throughout the entire movie, but especially during the quiet moments of dialogue. It didn’t help that the girl next to me had smelly feet and that she removed her shoes. Possibly, the movie itself just felt wrong. Julianne Moore gave excellent performance, and Amanda Seyfried gave a decent one. And these performances seemed to strive for something raw and real, and were at odds with the artificial, expressly-manipulative look, feel, and tone of the movie.

Before I go any further, I must warn you that this post has SPOILERS! LOTS OF ‘EM!

SPOILERS!!!

(not a spoiler, yet) Chloe is a remake of the French movie Nathalie, which I have not seen.

NOW! REAL! SPOILERS!!!

I’ve seen reviews that trashed Moore’s performance, but I really felt that she dug deep into that abyss of numb horror that most women experience when they realise that the man they still love and desire may still love them in return – only it’s a companionable love minus the desire. It’s a genuine and at times brutal performance but one that still frustrates, as Moore – undoubtedly a beautiful woman – walks around moping about not being able to hold her husband’s attention or stimulate his desire and sustain it forever. It’s hard to fully immerse yourself in world, even if it’s only a fictitious one on celluloid, where someone with Moore’s beauty is relegated to being an invisible afterthought simply because she’s NOT fresh-faced and nubile.

Anyhow. Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, who suspects her husband (played by Liam Neeson) of having an affair. Her husband is a professor with a confident, debonair air of distinguished good looks and charm – it is a key point later in the movie when Moore’s character tells him that as he only becomes more beautiful with age, and she feels more invisible and unworthy of him as she ages. This premise is played out explicitly throughout the movie, as her husband flirts with younger waitresses who reciprocate by looking at him meaningfully in the eyes and his female students sort of lean forward coquettishly and smile while he’s presenting a lecture. He is meant to be the embodiment of mature masculinity in its prime.

Because, as we all know, men age like fine wine, and women age like… bread.

So it should not surprise me, really, that Moore’s character, beautiful as she is, is rarely put into contact with men who want her or desire her or stare at her from across the street. Her sexual focus, in all its confusion and jitteriness, is wholly centred on her husband.

Because, as we all know, married men are tempted and like beautiful, young things, while married women only want to sleep with their husband. And because young girls and women are tempted by married men, but no boy or man is ever attracted to a… married woman? Gone are the days of Mrs. Robinson. In our present culture, the very act of being a woman who ages renders you an immediate abomination. For the love of God, woman, FILL IN THY WRINKLES with Botox!

There is a conversation in the movie that emphasises this marked difference in desirability within the system of marriage, in case you’re dim and you miss the point. When her husband tells her that he’s been tempted so many times but has not done anything about it because of his commitment to their marriage, Moore’s character retorts by saying that she’s “never, ever wanted to be with anybody else”. Her husband accuses her of lying.

But we believe her. Of course we do.

So when Moore’s character ends up having desperate sex with Amanda Seyfried’s Chloe, it’s only inevitable that it’s an expression of misguided and misdirected desire. Her real desire is directed toward her husband; but since she can’t have him, and Chloe gets to fuck him (which we’ll later find out has been a complete lie), she’ll fuck Chloe because she needs it (she hasn’t been touched in so long) and because it’s a way of fucking her husband.

Except in this Fatal Attraction twist, Chloe becomes obsessed with Moore’s character, and starts appearing in her life a little too often. That’s when the movie simply degenerates into a B-grade thriller, only with beautiful cinematography and what would commonly be called “lush scenes”. Lush close-ups of young female flesh, lush close-ups of places and interiors. Lush, lush, lush.

Perhaps it’s not the artificialness of the movie that really bothered me. I think what really bothered me was the movie’s inability to move past prescribed sexual norms and roles. It seems to say that desire only works in constructed, predictable ways: that of a wife for her husband; that of a husband for a variety of women (the younger the better); that of boys for pretty girls; and that of girls for boys with power, money, in order to gain money, attention, or love. I mean, if there was a rule-book on How to Make Sexual Desire Adhere Faultlessly to the Fault Lines of Sexism, this movie adapted its every principle. Everything else is merely accidental.  So there’s a soft-core sex scene featuring two women; but their desire for each other is only incendiary as it forces Moore’s character to realise her real desire is for her husband, and for Seyfried’s character to reveal herself as dangerously lonely and unstable. The fact that it could be fun, loving, passionate, or dangerous – a catalyst for the destruction of old relationships and the creation of new ones – well, now that would just be too much. I mean, let’s just focus on the important thing, now: two hot women having sex. Yowza!

That sex scene between Moore and Seyfried is everything one would expect an older man (yes… hello to you, Atom Egoyan) would dream of – two thin, beautiful women in soft lighting; gentle moaning and sighing; everything proper and in its place, and very dainty. There is no chaos or mess. It’s all very polite and well-mannered, really.

It’s almost as if Egoyan read Laura Mulvey and said, a-ha, this is a book on the principles of filmmaking. Right? I will follow her every word. Only, I will subvert it by making the main protagonist a woman – a woman who “others” another woman just like a man would, like that de Beauvoir woman said, and a-ha, won’t those ranting feminists be confused?

When Moore’s character confesses to her husband about having slept with Chloe, there are no repercussions. The husband’s face registers this with only momentary interest – the realm of woman-to-woman desire ostensibly existed only for him, and his wife tells him as much. To be fair to Liam Neeson’s character, he didn’t really have to say or do much. So perhaps he had deep thoughts in his head with regards to his wife’s affair with a young girl. It’s just that we never got to find out.

The sex mattered to Chloe, obviously. But the movie’s almost-end, where Chloe falls to her beautiful, ludicrous, slow-motion death, only serves to undermine Chloe’s sense of desire – in fact, it effectively negates her agency. The movie wants you to know that she was only crazy, you see, and disturbed, and so who knows why the hell she wanted to have sex with a woman? And like, stalk her and shit? Whatever. There’s no back-story to Chloe’s instability; only lots of slow-motion, languorous shots of her porcelain, firm skin and pouty lips and lustrous doe-eyes.

Which is fine, really. I’m sure life’s filled with married women having sex with young girls to get closer to their husbands and young girls having sex older women because they need a mother figure and god knows what else. Who cares, really? Just between women, after all. I mean, I would have been happy if they explored the “sexual desire and insanity, two extremes on the same continuum” theme further and brought Freud into the picture, but nope. So I was little perturbed to learn that the screenplay for Chloe was written by Erin Cressida Wilson, who did Secretary, which I thought was pretty brilliant. But then, that was adapted from a Mary Gaitskill short story, so perhaps all the hard work was already done for her. Wilson certainly falls below the mark here. I know this movie is based on Nathalie, but what’s the point of the remake if you’re only rehashing stereotypical themes that don’t serve any particular purpose?

Unless, you know, Nathalie was actually better than this self-indulgent exercise in superficiality.

[Chloe fails the Bechdel test although it has two female characters who talk to each other. But about 95% of the film is of them talking to each other about a man. The remaining 10% is Julianne Moore's character telling Amanda Seyfried's charater, "You're beautiful. You must know that you're beautiful. But this has to end, leave us alone." That counts as a FAIL, right?]

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