STOP THE JANE AUSTEN MADNESS!

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, check out the lostgenerationreader blog here. She is hosting an Austen in August event.

http://lostgenerationreader.com/2014/08/01/austen-in-august-master-post/

My collection of Austen spawn
My collection of Austen spawn

In vain I have struggled to hold back my thoughts, but it will not do.  My feelings will not be repressed.  You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love Jane Austen.

On my refrigerator
On my refrigerator

Because of my sincere appreciation of Austen’s superior mind and character, I was intrigued a number of years ago when I noticed the rapidly growing number of Jane Austen’s spawn infiltrating the marketplace  Her growing brood of knock-offs included not only faithful movie and play adaptations, but also re-imaginings of her works with an endless variety of twists and turns.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was one of the first Austen re-writes I read.  I found this re-writing of Pride and Prejudice from a 30-something English Everywoman’s perspective refreshing and hilarious.  As an added bonus, I learned the term “fuckwit” from this novel, a term I have found to be quite useful for describing a number of people I have since come across.

Even more diverting than the book version of Bridget Jones’s Diary was the movie version of it, starring competing dream boats Colin Firth and Hugh Grant (who are apparently the only two male actors in England).  How could anyone resist Renee Zellweger lounging alone at home in her jammies, singing “All By Myself” before falling into a drunken stupor?  How could anyone not find it satisfying that the snobbish female stick-insects of the movie ended up without either Colin Firth or Hugh Grant?

Colin Firth played the Darcy character in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Not coincidentally, he also starred as Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and I believe he plays a not inconsiderable role in Jane Austen’s recent popularity. (Not that I would know anything about that.)

At the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England.
At the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England.

So at first, I was proud of Jane Austen for her continuing popularity, and I wanted to learn more.  I thought it would be fun to research all of the Austen knock-offs from the past few decades.  But alas, my pride in Austen quickly turned to prejudice against the Austen industry.  I realized it was futile to try to compile a comprehensive list; her spawn was multiplying far too rapidly for a mere mortal like me to get control over it.

As I noted above, at first I found the knock-offs charming.  But then my attitude changed.  As the little Austens began to reproduce more rapidly, I started to become frightened.  For example, the Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice,” called Bride and Prejudice, was initially intriguing.  But when the entire cast came out in matching outfits and started singing and dancing together, I cried in horror.  I wanted to do a Mr. Bennett and go hide in my library until they were done.

But the real trauma began with a novel and author whose names I fortunately do not remember.  This novel described Elizabeth and Darcy’s early married life in intimate detail.  And I mean intimate.  I’m not a prude, but when I read the description of Elizabeth and Darcy banging away on the dining room table, I blanched.  Not long after that enlightening scene came another scene of ardent embraces that took place under a tree in the yard.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth had just recently given birth and was not ready for such “activities,” so she started bleeding and, if I recall correctly, some of her placenta came out as well (?).  (I’m not making this stuff up.  I am not capable of making this stuff up.)  That was the end of that novel for me.

Years later, after the traumatic memory of the previous book had been safely buried, I started perusing a few more knock-offs, with titles such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Lost in Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, and, God help us all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Every time I walk into a book store, I see at least one,  usually more, re-interpretations of an Austen novel.  To be honest, they all blur together in my head; I can no longer distinguish one baby Austen from the other.   There are so many of them at this point, it is almost like trying to distinguish one brand of cereal from another.

You’d think a zombie knock-off would be memorable, but it’s not. For the most part, Seth Grahame-Smith copied Pride and Prejudice word for word.  My people call this plagiarism.   I guess Grahame-Smith gets away with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because in every chapter or so he adds a paragraph or two in which zombies enter the scene and Elizabeth Bennett skillfully fights them off with her advanced zombie-killing skills.   Yawn.    Where’s the “value-added” as my friends in the business world like to ask?

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I have had enough.  Twenty or thirty Austen knock-offs are enough.  We do not need several hundred of them.   LET’S STOP THE MADNESS!  Let’s put an end to the endless Austen wannabes.  Let us regain some sanity and JUST SAY NO.***

Let’s let Austen rest peacefully in her grave.

If authors feel they must write a knock-off of an amazing classic woman author, how about George Eliot or the Bronte sisters?  Maybe some Emily Dickinson?  Virginia Woolf?  Let’s spread the love around, shall we?

JUST SAY NO TO THIS!
JUST SAY NO TO THIS!

***Unless Colin Firth or Hugh Grant is involved.  We can never get enough of those two, especially together in the same film. ***

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Diversiverse Challenge

With this post, I am hereby declaring my intention to participate in the Diversiverse challenge, begun by Aarti at her Booklust blog.  Click here for a link to her blog and more information about the challenge.

This is a summary of the challenge, taken from Aarti’s blog:

For those who have not heard about #Diversiverse before, it’s a very simple challenge.  For those of you who have participated in the past, it’s even easier this year.  The criteria are as follows:

  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th – 27th) 

diversiverse

I hope that some of you will join the challenge!

Blame it on Hong Kong: The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

 

“I’ve known girls like you for years.  You come over from England and don’t know what to do with yourselves.  You could be different.  You should take the opportunity to become something else.”  (55)

 

 The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y. K. Lee.  Viking, 2008

(quotations in this book are from the Barnes and Noble NOOK edition.)

 

Piano Teacher

 

What makes people who they are?  Is there one core self that remains immutable over time?  Or might there be several potential selves lying dormant, waiting for the opportunity to emerge?  What effect does place have on our identities, our conceptions of who we are?

Janice Y. K. Lee’s haunting 2008 novel The Piano Teacher explores these questions, among many others.  The novel is set in Hong Kong in two different periods:  the early 1940s, during the Japanese occupation, and the early 1950s, after the English are back in control of the colony.  The piano teacher of the title is Claire Pendleton, a newly married 28 year old English woman who has come to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with her husband, a man to whom she is not attracted.  She takes a job giving piano lessons to the child of Victor and Melody Chen, a wealthy Chinese couple.   Eventually, she meets the Chens’ English chauffeur, Will Truesdale, and begins an affair with him.

We learn that ten years earlier, Will Truesdale moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with Trudy Liang, a wealthy, beautiful, and charming Eurasian woman.  The novel switches back and forth in time, focusing on all three characters.  One of Lee’s major focuses is the effect of World War II and the brutal Japanese occupation on the characters.  While some characters show bravery and undying loyalty, many others descend into ugliness, into greed and betrayal.

While love and betrayal are perhaps the main themes of this novel, Lee simultaneously explores another issue:  that of the unstable self.   What happens to a person if they are unmoored from their home environment and everyone they know?   Claire Pendleton muses on this question throughout the novel and finds herself changing in ways she had never imagined possible.  She thinks at one point, “This is Hong Kong.  I am a woman, displaced.  A woman a world away from who I am supposed to be” (63).

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

When Claire first moves to Hong Kong, she is still unformed, having lived a sheltered life.  She does not like the person she has been up until this point.  She “wanted to be someone else.  The old Claire seemed provincial, ignorant” (37).   She senses that there is another Claire inside her, clamoring to come out, but this person was not able to emerge in the constraints of her English life.

“There had been times when Claire felt that she could become a different person.  She sensed it in herself, when someone made a comment at dinner, and she thought of the perfect, acerbic reply, or something even racy, and she felt her mouth opening, her lungs taking in air so that she could then push out the words, but they never came out.  She swallowed her thought, and the person she could have become sank down again, weighted by the Claire that was already too evident in the world.  She sensed it when she held a glass at a cocktail party and suddenly felt the urge to crush it in her hand.  She never did.  That hidden person had ballooned up and deflated so often, the elasticity of her possibility diminished over time.”

Transplanted to Hong Kong, though, her submerged self starts to grow, like a formerly stunted plant that thrives in the heat and humidity.

“But this was the thing:  she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong.  Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony.  Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower.”

The change goes much deeper than her looks.   Unmoored from her familiar surroundings, she does things she never dreamed she would, such as having an extramarital affair with Will. It was as if “her old English self, with its defenses and prejudices, was dissolving in the humid, fetid environment around her.”   She is strongly attracted to Will, and perhaps in love with him.  However, she knows at some level that the real love affair she is having is with her newly emerging self.

“He didn’t have an idea of what she should be like.  She was a new person—one who could have an affair, one who could be ribald, or sarcastic, or clever, and he was never surprised.  She was out of context with him.  She was a new person.  Sometimes she felt that she was more in love with that new person she could be, that this affair was an affair with a new Claire, and that Will was just the enabler.” (65)

The combined influence of Hong Kong and her affair with Will transform Claire profoundly by the end of the novel.   To be sure, she is more sophisticated and sure of herself.  More interesting, though, is the way the ridiculous prejudices and narrow view of the world she brought with her to Hong Kong have begun to disappear.  Her intellectual horizons and her view of world broaden immeasurably and she sees herself a thread in the larger web of humanity.

The Piano Teacher is about more than Claire’s transformation, of course.  For starters, Claire’s emerging self was brought about at least in part by Will, who had previously been transformed by his relationship with Trudy. Trudy, in turn, depended on Will to define herself in a way that was not self-destructive.  I know that I am not doing justice to the complexity of this novel in this brief discussion.  The main point I want to make here is that it seems to me that Janice Lee is emphasizing in this novel not only the malleability of our selves, of who we are, but also the way our identities are created through our relationships with others and with our environments.

In case it wasn’t clear, I loved this book and would highly recommend it.  The portrayal of the English people in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion was fascinating to me.  So, too, were the complicated characters and their relationships with each other.  Trudy Liang is a particularly interesting character.  If you decide to read the book, don’t give up if you find the beginning less than compelling.   The characters and themes at first seemed shallow to me, but the war reveals all of the complexity beneath the surface.

What do you think about the issue of the self?  Do you think you would be essentially the same person no matter what circumstances you find yourself in?  Or do we, as Janice Lee suggests, have a number of competing selves inside us, waiting for the right opportunity to emerge?

 

 

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

 

Thick American Feet: My Chinese Foot Massage

 

Thick American Feet
Thick American Feet

Five of us middle-aged academics were leaning back in our comfy chairs with our tired feet on stools, wiggling our well-worn toes in anticipation of some gentle rubbing.  We were in Zhuhai, China.  The room we were in looked more like an office of a low-level Communist official than a spa, but that didn’t matter.  I assumed our Chinese foot massage would be a little like an American pedicure, except with a little more foot rubbing.  Ha!

A team of young, tiny Chinese women marched into the room single-file, in unison.  They were all wearing the same blue, short-sleeved polo shirts and clingy black capris.  They were also all wearing high platform heels, leading to a “clump, clump clump” sound when they walked.  I was not sure if they were our masseuses or a conga dance team hired for our entertainment.   Everything they need was in unison, especially when they walked in and out of the office. They were quite chatty, but only among themselves—in Chinese, of course.

First they placed our feet in buckets of warm, herb-infused water to soak.  It felt soothing, and I started to relax.   Not for too long, though, because they soon barked out orders in Chinese to us to sit on the stools with our backs towards them.  Of course, I did not understand the orders so I looked around the room dumbly until I figured out what they meant.

I duly turned my back to my masseuse and she started massaging my shoulders and upper-back, which is a routine part of a Chinese foot massage.  (Apparently, everything is connected.)  Fortunately, clothes are not removed in Chinese massage, even the full-body type.  Otherwise, it would have been a little awkward in our mixed-gender group.  I’ve had massages in the U.S. before.  Usually they feel mostly good, with perhaps a little bit of light pain when the masseuse does deep-tissue massage.

This was different!  Since my back was towards my masseuse, I could not believe how much pain this 80-pound woman was able to inflict on my back in the 10 or 15 minutes she spent on it.  At one point, I knew she was leaning heavily on my back, probably throwing all of her weight on it—along with the weight of her extended family.  (Or at least that’s what it felt like.)  Our Chinese companion/translator told us we should let them know if it hurt too much.  It definitely hurt too much, but I was determined not to say anything, for fear of being seen as a wimp.  The man sitting next to me was moaning and groaning in ways that sounded a little too intimate for my comfort zone.  My other companions were mostly taking it stoically, but one person did squeak a little bit, asking for mercy.

Eventually, my masseuse removed the weight of her entire extended family from my back.  We were told to sit back on the chair and put our feet up on the stool.  It was time for the foot massage.  Whew!  Now the gentle and soothing part could begin.

Or not!  The masseuses spent maybe 30 minutes or so kneading, pounding, twisting, turning, pummeling, hitting and otherwise attempting to mutilate our feet. After that, they spent several minutes massaging our lower legs and calves as well.   According to an online source I found, “the massage is often painful, particularly for first timers because it is believed that each part of the foot is connected to a part of the body. If soreness is felt in a particular part of the foot, it is believed the corresponding part of the body has a problem.”  Holy cow.  If that is true, I must have a whole body full of some serious problems. Click here    Nonetheless, I soldiered on, determined not to complain—or call the American embassy to complain that I was being tortured by Chinese commies.

While we were leaning back “enjoying” our massage, the masseuses chatted amongst themselves.  I couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course.  I got the impression, though, that they were talking about us in a way that was not entirely complimentary.  I asked our translator what they were saying, and she said, “Oh, nothing.  They’re just chatting.”  I was skeptical, so later I asked a member of our group who speaks Chinese what they were saying.  She said they had indeed been discussing us part of the time.

They were complaining about our “thick American feet.”  I guess American feet cause them to work a lot harder than do the delicate Asian feet they are used to.  At least thy didn’t use the word for “fat”!

I did survive the ordeal.  I’m still not entirely convinced this wasn’t just an excuse for the masseuses to torture us, in retaliation for the U.S. being an overbearing superpower.  However, I did find that my feet and especially my legs felt much better afterwards.  I would definitely do it again and am looking to find a similar experience here in the U.S.  I believe the American version is called “reflexology.”  I don’t know if the Americans are as hard-core as the Chinese are.

Have any of you tried American reflexology?  What was your experience like?

 

Great Unsolved Mystery: Bear Claw?

What the what?
What the what?

I’m hoping some of you can help me out here.  I saw this thing on the streets of Beijing, lying on top of a table full of inexpensive jewelry and other trinkets.  The vendors did not speak English and I do not speak Chinese, so I could not ask them to explain why anyone would buy what looks like a bear claw.  (I’m not even sure that’s what it is.)

Do any of you know what this is and why someone would buy it?  I’m hoping to be enlightened!

Guqin Lesson

learning to play guqin
learning to play guqin

 

For more pictures from my guqin lessons, see my previous photographic post here.

One of the highlights of my recent visit to United International College in Zhuhai, China was my introduction to guqin (aka guchin) music.   Our group of visitors was treated to a brief introductory lesson in playing this stringed instrument.  The guqin has been played for thousands of years in China, and it is considered a refined instrument for gentlemen and scholars.

I can understand why.  We only had time to listen to one song played by our teacher, but even that brief introduction induced a meditative, contemplative feeling in me.

P1000412

 

This is not the kind of music that makes you want to dance!  For me, the experience seemed closer to a yoga class.  The instructor made sure we were sitting with our feet firmly placed on the ground.  Furthermore, she checked our posture to make sure our backs and shoulders were upright, but not tense.   My initial impression was that if I practiced the guqin regularly, I would feel more grounded, more disciplined, but also simultaneously more uplifted.

Check out some samples of guqin music here:

http://www.chineseculture.net/guqin/qinmusic.htm

Have you listened to or played guqin music before?  What are your reactions to it?