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Reading “Empire of the Sun”

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A movie on TV familiarizes me with the book from which it was adopted, Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard. I hunted down an used copy at the indie and started reading. The book was actually published in 1984, forty years after the author’s own experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in China. For the most part the novel is an eyewitness account of events Ballard observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within that camp at Lunghua.

In an interview with the UK Guardian, Ballard was frank about the difficulty in conveying the surrealism of war.

I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

Knowing the movie would ruin my reading pleasure, I immediately switched off the TV. My principal is to always read the book first. I crave to hear the story from Ballard’s perspective. Even after 40 years, Ballard found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to him to drop his parents from the story. They had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for him after the formality of their prewar home, where his parents were busy with their expat social life and he was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at him and never spoke to him.

The interview foreshadows a poignant story. It’s more than physical survival—a mental one that mandates him to find a strength greater than all the events that surrounded him.

Reading “Seven Ages of Paris”

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How Paris Became Paris chronicles the major architectural and changes in Paris rendered by Henry IV and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Now I’m ready to tackle something grander, more epic and covering a wider period of time—Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. From the rise of Pjilippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV; Napoleon’s rise and fall, Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris; the Belle Epoque and the Great War that brought it to an end; the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation—Horne brings the city’s highs and lows, savagery and sophistication, to life.

Paris has undergone woe after woe for centuries—without ever being budged from its position as the most beloved city in the world. For all its violence, greed, inequality and double-dealing, Paris is most impressive, Horne thinks, for its ability to recover from collapse “and live again as if little had happened.” After Waterloo, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, after the carnage of World War I, Paris did not merely survive; it saw ”an extraordinary blossoming in the gentler and more enduring works of humanity.” A trip to Paris should focus on Paris and its history. Except the Rick Steves’ guide, this book is the only book I’ll bring with me to Paris next week.

[759] How Paris Became Paris – Joan DeJean

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” All through the 17th century, everytime its cityscape was redesigned in an important way, Paris benefited from what would now be called a rebranding campaign. In a continuous stream of publications and images, writers and artists publicized the city’s transformation from urban ruin to urban wonder and advertized the city as a destination, the epitome of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan place. ” (Introduction: Capital of the Universe, p.5)

Today, books, films, and digital media define Paris as one of the most beautiful and romantic cities. Paris’ spell is rooted in its uniformity of architectural façade, the parks and gardens made for quiet stroll, and the views of the Seine. In fact, as DeJean nimbly demonstrates, Paris’ charm owes much to the vision of two savvy monarchs: Henri IV and his grandson, Louis XIV, the Sun King. How Paris Became Paris, wittily and quite thoroughly researched, presents the city’s role as a significant precursor urban modernity in 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city as it emerged scathed from the War of Religions. The book examines how many of Paris’ quintessential landmarks began as royal visions and benefited from royal support but carried out on a for-profit basis by financiers and real-estate developers. The most notable consequence of these public works is to give Parisians, regardless of social standing, places to go and sights to see, and thus broaden social trajectories and business opportunities.

The opening of Pont Neuf is a milestone in the emergence of an urban culture. Not only is it suited for heavy traffic and served as the first artery linking the two banks, the New Bridge was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording view of the Seine from the deck. Most important, it was not just utilitarian, it was treated as a place for urban civility and social exchange, a space for entertainment and commerce. It was a social leveler. The Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) became a ground-breaking model for the city square devoted to recreation. Île Saint-Louis, built from two undeveloped islets on the Seine, changes Paris’ skyline with the unprecedented white stone construction. As city walls were demolished, streets widened to become boulevards, street lighting implemented, and public transportation introduced, Paris is leaving its medieval identity behind.

But the book is not exclusively about urban development. DeJean covers Le Fronde, the period of revolt against the monarchy (1649-1653) as Parisians, unified in their cause against the corrupted minister to the king, set up barricades and shut down Paris. The book also touches on the noveau riches who bankrolled on the king’s battles, and how these new riches bought fraudulent papers feign aristocratic standing. The result is an end to old aristocracy as one’s social status can be elevated by means of wealth. Rags-to-riches bring the demand for luxury goods, evolutions in fashion, and, a new social class that pursues money in unscrupulous means, otherwise known as gold-diggers.

The richness of subject matter is the strength and fun of this book, although the writing sometimes can be at risk of becoming subsumed in the delivery of facts that cover a vast period. DeJean is at pains to imply no greater city has existed until the reinventing of Paris. She succeeds in demonstrating the making of a very sophisticated Paris. She does an excellent job putting political, economic, and social events of 17th century in context, and showing how they are inter-related.

306 pp. Bloomsbury. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Disguised Gender

Do you have a preference for male or female writers? An interesting article on Guardian explores how male writers who hide their gender to attract female readers, as supposed to the opposite. Women writers have long disguised their gender hoping to get taken seriously. Why do you think the trend has revered? Because more serious readers are women now?

[755-2] Atlas Shrugged (Part II) – Ayn Rand

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***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

“…if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do? . . . To shrug. ” (Part II, Ch.III, White Blackmail)

Part II, titled “Either-Or,” focuses on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save the crumbling railway network, an artery of the country’s economy, or to give it up and grant the “looters” sanction. The middle section of the novel sheds light on the new directives that, what were meant to boost economy by encouraging competition and eliminating monopoly, actually leads to the collapse of the nation’s oil industry. Following the disappearance of Wyatt who imploded his oil fields, Rearden, refusing to cede the rights to Rearden Metal to the State, is indicted for secret sales to a coal magnate, a transaction made illegal by the equal opportunity directives.

It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch—someone, she thought bitterly, who have reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static. (Part II, Ch.II)

Equally perplexing Dagny is the continuous disappearance of industrialists for no conceivable reason. Francisco d’Anconia, heir of the largest copper core who has turned a playboy, reveals that he has deliberately destroyed his company to harm the looters who are profiteering on his abilities. He coaxes Rearden to renounce the State by quitting. By continuing to work under such dictatorial circumstances, Rearden is granting a moral sanction to the looters, a sanction they need from him in order to compromise his rights and his mind. At his trial, Rearden is unapologetic for his success and defensive of his right to produce for his own stake. His sound reason only leaves the court speechless and panicked. But it’s Rearden’s wife Lillian, upset at his affair with Dagny, uses this as a weapon to deliver him to the State.

There had been a time he had been required to do his best and rewarded accoringly. Now he could expect nothing but punishment, if he tried to follow his conscience. There had been a time when he had been expected to think. Now they did not want him to think, only to obey. (Part II, Ch.VII, The Moratorium of Brains)

Part II sees further deterioration of the railway, punishment of Rearden’s success, and a rapid, chilling assimilation of a society in which all talents and ambition are curbed and the citizens become indistinguishable. Bussinessmen use government power to loot competitors, they gain in the short run while greater losses are spread throughout the society. The “aristocracy of pull” in the book rules through access to Washington, trading favors and back-stabbing in a destructive political competition that eventually leads to economic collapse. But the most porous damage is the death of brain—gone are reason and individual thinking. The virtues that made life possible and the values that give life meaning become agents of its destruction.

Reading “How Paris Became Paris”

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By 1645, three visionary urban works—the Pont Neuf, the Place Royale, and the Île Notre-Dame—had become the foundation of Paris’ new image, as a city remarkable not only for its size but for its exciting and innovative constructions. The city at large, however, was as yet untouched by large-scale transformation. And this process was suspended for nearly a decade when civil war broke out in 1649. (Chapter 3)

How Paris Became Paris explores the key infrastructure and public works that made Paris the modern city. Joan Dejean delivers just the right amount of history and background relevant to these landmarks for reader to understand Paris’ transformation. Do you know that sidewalk separating pedestrians from vehicles was first seen on Pont Neuf? Do you know the first stone bridge spanning the Seine in a single span has sparkled urban life in an unprecedented way? Do you know Place des Vosages is the first communal square that is neither political nor religious in its purpose? Do you know the waters beneath and nearby Pont Neuf became the first nude beach?

Travel is to learn a place’s history.

[758] Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich

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” Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can. ” (357)

This is Louise Erdrich’s first book. Love Medicine opens in 1981 when June Kashpaw, an attractive Chippewa prostitute who has idled her days on the main streets of an oil boomstown in North Dakota, decides to return to the reservation on which she was raised. But en route she dies in the freezing Dakota countryside. Twice married, she is the direct link of two native Indian families—the Kashpaws and the Nanapushes. Her memory and legacy she passes on to her family provoke various relatives and acquaintances to recall their relationships with her and to reminisce their own lives.

Her clothes were filled with safety pins and hidden tears. (12)

Albertine, June’s niece and a nursing student at university (the only one who goes to college), introduces all the family members, all entangled by bloodlines and marriage, who gather at the reservation after June’s death. At the center of this novel is Grandma Kashpaw, known as Marie Lazarre before her marriage to Nector Kashpaw, who has assimilated to white culture by attending white school. In his youthful days he posted naked for painting. But he resents the the notion that whites are interested in the doom of the Indians. Marie escaped the horror of the Catholic church, where a nun attempted to oust Satan from her brain by pouring boiling water into her ear. Although Marie married Nector the tribal chairman, Nector loves another woman, Lulu, who is a flirt and is shameless about her affairs. Marie copes by raising strong, educated children and ceaselessly “peeling potatoes.”

Right and wrong were shades of meaning, not sides of a coin.

The novel trickles back and fro in time, revolving the love triangle between Marie, Nector, and Lulu. All his life Nector never makes a decision of his own, he does what comes along. In a sense, Nector is like the Indian tribe that is at the mercy and whim of the U.S. government. The love medicine in question represents an attempt by a Kashpaw grandson to assure once and for all that his grandfather will love and be true to his wife. The plan ends in disaster when corners are cut and the authentic old Indian customs for preparing the potion are circumvented.

They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth . . . They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink. (326)

In poetic language Erdrich portrays the culture and traditions of Native Indians that are under attack of mainstream assimilation. The bloodlines might be confusing by Erdrich stresses that people all stem from one giant tree. The book is a folklore, through the collected first-person narratives, that depicts the fundamental human capacities for love, jealousy, devotion, greed, generosity, and endurance.

367 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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