Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book #13: Dreaming of Asia....

My boyfriend, Chris, is presently away in Hong Kong tending to his family affairs. He has been away for the past two months leaving me all by my lonesome to read and blog about that turbulent time in my life two years ago, when I was lovelorn, in the midst of a breakdown and desperately searching for a new career. Missing Chris (and perhaps feeling a bit left out of his adventures in China), I started reading Linda See's Shanghai Girls. My pulse quickened. Five pages in and I was hooked.

This tale of an upper crust family in 1930s Shanghai - where the daughters wear "complementary cheongsans to show harmony and style" - has an exotic appeal, no doubt. But what really draws me in is the fact that, despite the far-flung setting, I can identify with the thoughts, feelings and deepest aspirations of the heroine, Pearl. She is an independent, yet secretly insecure woman, who has always been a little too tall and clever to be considered beautiful in conventional terms. Especially compared to her cute-as-a-button, flirtatious sister, May.

Pearl doesn't understand men at all. The man whom she has secretly been in love with for years - an artist who paints her and her sister for calendars and soap ads - doesn't seem to care when she arrives on his doorstep in tears. Her father has sold her and May in arranged marriages to Chinese-American men in order to cover his gambling debts. Contrary to her expectation that this man will save her, his Bohemian airs melt away, and he reminds her of her obligation to filial piety. Devastated, Pearl and May attempt to resist the arranged marriages on their own, but then their father disappears, the Japanese attack the city and the girls suddenly find themselves refugees on the run, vulnerable to attack and rape. As their situation gets increasingly dire, it becomes clear that their best hope for survival is to get to America to their would-be husbands. Pearl reflects:

"Many people wish to go to America. Some will do anything to get there, but going to America was never my dream. For me, it's just a necessity, another move after so many mistakes, tragedies, deaths, and one foolish decision after another. All May and I have left is each other. After everything we've been through, our tie is so strong that not even a sharp knife could sever it. All we can do now is continue down the road we're on, wherever it takes us."

These passages capture the essence of how it feels as Pearl's girlish longings and desire to find love curl inward and die stillborn. Now, she's in survival mode and finding the man of her dreams seems as frivolous and unreal as a soap opera. I have never experienced losing everything in war and being uprooted (as my grandmothers have). Shanghai Girls gives me a glimpse of how it might feel by magnifying 100 times the experiences that are vividly real to many readers - deception and desertion by an old lover, drifting through life with no place to go, feeling like an outcast who just can't go on.

But Pearl does go on. Her strength and resourcefulness in the face of adversity are inspirational.

Photo from: here

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book #12: My Grandmother, the Femme Fatale

My father and I were reading books together as part of our effort to remain on speaking terms, despite the fact that we were both having breakdowns (his because my grandmother was dying, mine due to my shrinking career prospects). Daddy was so edgy that I was reminded of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. We would get around to reading the novel, but first why not start with the film?

Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade to a T - very cool and wolfish. Again, I was reminded of my old man.

In the darkness of the basement, reality faded away and the exaggerated world of the film took over. The story is deceptively simple. A beautiful blond who goes by the name Miss Wunderly arrives on Spade's doorstep, claiming that her sister has absconded with a thug named Floyd Thursby. When Spade's partner tails Thursby, both men end up dead. It turns out that Miss Wunderly's real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy - or so she claims. At first, it isn't clear what she wants from Spade, beyond a little assurance that he can shield her from police interrogation. But as she paces around her hotel room in a slinky striped robe - wringing her hands, her face vacant as a porcelain bowl - he's on to her duplicitousness and feminine wiles. The shadows of the Venetian blinds play over her body and you just know she can't be trusted. It's as though she's dead inside, imprisoned within her own dark, desperate mood.

There was something uncomfortably familiar about her premeditated gestures and cries. And then it hit me - she reminded me of my grandmother. My grandmother, the femme fatale.

My earliest memories of Granny are of the period when her beauty was beginning to fade, but even so, she remained a lovely woman - an ex-beauty queen - and everyone assumed she looked much too young to be anyone other than my mother. This was awkward for me, but she loved it, giggling histrionically and leaning forward on the edge of her chair.

"My father was the one who enrolled me in beauty pageants," she once told me. "He taught me to walk lightly on stage. Women in Japan walk lightly like they're floating on air." She reminisced about how the year she was seventeen, her parents had sent her back to Toyama in hopes that the matchmaker would find a rich husband. Three men had proposed.

But if this was so, why had she returned to Canada shortly before the war? Her cryptic relationship to Japan veiled her in mystery and unknown origins, both drawing me in and keeping me at bay.

And now she was dying. Her skin still appeared smooth as she lay in bed, but her arms were twitching like she was possessed, and her leg would be amputated any day.

Photo from: here

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book #11: Fathers and (Wine) Lovers

Yesterday evening, as I was waiting for Daddy to come over for Fathers Day dinner, I was lying on the sofa reading a lush, full-bodied, all-round delicious book. It's delicious not only if you want to immerse yourself in the world of wine, but also if you're looking to dissect the cryptic, turbulent nature of father-daughter relationships (which I certainly did, especially on this auspicious day). The book is called Corked, by Kathryn Borel. It's a memoir about this young woman's trip through the wine regions of France with her dad - wine aficionado extraordinaire. An eccentric Frenchman whose emotions run the gamut from Tourette's-like outbursts to lyrical reflections, his mind teems with weird, unexpected facts about wine, like the fact that Languedoc is a "big up-and-comer" despite its longstanding reputation for spewing "wine for stoneworkers, who'd sit there breathing in dust and crap all day."

While this memoir yields scads of insight about the history and romance of wine, this isn't its true kernel. At the core of the story is the author's fraught quest to become closer to her dad and the other men in her life, too. (Not to get overly Freudian ... but I couldn't help but think of the adage that a father is a girl's first love object and as such, he sets the tone for subsequent lovers). All too aware of her complex dynamic with dad, Borel also puts under the microscope her conflicted feelings for Matthew, her most recent romance gone awry. Despite everything, she still feels that he is the only one really gets her:

"I described to him my allergy to the present. Matthew nodded patiently when I stomped around, detailing how I could not exist within or enjoy the present (even though he was in mine), and how it had pressurizing and irritating effects on the contents of my skull (which, at the time, included him). He abided this allergy, which was at once an itch and a fear, an itch that could be scratched only by getting on with it, moving onto the next thing, satisfying the curiosity that there is something beyond this place, this annoying purgatory that is holding up my trajectory to the other place - the other place, of course, being much better and more stimulating than this infernal place."

As I was reading, I found myself identifying with Borel's sense of being forever caught in a waiting zone, hovering on the fanciful brink of tomorrow, my life will begin. The small university town where I used to teach American Literature - Antigonish, or "Antigonowhere," as we outsiders liked to call it - left me awash in that horrible, anxious feeling so vividly, so unforgettably. Following my bad breakup with the town planner (more about this later) I was caught in a paralyzing cycle of reminiscing about my first love, Josh. If I were Clarissa Dalloway, then he was my Peter Walsh. The acrobatic sentences of Mrs. Dalloway ran through my head, as I power-walked past the dingy storefronts on Main Street, the wind burning my cheeks.

I'd missed my one chance at happiness. I wanted to press the fast forward button on my life.

Photo from: here

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book #10: The Missing Leg in Anthony De Sa

Sometimes I find myself thinking about my grandfather's old girlfriends. Is that weird? But everything about his life is weird. He died of some mysterious, unspecified illness before I was born, and my father only ever refers to him by his first name, "Kaz." Where other girls had grandpas who'd been struck down by cancer, all I had was this faded, black-and-white image: a man with a vivacious smile and a debonair wave to his hair. The photo must have been taken in Japantown, before the war.

According to my great aunt, Kaz was quite the "bad boy" - drinking, womanizing, leading a louche existence when he was barely out of high school. Apparently, there was a jazz singer named Lily, whom he fell in love with. My great aunt giggles as she remembers this, but something nervous and almost hysterical undercuts her show of boisterousness. I want to know more, but her lips tighten, and she says mockingly, "Look at Leslie, so bemused, taking it all in."

Perhaps these childhood memories have something to do with why I'm tantalized by Anthony De Sa's Barnacle Love. This collection of linked short stories tells the tale of the Rebelo family, beginning with Manuel, a young fisherman, fleeing the insular confines of his Portuguese hometown. He washes up nearly drowned on the shores of Newfoundland, ready to make a new life, but where does he fit in? What does it mean to follow his dreams? Caught between tradition and the surging pulse in his blood, he falls under the spell of a fisherman's daughter, who, despite being a cripple, is strength and sexuality incarnate:

"Her hands blur as they weave the leather straps and secure the metal brace to her thigh - the moulded cup meets the hardened flesh where her leg should be. He's not sure how he feels about it - she is not whole. But when she brushes by him he is caught in her smell of cotton sheets and the peppered sweetness of cinnamon. There is intrigue in her difference - something fragile that needs his tending. Manuel wants to hold her, touch her."

With her missing leg and her slight figure - so slight that she appears almost an apparition when he first sees her - she represents mystery and the beauty of something lost. Her atrophied flesh and severed bone embody something unknowable about her past, in the same way that Manuel's own ties to Portugal are being torn away.

I find myself wondering about my grandfather's past and what it must have been like growing up in the shadow of Japan. He bristled under his father's expectation that he carry on the family tradition by becoming a doctor. I remember my great aunt alluding to his thwarted musical talents. She said that his personality dissolved after the war.

I want to ask my dad what happened, but something stops me. He already looks edgy, lying on the couch, flipping the channels, and I haven't said a word.

So instead I simply ask him if he would like to read Barnacle Love.

Photo from: here

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Theory Hungry

This morning, reading The New Yorker, I came across Jeffrey Eugenides “Extreme Solitude.” A wave of nostalgia hit my chest. The story is set at Brown, my alma mater, and written from the perspective of a hyper-self-conscious Semiotics student, Madeleine, who hangs out at all my old haunts (the Ratty, the Blue Room, Level B in Rockefeller Library where “the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold”). Perhaps “nostalgia” is the wrong word, for I don’t deny feeling a good deal of ambivalence, too. But the story actually made me miss academic life. That fragile, convoluted, cut-off-from-reality life that pushed me to the brink of despair.

No doubt, my short-lived career as an English prof was a debacle (if my therapy bills are any gage). Still, grad school was fun. Undergrad even more so. There’s something delicious about spending one’s days lounging around seminar tables discussing concepts like “subalterity,” “coevalness” and “queer theory.” Sitting at a sidewalk cafĂ© with Althusser propped on a bookstand, Moleskin notebook open. Not a bad day’s work.

But ultimately – as Eugenides brilliantly illuminates – too much thinking and theorizing is a killjoy, especially when it comes to love. Madeleine is having a tryst with a classmate, Leonard, debating whether it’s mere sexual attraction or something more. When she reads BarthesA Lover’s Discourse, she’s struck by how the text casts light on her own predicament:

“The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.”


attente / waiting

Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns). . . .

Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.”

The more Madeleine reflects on it, the more she understands “that extreme solitude didn’t only describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she’d always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it.”

It’s the anticipation of love and rapture that becomes alluring in itself. Put simply, Madeleine only wants him if she can’t have him. Some barrier to fulfillment is necessary – such is the perverse structure of desire. She would rather be burying herself in a book, thinking about him, longing for him, luxuriating in pure solitude, than getting it on.

I recall having a conversation with my therapist about my own need for distance. It was curious, to say the least, why I always gravitated, for the longest time, to lovers who lived in different cities, boyfriends on the other side of the continent. Rather than face-to-face contact and flesh-and-blood intimacy, I craved love letters, witty emails, kinky text messages…. spelling out a kind of scenario that followed the formula of: if you were with me now, I would do X…. It was sexier in my mind.

Photo from: here

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book #9: Musing on Photography via Sontag

I made a resolution to put together Daddy’s reading list by the end of the week. Just because I was initiating my practical-to-a-fault father into the world of high literature, while desperately investigating every possible alternative career to being an English prof, didn’t mean I had to lose my mind. I was giving myself the summer to get my shit together. If I hadn’t figured out by August how to reinvent myself – flight attendant? speech pathologist? librarian? esthetician? – then I’d be condemned to the gulag of academia for another year.

Ugh. The lecture podium. The thought turned my stomach.

Daddy was trying to snap me out of my malaise by drawing on his life experience. “Remember the two years we spent in Trinidad? That was no picnic.”

He was talking about the job he’d accepted in Port of Spain in the late 70s, shortly after I was born. The company had been building a steel plant there and the opportunity to live in a tropical paradise had struck my parents as a grand adventure.

The first few months were the honeymoon phase, but then reality set in. Power outages. Cultural isolation. TV programming for only one hour a day. The supermarket rarely had onions, cheese and diapers.

Daddy’s point in raising Trinidad was obvious: everyone has to pay career dues. I was paying mine teaching out in the boondocks of Nova Scotia. Things would get better. Think positive.

Yeah, whatever.

I dug up an old photo album. “You didn’t have it half as bad as me.” I pointed at a photo of him lounging on the beach, eating a shark bake sandwich. Mommy was sunbathing in a turquoise paisley bikini.

“Oh, you have no idea what was going on behind the scenes,” Daddy said. “I was losing my hair.”

“No you weren’t.” I pointed at the photo, at his peculiar 1970s hairstyle. Long bangs brushed forward, layers falling over the ears.

“Trust me – the place was a gong show.”

Yet deep down I didn’t believe him.

Later that day, I was surfing the New York Times online archives and I stumbled on Susan Sontag’s brilliant 1974 article on photography. Each sentence hit me with a new insight, illuminating my reaction perfectly:

“Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.” “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” “Photographs furnish evidence.”

This illusion of utter transparency, as Sontag explains, is a frank difference between photography and writing. Where writing is assumed by its very nature to be an interpretation, photography has the guise of being an immediate representation of reality, a window on fact.

Although I understood on a rational level that this effect was photography’s sleight-of-hand, the photo still asserted its visceral force.

Daddy’s unhappiness paled compared to mine. I had photographic evidence.

Photo from: here

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book #8: Unpacking Daddy's Library

"When are you going to put together my reading list?" Daddy asked.

A hush fell over the kitchen. He'd been asking me about this for weeks now, and wasn't it the least I could do? After all, I'd taken his handouts during not one, not two, but three degrees in English Literature.

Recently retired, Daddy had decided to take up reading for reasons that were characteristically quantitative. The house was crammed with novels, memoirs and anthologies that my mom and I had been reading all our lives and their sheer number had convinced my dad that there must be something to this reading thing.

Now that he was no longer building steel plants, it was time to roll up his sleeves and delve into the world of literature.

"Why don't you just go online?" I said. "Google 'reading.' A bunch of lists should come up."

"That's no good." His cheeks hardened. "Those lists are impersonal - based on polls or the whims of some critic who doesn't even know me. I want a list that's just for me."

I rolled my eyes. With everything else on my mind, did I have time for this?

Then I recalled an essay I'd read in grad school, Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library." What drives someone to read and collect books, Benjamin suggests, is anything but rational:

"I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age. For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways."

Despite Benjamin's mystical language, his point is simple, I think. He's saying that what draws a person to one book over another cannot be explained purely in terms of the book's reputation. Rather, the reader yearns to connect on some deeply personal, childlike level with the world in miniature that the novel brings to life imaginatively. This is a matter of the novelist being able to predict - almost magically - your idiosyncratic fantasies and wishes that go back to your earliest memories and desires.

It's a beautiful coincidence when reader and book unite in this way, the beginning of a lifelong relationship.

So my old man wanted a reading list. But what did I know about his earliest memories and unconscious drives?

Photo from: here

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Book #7: Bloomsbury Blues

“For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry as sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?”

I put down Mrs. Dalloway and blew my nose.

My first boyfriend Josh reminded me of Peter Walsh, Mrs. Dalloway’s childhood sweetheart. There's something about the way Mrs. Dalloway never forgets “his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished – how strange it was! – a few sayings” that was all too familiar. Had Josh been a British gentleman, like Peter, he might have headed to India for the empire's last hurrah. They were eccentrics who loved their travels, sword collections and foreign women. Their larger than life personalities splashed into conversations at parties, made outrageous claims, got everyone riled up, started fights, and then, at the height of it all, slipped out the back door.

Years ago, when I was reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, I told Josh that he reminded me of Peter. He eagerly began reading it. But the depiction left him incensed. “You're mean. Is this your way of saying we're not going to end up together?”

Although I'd shook his comment off with an ironic toss of the head, the feeling was darker than irony. I had been mean - meanness was a way of controlling that manic mouse scaling the walls of my stomach.

I had wanted him to leave me. At the time, I thought it was so I could be alone with my own thoughts. That fragile, self-contained world of dead authors waxing lyrical on god knows what.

Now I had all the time in the world to read my shelf full of books, but was there any reason to get out of my pajamas in the morning?

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.