September 24, 2015

Book Review || Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

Olivia, set in Paris, is about first love, sexual awakening, and all the confusion surrounding it. And imagine the confusion as Olivia bears her first loving, obsessive feelings for her schoolmistress in the 1950s!

Olivia is sent to a boarding school to further her education, finding what she believes is a kindred spirit in her beautiful, intelligent, and refined headmistress Mademoiselle Julie, who also takes a shine to her. But Julie’s relationship with her partner, Mademoiselle Cara, is complicated.

The big mystery of the novel turns out to be, not whether Julie reciprocates Olivia’s feelings, but what is really happening between Julie and Cara. Is Cara truly overreacting with regards to Julie’s behaviour? Has Julie betrayed Cara before? Have Cara and Julie truly been separated by the ministrations of someone with an ulterior motive?

Told from the point of view of Olivia as an older woman who has since experienced more of life, her anecdotes of the time are informed by these later experiences and are as such filled with insight.

Looking back on her first love, for example, she says,

at that time, I was innocent, with the innocence of ignorance. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t know what had happened to anybody. I was without consciousness, that is to say, more utterly absorbed than was ever possible again. [2008:8]

This is a lovely way of describing the selfishness of adolescent love. There is for the those falling in love the first time the feeling that no one has ever felt so deeply for someone as they do now. It was

...the feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth... [2008:60]

which left Olivia morose and gloomy.

Of course, its controversial subject matter means that it often touches on issues of gender. As a girl’s school, it came to be seen as somewhat of a sanctuary for these girls, learning about academic subjects the same way that boys had been. When they write their devoirs, they are sent to a young male professor, held in more contempt than that of Julie, the very woman who picks the devoirs to send.

And yet beauty is so valued as a means to secure a future that the headmistress herself encourages those who are beautiful not to be ‘slaves of fashion’ or they will lose their charm, inferring that those who are not beautiful will have to be so. She says,

...remember you are so perfect that you needn’t bother too much about showing it. [2008:47]

This touches indelicately on the show of femininity, of women acting beauty if they are not beautiful, as much a necessity of patriarchy as acting masculinity was for men. This question of beauty is to Olivia the inspiration behind her sexual awakening, realising that she has a body and that it is attractive.

Olivia’s prettiness has no bearing on whether she and Julie can be together; rather it all depends on circumstance and death, which shows itself to her as an unapprehended and malignant power that consumes the people we hold dear.

The novel not only touches on these themes, but also considers ideas of art, philosophy, and literature.

Full of interesting and thought-inspiring phrases and ideas, Olivia is a quick read that is bound to get you thinking.
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September 23, 2015

Book Takeaways || Japanese Nō Dramas

I chose to purchase Japanese Nō Dramas from a second-hand store because I have an interest in theatre following my English Studies. My awareness of English, however, does not discount my awareness in theatre from all around the world and these Nō (or Noh) dramas were intriguing also because I’ve always had an interest in Japanese culture.

I would love to see Nō performed live one day, though it is likely only if I make my way to Japan sometime in my life. Until then, I had to sate my curiosity with this anthology and some videos from YouTube.

Nō dramas are interesting because they have a standard stage layout that is followed by the actors and playwrights, and the textual layout always consists of three parts, an aspect that resembles classical poetry in its adherence to standards.
"Noh-stage" by Toto-tarou - Image created by Toto-tarou.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
What also makes the format interesting is its use of miming, music, language, and dance, as well as awe-inspiring costumes and masks. The latter consist of several defined types of masks, which aid the audience in discerning the different thematic characters of the play. They are truly beautiful and detrimental to the play: some change expression based on the position of the actor's head, enabling emotions to be displayed quickly and simply.


Some of the pieces included in this anthology are very beautiful. Many of them deal with spiritual aspects, since most were written before Shinto religious practices came into being, as well as love. They are also mostly about freeing spirits dwelling in the world because of some heartbreak and involve happy coincidences where someone, usually a monk, has the opportunity of meeting with the spirits and helping them move on. In some way, this reflects the overarching aspects of Japanese horror stories such as The Ring and the Grudge.

Below are my favourites and if I have found a video of a performance - which is rare - it is included below.

The Damask Drum (Aya no Tsuzumi) is about an old man who falls in love with a consort, who tells him to beat on a drum to call her to him. But she tricks him with a drum that makes no noise. When he realises what she has done, he throws himself into a pond. His spirit hounds her from hell. Yes, it’s not a happy tale, but the words are beautiful. The videos below are not the best quality, and don't have excellent sound. I really just wanted a visual to go with the text, which you can read here, if you're interested.

Lady Han (Hanjo) is about a singing girl who entertains a guest and falls in love with him. She goes to find him at a shrine, where he has gone to pray that he will find her again. I could not find a video, but here is the text in PDF format.
The Well Cradle (Izutsu) is about a pair of children who grow up next to each other. They use the wall of the well the houses share to measure their growth. They fall in love and marry. Soon enough, the husband begins to stray but become jealous that she may also have a lover since she shows no jealousy. To find out, he pretends to leave one night to catch her in the act but only finds her pining for his presence. He never leaves her again. Read the text here. The video below is only a section of the play.

Kantan is about a man who is searching for enlightenment. He is given a pillow to sleep upon, on which he dreams he is living a full life as a king. He wakes to realise that life is just a dream. Read the text here. I haven't been able to find a performance of this play.
Tatsuta is about a woman bathing a divine cloth in the stream at Tatsuta Shrine. A monk comes to cross the stream and she warns him not to break the brocade of red autumn leaves littered on the surface or he will offend the Tatsuta Lady. While the text itself is confusing, it is an idealised version of Chino-Buddhist spirituality and it is really the spiritual background and explanation of the play that is beautiful. As the author says,

...the red leaves weave their pure brocade as they flow down the river. Since the Tatsuta Presence is of waer and rain, the Lady is also a water-woman, and water and leaves join in the river-borne brocade... ‘Does she become clouds and rain, the Tatsuta Lady, to stain with colour the bright autumn leaves?’ ... She may be the leaves, but secretly, she is also the cold rains that colour them and the wind and waters that drive them away. Her brocade clothes the [Celestial] Spear in time and the passing seasons.

In the play, this brocade forms the Womb Mandala of the world.

I haven't been able to find the text or a video for this play. That means you'll have to read the book! ;)

If you have found videos to my favourites, please share with me! I would love to watch them!

{Image credit [top image]: "Noh-ekagami Arashiyama" by 不明(スキャン:Sat666 (talk)) - 武田恒夫・中村保雄『宇和島伊達家伝来 能絵鑑 百五十番』(淡交社、1981年12月). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
[image of masks: "Three pictures of the same noh 'hawk mask' showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head" by Wmpearl - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.}
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September 14, 2015

Book Review || A Feast For Crows by George RR Martin

It’s official - I am determined to read the next book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series before the next television series because a) the series is really ruining the literature for me and b) this book was altogether too boring to sate my Westeros fix.

I simply cannot bear watching the television series on HBO and being disappointed in the books. Books are supposed to be the better part of adaptations, are they not? Watching Season 5 of the show before reading the book really did spoil the book for me. Aside from the fact that the show is veering so far away from the original story, I was left railing at Martin for the utterly lacklustre novel.

Spoiler warning, by the way.

After the excitement of A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold, A Feast for Crows truly has nothing to offer in the excitement stakes. Seriously, Blood and Gold broke our hearts during the Red Wedding. It made us cringe when Tyrion and Sansa were forced to wed. It made our justice-loving hearts do victory punches in the air when Joffrey turned purple at his wedding and quickly destroyed our celebration with the arrest of Tyrion. It shocked us to find Littlefinger rescuing Sansa while her sister Arya slowly lost all hope and humanity. We witnessed Daenerys’ victory in the slave lands and watched the Night’s Watch defend the Wall from the wildling horde that finally fell to a surprise rescue by Lord Stannis and his Red God. We bemoaned Lord Oberyn’s head being squashed by the Mountain, even though we knew our prayers for him to live would go unanswered. We saw Jaime’s heart broken as his brother killed his father upon his escape and gasped with shock as Petyr pushed Lady Lysa of the Eyrie through the Moon Door. And we met Lady Stoneheart!

In comparison to Blood and Gold, A Feast for Crows was a windy summer’s day spent picnicking on Kipper’s Big Hill. The novel was almost unbearably slow, despite the underlying tension of other happenings in Westeros. Martin painstakingly attempted to keep up this tension with Cersei’s almost yawn-inducing narrative, which I believe not only served to show us how Cersei is working herself into a tight bolus of spider’s web but also kept us informed of the goings-on in the realm. I am not ashamed to say that just about the most exciting things to happen in the novel is the kingsmoot, Brienne’s single battle with a band of outlaws, and perhaps, at a stretch, reading about Arya’s experiences in The House of Black and White.

Other than that, we enjoy the company of Samwell as he describes the movement of his gut during the journey to Oldtown and Gilly’s neverending crying. The most enjoyment we get from reading about Brienne’s search from Sansa is cradling our face in our hands calling that she’s going the wrong way! Alayne’s fussing with food and clothing and the strangeness of little Lord Robert are all that happens see at the Eyrie - even the threat of lords kicking Petyr out as Lord Protector is damp and ends too soon.

I was almost relieved upon reaching the final chapter only to find that it was not a chapter at all but an apology from the author for not including anyone else in the novel. Imagine that! An apology! Well, after dealing with my outrage and not reading about Jon Snow and the Wall or Daenerys or Tyrion, or still being left entirely in the dark about the whereabouts of Bran and the Reeds, I understand his reasoning: if Martin had included everyone in this novel, the readers would have been thrown all over the place, even more so than in the first few novels where we were still learning our way around. However, my argument is that his readers are already invested in the story - already know their way around the world; perhaps they even have the poster of Westeros and the Land of the Summer Sea that they bought with the box set on their wall. His choice to only feature a dearth of action in the tales of a few people who do very little goes against the very tenets of a good narrative and I would argue that this is why the novel stays on the airport runway all the way through.

His clever use of ravens and word from the North or the South or the East is the most important thing that keeps this book alive: I would argue that the people he has chosen as narrators for this part of the story are only thinking of themselves and are not directly involved with the happenings of the realm. Not even Cersei is truly involved: she is more involved in eking out those unfaithful to her and defeating the ‘young queen’ of Maggy the Frog’s curse than she truly is in ruling the realm. It is all this introspection that has made the novel into a very long speedbump in the story.

I have heard A Dance With Dragons: Dreams and Dust is much better. But Martin could truly not have done much worse!
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