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Peripatetic Spirit

by Cygne Sauvage

traveler2I was barely out of my secondary school when I “visited” Nepal, a country I‘ve been briefly made aware of by my world history subject.  The so-called sojourn was on my mind courtesy of the compelling book The Mountain is Young by Han Suyin.  From China’s celebrated author’s work of fiction, I learned much about the culture, the people as well as the locale’ Kathmandu, the capital town and where the story unfolded.  The novel carried me to the depths of the Himalayas and put me in a trance, swooning over the magical place as well as the main protagonist Unni Mennon, an engineer. Had it not been for Suyin’s prolific pen I would not have been able to reconnoitre the landscape of Chomolungma, the highest peak in the world which foreign intruders named as Mount Everest.

Though an actual physical presence is the best option, we have to accept limitations to travelling. Even the most peripatetic, jet-setting zillionaire equipped with modern aeronautical gadgets could not possibly penetrate every desirable nook and cranny of the globe. On the other hand, budget challenged globe trotters can only save as much for certain choice places to explore and unwind.  Perhaps this is the reason for having a bucket list of places to behold.

I navigated the dark waters of Venice canals through the investigative exploits of Donna Leon’s fictional hero Commissario Guido Brunetti.  Meanwhile, though the plots are not so alluring, what I found enjoyable in Dan Brown’s novels are the vivid descriptions cum extensive historical background of the terrestrial sites his protagonist Robert Langdon has been dragged into by the cases he has on hand to solve. In fact, in his book Inferno, the author seems to have veered too much from the main gist of the novel with his absorbing characterization of Istanbul.  All the other works of Dan Brown that I have taken time to read feature major geographical briefing: The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol.

Compared to a film whose advantage is presenting a panoramic visual of the place, a book’s edge is that it offers tons of information which the vista in the movie does not offer. A viewer definitely will fancy the pristine waters of Bermuda or Cayman Islands in James Bond flicks, but the detailed chronicles of the lush greenery of British countryside, such as in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, or the bustling Curacao in John Le Carre’s  The Night Manager cast more potent impact on a peruser’s psyche, as well as add greater improvement on one’s erudition.

I traversed the chaotic roads to Cambodia via the novel The Sympathizer, during the height of the Vietnam war, a sight that has been erased by modernization. Being transported back to places long lost in time is another plus point to reading a book.


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Good looks absolve Mr. Grey of crime

by Cygne Sauvage

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The world is still very much fascinated with a feudal relationship between genders. Except that the glorification of the “lord-victim” set-up is justified only when the masculine side of the relationship exudes power, pelf and good looks, with the last qualification the most essential as evidenced by the tremendous gross sales of the series on Mr. Grey.

The truth is I had not gone beyond the third page of the first installment, Fifty Shades of Grey. Its prose just did not appeal to my literary palate, especially that I had just devoured the absorbing book of John Le Carre’s latest edition, The Pigeon Tunnel.  On the other hand, I had digested all the reviews from respectable and reputable publications about this book series that tackles a sadomasochistic tryst hatched from the imagination of EL James. The write-ups all point to the main ingredients from where emanates the titillation of the fans, particularly the female sector which comprised the big bulk of readership: the male protagonist must be affluent, dashing, oversexed and oozing with beastly tendencies for violent pleasures, while the feminine partner must be virginal, submissive, innocent, delicate and most importantly, young and comely. Otherwise, the spell cast on the readers, especially among the thirty-something and above dames either enduring illusory relationships  or pining for blissful matrimony, will be non-existent. Accuse me not of sweeping judgment. All of my female contemporaries who belong to the age group just mentioned as well as the personal predicament described are ardent fans of the series though many of them are in state of denial, for reasons I cannot fathom. It is as if by having read the series one had committed a graver misdemeanor than the male lead character.

Charm coupled with opulence absolves a psychologically deranged bachelor from his crime of seducing a weak girl and inflicting physical harm, albeit the supposed victim does not fend off her partner’s twisted temperament.

Mr. Grey is not even an original personality in the  world of literature, if we can consider EL James’ volumes in this erudite class. He is not as interesting and suave as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester and definitely far from the ingenuous imaginative evil of Marquis de Sade, the aristocratic debonair who captured the literary kingdom and left a legacy through his name as the term for such deviant psyche. Unlike Mr. Grey who is mere panache, the Marquis was the equivalent of a geek in his time being a writer, a poet and an artist.  Accordingly, the Marquis’s works influenced the succeeding centuries’ impressionist artists such as Monet and Degas. Two hundred years after,  his erotic writings still  generate shocking ripples. The Economist, in fact dubbed him as “The Original Mr. Grey” (Read here

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Being with Scrooge, the Grinch and the Nutcracker is a better way to enjoy Christmas

by Cygne Sauvage

There is always the child in us that pops out every now and then. For some reasons not difficult to explain the young element in everyone’s heart unfailingly peeks out of its repressed status during the last two weeks of December. Well, Christmas is a religious celebration but it has pervaded humanity and transcended cultural nuances. The season evokes a particular aura that could penetrate and soften the meanest of the Ebenezer Scrooges out there.  In the spirit of this feast that is supposed to be about love and humility countries pardon criminals, war zones declare truce. Though cliché’ it may be, we wish it would be Christmas every day.

Certainly that is merely  a wish in a bubble.  Looking at the other end of the spectrum, civilization has trampled  what is regarded as the jolliest season of the year. Big business must have invented every possible way to attract shoppers, causing horrendous traffic, stress and anxiety as well as elevated systolic and diastolic readings.

The country where I have first known Christmas holds the record of the longest celebration, perhaps from the time Mary was told of the immaculate conception to the visit of the three magis. Once the calendar hits the ninth month of the year, carols fill the atmosphere, malls display everything that would not let you miss out on what is to come.  Technology further adds up to the sophistication of the commercialist attitude,  the materialist frames of mind, and of burying deeper in our subconscious what is Christmas all about.  Travelling becomes a difficult feat, gift-giving turns into a mechanical to-do list.

I have learned my lessons, thus, every Christmas time, starting four years ago, I chose to be in dreamland. I think this is much better than having a spat with the inefficient mall cashier or arguing with an airline crew over lost baggage, be caught by social media and go viral. Plus, doing so, digging into my old books about Christmas, perusing them anew lets out the child in me in a more relaxed mood.Image result

Children’s books dealing with Christmas abound and they are always a pleasure to reread. Definitely, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens tops the list, the story that gave us the word “scrooge” in lieu of a miser.

The Nutcracker and the Mouse by E. T. A. Hoffmann in which a young girl’s  favorite toy, the Nutcracker, comes to life, battles the  Mouse King and takes her to a magical kingdom full of dolls has been adapted into a ballet with music provided by the famous Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and is perhaps the most popular in the world under this dance genre.Image result

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel  follows the Grinch, a grouchy, solitary creature who does not like Christmas so he steals every Christmas-related goods from the houses in a village on Christmas Eve. Despite this, the villagers still go on with their celebration which compels the Grinch to  return what he took  and became the  guest of honor at the Whos’ Christmas dinner.Image result

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is a retelling Image resultof Christmases past  from the view of a young child,  portraying a nostalgic and simpler time. It is one of Thomas’s most popular works.

The Story of Holly and Ivy
is a heart-warming tale of an orphan, a little girl named Ivy who leaves to search for her grandmother’s house and along the way she encounters Holly, a doll in a department store.  Little Ivy does not really have a grandmother as it is just a wish on her part. This wish is the basic theme of the story, which begins, “This is a story about wishing.”

Image resultOther books lined up for reading during the Christmas retreat from endless parties, hobnobbing with phonies and charlatans, pretentious exchange gifts and tone deaf carolers: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel.

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Malcolm in the middle

by Marc Romyjos

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Malcolm Gladwell doubles as a pet peeve and a genius for me, like those Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics guys (Levitt and Dubner).  Sadly, I still don’t know what Gladwell tries to make of himself. Maybe a type of innovator of thoughts. A New York Times article claims he is a well-read dillettante who is dependent on lessons from experts without being an expert himself. And now I’m convinced that the problem with guys who dip their noses into social phenomena and isolate them as variables floating in correlation to others is that they get caught thinking like amateurs.

So, I argue that we musn’t put excess faith in socsci bric-a-brac, the way we avoid professionalizing mere hobbies. They’re probably fun when the textbooks aren’t anymore.  Besides, it insults those who spend years amassing knowledge on singular interests, and corollarily, those who spend months and years writing thick dissertations with special focus. (That includes me)

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The Accidental Billionaires : The Founding of Facebook : A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal

by Marc Romyjos


The cover of The Accidental Billionaires might be offputting if you are a certain Mark Zuckerberg, a near-possessed genius of a computer programmer who frittered away most of his Harvard hours coding for the premiere alternative reality of our days. Facebook might be the force to reckon with if you are a regular employee or a focused coed endlessly resisting the social networks. It might be a chore to swallow how the Facebook compulsion might be driven by our own generational prurience, how the very end to which we socialize over the internet might just be to knock off some hormonal and narcissistic parties.

Is this book perhaps an indirect slap into our own shallowness? Not so much if the relevance of Facebook is viewed in an entrepreneurial and scholarly fashion, seeing as it had spawned an unusual demographic of premature billionaires such as Zuckerberg. Harvard, too, might be revelling at this biography, knowing that the upstarts of this technological phenomenon had been nurtured by fraternal bonds, academic competition, furious hobnobbing and idealistic brainstorming within the grounds of Harvard Yard and its dormitories. Even Lawrence Summers, Harvard President at the time, might have reached his smuggest achievement in the founding of Facebook under his tenure.

Zuckerberg is actually not the hero of this tale, pretty much because he had taken no part in Mezrich’s information gathering. This book cements him as the sinister geek with antisocial business acumen, as if he had himself been programmed by his ambition to seize unchallenged control of his creation. The betrayal aspect had been right all along — Mezrich narrates in a riveting, unreferenced manner unusual in biographies the initiation of young men into the unforgiving world of startups. The victims are inevitably a number of unknown names rankled by absence of credit to their contributions in the hugest platform since Napster : a certain young investor named Edouardo Saverin, former best friend to Zuckerberg; a trio of like-minded promising young men such as athletic twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who have been legally crying foul that Facebook had been stolen under their noses by Zuckerberg; and Sean Parker, Mr. Napster himself, the washed up party animal who had been booted out of his brainchild and had been seeking his relaunching through Facebook.

The tale and title are things you would expect from gung-ho warlords, not college students blinded by the infamous Harvard pressure to attain billionaire status upon graduation. The book not only feeds into our involved curiosities about Facebook, but also exposes the wrathful college life of clique-ish discriminations. Still, it is hardly justifiable that the history of Facebook might be sensationalized by broken martini glasses and a racy red brassiere, those cover signifiers that allow us to feel the decadent premises behind our innocuous online status changes, relentless photo tagging and brushes with the innumerable networks embedded within Zuckerberg’s creation. Not the least because Facebook could only have been a jolly real-time respite for most of us who can not escape the daily grind with a mad rush to party or reconnect with friends.

Whatever the gut human instincts propelling it into existence, Facebook had been home to honest human dealings, and even some clean advertising. These are the technologically fine-tuned tools of our day and perhaps these kids deserve more credit than their collegiate indiscretions. The cover and title though, are devices for an appealing read, and Mezrich’s storytelling approach could only bring us closer to the human side of Facebook. Perhaps this could be a call for universities to manage their IT talents better in hawkish environments such as Silicon Valley, but we can’t impugne Zuckerberg et. al. for wanting to be the coolest billionaires around.

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Despite the long dark days in his life PG Wodehouse manages to infuse humor in his works

by Cygne Sauvage


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I must have read more than two dozens of PG Wodehouse novels. Well, this constitutes maybe a mere 20% of his works, but I have met all his famous personality creations led by Lord Emsworth, Rupert Psmith, Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves as well as the array of aristocratic wily aunts and uncles with their bratty nephews and nieces. Often, I  finish a book by the famous British humorist in a half day, without putting it down, and always left with a relaxed feeling, savoring the pristine surroundings of the Blandings estate. I definitely agree with  a noted writer  who alluded to a Wodehouse book as the best medicine to ward off depression.

It is because there are no tragic moments in a Wodehouse story. Plots are unique, sophisticated, varied and never rehashed. Entertaining twists and crises spring from the fierce struggles of every character, reared in a society where civility is a virtue, to preserve composure and class in the face of   grueling challenges from a perennial nemesis. But these are not the harmful, life threatening duels. Friends, relatives and lovers cross each other but the reader is ever assured that these would all be ironed out by the real protagonists comprised of the astute butlers who are even the providers of philosophical explanations to every quandary of their Lords. A happy resolution always graces the end of a conflict. The puns and the play on words never cease to amuse. These are what make a Wodehouse book compelling, not primarily the story line. How the author weaves out the events in very logical and charming style, coming up with  surprisingly, unanticipated yet brilliant interconnections of situations are actually the selling points of  every Wodehouse edition.

Set in the elite circle of English society,  Wodehouse opuses never dwell on the dark side of life, yet they were produced by the genius in that period of time when the world, and in particular his country, was so much immersed in international political catastrophe. Wodehouse himself did not escape the adverse repercussions of the war. His sufferings in prison, the temporary loss of his reputation due to the rumor about his Nazi link are among the few backlashes he endured, but kept to himself. Ordinarily, in a novel, the author  breathes his/her own persona into one of the lead characters and expresses the reality of his/her predicament. But not in the case of Wodehouse. Reading through his works one would never imagine the difficult time he went through.

An article in The Guardian says “PG Wodehouse  secures redemption as British Library acquires priceless archive.” Well it is about time.

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Book Review: The Remains of the Day

by Cygne Sauvage

I have never finished a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Far from halfway through with his book Never Let Me Go, I put it down in favor of an espionage thriller which I finished in a day and a half as it is so absorbing. Another attempt is with his book When We Were Orphans. Unwilling to go through his elaborate discussions and cited remarks, I restored it back to its position in our library shelf, instead. Since then, despite a number of the author’s works in our comprehensive home book collection, there has not been a penchant to pick any of them.  Until I came across an article in The Guardian about the celebrated storyteller’s unprecedented feat of having penned his award-winning fiction The Remains of the Day in just a month. Accordingly, he detached himself from civilization in an isolated villa where he wrote continuously, until the manuscript of what would reap the Booker Prize in 1989 was completed. The featured story in London’s leading newspaper was incited by the renewed public enthusiasm on the Japanese-born, London-bred writer brought about by his most recent successful work The Buried Giant.

Curious as to what masterpiece Ishiguro created in one-twelfth of the year that made it worthy of one of the most coveted prizes in the literary circle I devoted some time to read the book, confident of finishing it in a while as it is much shorter than his previous works, with raised expectation of it veering from his what I deem as traditional soporific style.

The expectation is far from met. In fact, I was able to reach the book’s last page pushed more by the elevated intrigue as to what is its exceptional quality to have outranked Martin Amis’ London Fields, than by the interest in the straightforward narrative by a manservant named Stevens. The story of his dull life told in a flashback, on the other hand, is not actually the crux of this work of fiction.  Regret and how to live with one’s losses, are the more essential points the book wishes to convey,

In his chronological recounts  as chief in the house of British Lord Darlington, Stevens deems himself as professional, dedicated and serves at the pleasure of his benefactor. This, he clearly demonstrates in his recollection of the dying days of his father, coinciding with the big banquet the success of which lies entirely on the manservant’s leadership. Prioritizing on his service to the house, he chooses not to attend to his father even on his deathbed. His sire’s interment has to wait for a number of days when Stevens is already free of the heavy house chores.

Stevens’ reminiscences of his past employment, which took almost 40 years of his lifetime, is triggered by his planned journey to the countryside encouraged by his present American employer. Towards the middle of his story, the reader senses that his trip is actually boosted more by his desire to meet up with a former lady staff, Mrs. Kenton. It is not clear in the manservant’s unfolding narration whether this enthusiasm for renewal of friendship with the only lady who he keeps on mentioning in his flashbacks has romantic undertones.  This is just realized in the end when the woman finally makes her confession and which gives the final blow in the impasse Stevens already finds himself into prior to their tryst.

In the course of his long drive to his destination Stevens gets the time to look back at his life. However, the progressive retrospection gradually erodes his confidence that he has made the correct decisions and that he has maintained the imposed dignity of his profession. He becomes uncertain of the character of the person he has devoted his flawless service, whose compelling orders he does not dare to refute, including the termination of employment of two women staff for the reasons that they are Jews. Thus, as Stevens’ storytelling unravels so is his self-crisis.

Now past middle age and towards the last phase of his career as manservant, what stirs Stevens’ compunction is  his equivocation and perturbation as whether his faithfulness to his profession and his self-imposed profound standard of upholding its dignity are appreciated or even made a difference in the life of his benefactor. He realizes thereafter that what he values the most holds no meaning in his Lord’s psyche nor in his present American employer’s. The developing anguish in the butler’s mind evolves to a point when he is on denial that he ever ran the house of his former employer.

Worse, Stevens, though with pronounced reticence, is even unsure whether what he has given up in the name of professionalism and dignity, such as a possible blissful married life with Mrs. Kenton, is worthy of the sacrifice. Though it is unclear, basing on his accounts, that the woman has caught his fancy during their interactive days. His frustration over the unfulfilled love affair is not conclusive, or just part of his waivering confusion, and therefore does not conjure sympathy. What’s contentious, though, is that, Stevens’ nonchalant outlook on relationships is that of someone’s from the author’s land of birth rather than from a Westerner born and bred in an environment where males and females are expected to be open about their feelings.

Stevens’ demeanor, likewise, is far from those of Wodehouse butlers who have shaped the character in my mind. These are the types who are indispensable, running the entire household by themselves and always saving the skins of their bosses. Though serving in similar lineage of rich, elite family in England, Stevens, unlike Jeeves and PSmith,  never asserts his opinion nor refutes his Lordship. His manners and behavior are typically Asian. His disciplined strict submission and obeisance characterize more the author’s countrymen in the Far East than the outspoken Europeans. Had the setting of the novel been in the land of the rising sun and Stevens were a samurai, his story might hold water.

How Stevens will tackle the “remains of the day,” alluded to as what’s left in a man’s life after living through its productive and youthful phase, is relegated to the reader’s imagination. However, the book is not compelling enough to evoke empathy.

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