Risking it all for a convenience store

by Cygne Sauvage

A good read is an excellent antidote to the tension spawned by a serious engagement to beat work deadline. So, I scanned our book shelves/boxes and spotted this book which I remember has been lounging in that dilapidated container for several months, one of those brought home by my peripatetic housemates who are earnest bibliophiles as well.   It is not a work of fiction,  but a factual narrative of establishing a small scale business in the US by immigrants, which I imagine must be a tough undertaking, similar in a way to a Caucasian holding out one’s space in a huge Chinese community.

The other factor that caught my interest in My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store is the author’s background.  Ben Ryder Howe is a former Senior Editor of The Paris Review, and I always have this not unfounded bias, and never been disproved so far, favoring former journalists.  They must have a good command of the language, therefore, write good prose which, for me, is essential element in the enjoyment of reading the book.

Indeed this bias holds true.   Howe narrates his family’s tribulations in setting up a convenience store in the heart of Brooklyn, in a close neighborhood inhabited by tenacious stalwarts, that include their own suppliers and workers,  not bereft of violent predispositions dominant in a locale’s demographic profile where everyday living is a battle for survival.  Nevertheless, the thuggish crowd proves to be no match to the diligence and steadfastness of Kay, the indomitable mother-in-law of Howe, to whose daughter he has been betrothed, and acquainted since their puberty years.  Thus, the highlights of myriad sub-stories are about Howe’s acquired family’s ingenuity, its cohesiveness, its cultural peculiarities  that impact the sustainability of the business, and of course his marriage.

Miserable, and even grotesque, reality is described in vivid, hilarious manner, always with comedic relief, punctuated with loads of sarcasm. Thus, the reader doesn’t end up commiserating with Howe’s skirmishes and strife, rather amused with his brilliant and scintillating  accounts of his two worlds as a worker:  as a senior editor in a magazine and as a deli cashier slash clerk slash purchaser, etc.

Actually,  the dual life he leads is the gist of his tale told only through the metamorphosis of a convenience store.  In juxtaposition,  Howe’s employers are of diverse, opposite predispositions  in life.  Kay’s idea of fun is hard work, while The Paris Review’s publisher/owner George Plimpton’ s concept of work is having fun.  The former represents the  reality of back-breaking toil, while the latter is a dreamland struggling with reality.

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Is having lost one’s childhood worse than having lost a child?

by Cygne Sauvage

Having read the synopsis at the back of the book, I braced myself for emotional episodes. This is Ian McEwan’s work after all.   Not a single novel I have encountered from this author has failed to impress me: Atonement, Amsterdam, Solar, and The Innocent.   However, The Child in Time roused a lukewarm interest from this reader who, until the end of the story, is still attempting to grasp the coherence in the plot.

I cannot even be certain on the gist of the novel.  Is it about the child’s disappearance and how the tragic event drove the parents apart? Is it about the government’s superficial efforts to effect reforms in child-rearing? Or a high-ranked government official’s struggle with conflicting desires to be in the mainstream of political actions and at the same time his despise of its disturbing impact on his mental stability that he retreated back to his lost childhood? A reader would wonder whether losing one’s childhood is worse than losing a child.

Does the book’s attempts to expound on the relativity of time, which depending on the observer can accelerate or decelerate, are meant to stimulate the reader to view personal characterization in relation to this physical variable?  That everyone is a child or an adult based on one’s accord of which period of time he/she would comfortably fit in.  Such as when the lead protagonist, the father of the lost child, was invited to lunch with the prime minister, he stubbornly throws a  childish attitude and opts to attend the affair in unconventional, untidy outfit.

Nevertheless, McEwan never disappoints with the discourses presented in the book which in some chapters could be a resource reference material for a student aspiring to be a physicist.

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Books as decorative items

by Cygne Sauvage

Books must be read and not just to be looked at. Using them as mere embellishments for enhancement of a home’s panoramic sense should not be the main objective for acquiring and arranging them in an ornamental array, like the sacrilege committed by the US White House’s occupant. British newspaper The Guardian points out the inanity of the incumbent First Lady’s concept of the holiday season’s decorative tree. “Well, they’re all green. That was enough for them to be selected as part of the Christmas tree of books that currently stands in the White House library…They were chosen ‘based on their varieties of green colour tones.’” Thus, the tome’s display list carries a nonsensical, incoherent theme: Esquire’s World of Golf, Robert Daley’s thriller Tainted Evidence, Simon Stow’s political analysis American Mourning, Dianne E Gray’s coming-of-age story Holding Up the Earth and James Hall’s odyssey into the spirit world of Africa, Sangoma? A reading chair is installed in the tree’s proximity, but who would dare to pull a volume and let the rest collapse on the floor, ruining the so-called spirit of the season? Perhaps, not even the Chief Executive would do such a “horrible” act.

Speaks volumes … the White House library Christmas book tree.

Books must be made accessible for reading.  A home’s library is supposed to be the place where one can comfortably sit and experience freedom of thought, or flight, the book sending the reader to its destined setting. Using books only for a spectacle of show, sans  perusing their pages is intellectual hypocrisy, not erudition.

 

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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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A Horse Walks Into a Bar: Winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

by Cygne Sauvage

Since last year, the Man Booker International Prize has been awarded to a single book. Prior to this, it was a biennial prize bestowed to a collection of work either originally in English or translated to this language.

So, this is now included in my reading list, that is, if ever I will find a copy in any of the remaining mediocre bookstores present only in the metropolis. I have attempted to order books online, but this feat presented a bigger headache for me. Anyway, I have vowed not to spend precious moments on whining about the inefficiencies of the systems in my land of birth. Instead, I promised to devote my time to promoting the sustenance of the intellect and the education of those who still have the willingness to embrace novel wisdom, regardless of age.

I  collect winners of the Man Booker International and Man Booker Prize as well as other awards given to works of fiction for the reason that I regard the citations as benchmark for a book’s quality. I discovered that this is not so, although I claim my judgment to be just my own.  Man Booker prize winners that I have read, so far,  and did not disappoint are The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and  The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. I started the Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst last Christmastime hibernation, a regular escape mechanism from the materialism of the season, but I put it down after Chapter 4.  Since then, I haven’t had the inspiration yet to pick it up.  I had been longing to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, but I am still searching for my copy from the irresponsible borrower.

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Reading as a dangerous feat

by Cygne Sauvage

During the 18th and 19th centuries reading a book, particularly in bed, was considered not only a dangerous feat but a depravity.  In the context of that time when tools for illumination comprised of burning candles, a voracious reader who could not control the urge to finish a novel and thus would bring it to the bedroom  was deemed to be courting death.  Many, generally the elite and the erudite for they were the ones who could afford and have the enthusiasm as well as access to volumes of reading materials,  met their ends in the privacy of their sleeping quarters, a circumstance that turned trendy in those periods of time when reading a story was considered a communal activity.  Because of the prevalence of this deemed undesirable practice it had come to be equated by the religious authority to an immoral act and defiance of the Supreme Being.  A lighted piece of tallow when abandoned as the absorbed reader  unconsciously fell asleep could turn an entire house, in fact a whole estate, aflame with the tragic consequence of loss of lives. Thus, aficionados of the written works were then warned to shed off the vicious vice and were directed to spend, instead, the darkness in prayer.

Discussed in the article in The Atlantic: “ Writings from the 18th and 19th centuries frequently dramatize the potentially horrifying consequences of reading in bed. Hannah Robertson’s 1791 memoir, Tale of Truth as well as of Sorrow, offers one example. It is a dramatic story of downward mobility, hinging on the unfortunate bedtime activities of a Norwegian visitor, who falls asleep with a book. Even the famous and the dead could be censured for engaging in the practice. In 1778, a posthumous biography chastised the late Samuel Johnson for his bad bedside reading habits, characterizing the British writer as an insolent child. A biography of Jonathan Swift alleged that the satirist and cleric nearly burned down the Castle of Dublin—and tried to conceal the incident with a bribe.”  Continue reading here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/reading-in-bed/527388/

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Painting by Marc Romyjos

More than two centuries later, books have evolved from printed form to digitized version, compressed in gadgets along with gazillion data. The electronic gizmo has become the indispensable companion of its owner who brings it not only in the private bedroom but anywhere including the lavatory, dining table and even in the steering wheel. Reading has become everybody’s favorite pastime, taking in facts as fiction and worse fake news as truth. The difference between reality and fantasy has become so blurred, ruining lives and relationships from the microcosm of the society to the grander schemes of political leadership and world’s corporate bigwigs.  Massive disinformation has made life more perilous.

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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 http://www.economist.com/news/21589093-marquis-de-sade-still-shocks-200-years-later-original-mr-grey)

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