I have found that my local thrift stores have been filled with a certain type of item recently. They are known as shadow boxes or box frames. (IKEA trademarks them as RIBBA Frames.Link here ) Originally I thought that I could use them for displaying Polaroids but when I place them in, they look awkward and confusing. So, I too, tossed them aside for a while. But they were always on my mind so I aimed to photograph for them. And the realization made me ponder something . . . profound.
Most of the items we view the world through is done through rectangles. Our existing photo frames and albums are sized in rectangles. Our electronic devices are framed in heavy black rectangles. When I was involved in media, all the images I used were posted in rectangle shapes. And for those of us living in North America, those rectangles are measured in imperial measurements, giving us even odder sizes and lengths. So forcing me now to deal with a three-dimensional box with exact metric sizes was a challenge. I tried using faces in these frames but again, they look confusing. One would think a face is a simple thing but it is made up of: a nose, a mouth with lips/teeth, two eyes and hair. Take a still of it and try placing it in an item that is 10 cm deep with a smaller square frame inside and the face is muddled and lost. The same happens with landscapes. Yes, there is a horizon but the details – sun, trees, grass, – get pushed back and lost. So this became a puzzle that bugged me for the longest time.
I am having trouble finding the exact quote but photographer Bob Long told us who turn to his brilliant series on Lynda.com that black-and-white photography these days is a way of showing how light works. In that concept, I found a truth that guided me on how to use these frames. An image with a simple white leaf – perhaps with a drop of water on it or a outline of a darker leaf in the background works well now. I am now tempted to a small image with chrome or even a small cloud might work well with these boxes. And there are larger shadow boxes available I am considering in buying and trying out. (Link to IKEA here)
So maybe using the word “Profound” at the the beginning of this piece was a bit pretentious. But the act of looking for an image for these frames make me think a bit of the world and what it is truly in it. And if that isn’t what culture is suppose to do?
Thanks to Lisa J. Lawrence and Kennedy Cullen of Orca Book Publishers for sending me a copy of this book.
We all have those moments of shock after dealing with a traumatic situation. Somehow we are forced into stillness as our mind tries to deal with the pain and bruises – both real and emotional. This isn’t easy process for a younger person to go through. Not only do they have to deal with those pains, they may not have the network of support to help them deal with the issues they have occurring within themselves. And Lisa J. Lawrence has documented one such young woman’s journey in her novel Trail of Crumbs.
During Patty’s flurry of cursing, Greta let herself out the front door, climbing the steps of the concrete stairwell cave. Across the street their neighbor vacuumed the interior of his yellow Volvo, both doors hanging open. He straightened and waved to Greta. He was tall and pale with a nest of ginger hair. Slightly buggy eyes and an open face. Greta recognized him from Ash’s English class. He watched her as if she might stop and talk. She walked faster, checking over her shoulder to make sure he hadn’t followed her.
Greta circled the block a few times, crunching the brittle ice of unshoveled walks. Snow heaped in knee-high dunes on either side. Bleak January afternoon, like the sun never fully rose. Before going back inside, she listened at the bottom of the steps. All quiet.
No one in the living room. Greta tapped on her brother’s door – technically the storage room – and opened it when her didn’t answer.
He lay on a rumpled single mattress, staring at a bare bulb dangling from a wire. The back wall was covered with wide, rough shelves – the kind you’d put boxes or canned goods on. Ash had piled few books there, but the shelves sat mostly empty. No windows. She sat on the bed next to him.
“Why did Dad marry her?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.
Lawrence has created a complex individual in her character of Greta. She is typical of younger adults who have become apathetic towards their education. And with good reason. Her circle of friends have turned mean-spirited and dangerous. Her family life is equally ugly and hateful. And her twin brother Ash is moody and rebellious in his own right. Yet as whatever support units exist to aid her in her life completely fall apart, she finds herself in a day-to-day existence that forces her to seriously consider her future.
On Wednesday Greta came home fro her English final to find Ash in a kitchen chair and Nate standing behind him with clippers. Ash’s long brown wisps had fallen in a mesh of hair on the pocked hardwood.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked, peering over Ash’s scalp.
Ash turned proudly in each direction so she could inspect it. Nate had shaved along the sides and back, leaving a longer section down the center.
“What’d you do that for?”
“All the cool kids are doing it,” Ash said.
“Shut up.” Greta flicked the back of his head.
Nate turned on the clippers and touched up an uneven spot.
“Don’t you think it might hurt your chances of getting a job?” she asked.
I’m pretty sure it won’t hamper my ability to lower fries into a deep fryer.”
Ash had applied for three jobs already that week, at two fast-food places and a snow-removal company. Nothing yet. Greta had applied as a cashier at the only supermarket in busing distance and at a place that made cinnamon buns in the mall. The bun place had told her she was underqualified. To bake pre-made cinnamon buns and make basic change. In the post-Christmas retail slump, few Help Wanted signs hung in store windows.
Now that she and Ash had no money, everything was about money. Greta had rationed their last few tomatoes, only to find one spotted with gray mold. She’d waited too long. She felt sick, dropping it in the garbage can.
Lawrence has done something interesting here. She has documented the life of Greta well and given young adults a source of empathy to compared themselves to but she has also documented an element of the human condition here. A young adult trying to to come to grips with both growing up and dealing with heavy traumas and abuses. This is a book that is a good piece of literature and a great resource for young adults.
“Why do you care?”
Priya sighed. “Look, I know it’s none of my business. About a year ago, Rachel screwed me over big-time. I know what they can be like I kind of wondered if the same thing had happened to you.”
Greta looked away from Priya. They probably just wanted to see what she would say behind their backs.
“And Dylan” – Priya paused – “I know him too.” Greta snapped back to Priya’s face. “We were together for a few weeks last year. Let’s just say I wasn’t willing to do certain things on, like the first or second date” >I<Things you were willing to do. Slut.>/I< “He didn’t want to wait.”
That shame – waiting in the wings since social studies – crept out of hiding and oozed through her body. She swallowed, her stomach queasy. Like on the morning at the cabin, after the party.
Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence is a brilliant and easy read. She has documented an important element of the human condition of this age year that is well-written and easy to gain empathy from its pages. An interesting read.
I know it has been a while since I have blogged. I have been in a funk in relation to things creative and descriptive. I am a believe that the human condition needs to be explored through things ‘molded and crafted,’ yet there seemed to me a sense that I didn’t have anything truly wanting to add to the public discourse until now.
For the past little while, I have been playing around with photography. While I had a camera during family festivities and vacations during my teen years, photography was a strong component of my journalism career. Yet as I faded away from that career, so do my interest in photography. But since the rise of Instagram, I have keenly become aware of the artistic side of photography to express the human condition, especially in it’s beauty and its desire. So I have been playing around with photography a bit. Not with high-end gear but with used stuff, and have been working creating some images with a few models in both open areas and in studios. And I have to say that I find the results fascinating.
Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. (Wikipedia.org)
Portraiture for me has been very fascinating . In an attempt to bring in elements of a person’s personality into a single image can be a challenge. And finding a perfect subject with elements to create a portrait that is stimulating and enlightening to both the eye and the mind can be a challenge.
So now comes to the photo posted above. I have known the subject – Chanel Wase – for a couple of years now. Not only has she modeled for me a few times but I have purchased her art work on numerous occasions. So a few months ago we had planned to do a portrait of her with her work with some hand-drawn butterflies. It took a bit of time to get around our schedules – Chanel is a full-time student in Toronto as well as being an model and avid concert photographer – but we finally got together at the wonderful Bon Soleil Studio in Toronto. (And thanks to Marie there for hosting the wonderful space for us to work in) And the image above is the final product. What you are not seeing is a framed print that I made for myself with added butterflies around the frame.
I have printed several photos of Chanel from this shoot and using some lovely old frames that I have located in nearby charity-thrift stores have incorporated the butterflies she had drawn. Several of the larger 8X10 prints have made their way to my portrait wall (And I have been offered money for some of them.) while some of the 4X7 prints I have given away as gifts.
And the exciting thing too is that Chanel has another set of butterflies waiting for me to photograph with her. I am certainly hoping we can connect for that soon.
We all find ourselves wanting and craving more out of life at times. We sit by the window at times looking out and wondering – if not hoping for more – and taking action to change our lives. Adams Foulds does a great job of looking at two people who crave that change in his novel Dream Sequence.
Pages 13 (Opening paragraph)
The beautiful house was empty. Kristen watch from the front window as her sister climbed into her snow-spattered car and drove away, shuttling from one set of worries – Kristen – to another – the noisy, complicated, enviably involving struggles of her family life.
This is one of those reads that should be read in print and savoured in quiet moments where reflection is possible. Foulds explores two lives in this book which are in transition. One life is Kristen, a confused and emotional individual who finds herself alone and wanting more. She adores Henry, ( whom is the other life explored in the book) a popular television actor who is about to make his film debut, and obsesses about him. In the sections that deal with Henry, readers learn about his fears, desires and obsessions as he begins to obsess about a role he desires and craves for an upcoming film.
Henry was too tired to pull the levers of the cross-trainer or haul the stacks of weights. Over time, the hunger had distilled a kind of blackness inside Henry, not a blankness but a positive blackness that throbbed with its own wattage. It stayed behind or at the edge of his vision. It was and was not the same thing as the headaches he suffered. He went to the pool in the basement. Small, dimly lit, it was more of a spa facility than a pool for swimming lengths. The atmosphere was of exclusive calm. The rectangle of water looked plump, like a comfortable mattress, and when Henry got in it lisped over the sides and was recycled back in through some hidden channels. While he was alone, he lay face down, listening to the thick silence. The crest of his spine touched the air above. His arms and legs hung down into the water. He thought that Garcia’s yes had fallen like a sword across his life. Cut off from everything else and still with no filming date confirmed, Henry had nowhere to go but into himself. He felt his body rock upwards when somebody else got into the pool. Embarrassed, Henry started swimming but only towards the small silver ladder. He climbed out and walked back to the change room.
Foulds is both knowledgeable about the English language and quite aware of the human condition, which makes this book a great read. The prose is unique yet easy to follow. Like I mentioned above, this is a book worth taking one’s time to read. For those of us who understand empathy and learn from literature, Foulds has given us much to ponder by giving us this story and presenting the lives of Henry and Kristen side-by-side.
“I need to . . . I’m sorry . . .” He wandered off on his own, looking upwards, stumbling softly until he felt he was alone. He fell down backwards onto the cold grip of the ground and looked up at the packed lights in the sky. He could see the long luminous cloud of the Milky Way, the whole entire galaxy he lived in, stars so may and so far that hey were a veil of light. He could see stars behind stars. He’d never seen the night sky look three-dimensional before. There all the time. All the time. There all the time behind everything. Lying still, intoxicated, he felt the earth sway, the surface of the earth moving. The stars slid in his vision. He had to keep looking back at a certain point to reset them. The brilliant white fires. The endless space. It was awesome. His mind quailed. He was tired and sad and exhilarated. He felt a kind of exaltation in which happiness and despair were in distinguishable. Cliched thoughts arrived – how big the universe is, how tiny he was, how alone – were unavoidable. Tiny and struggling. How nice it would be not to have to try, not to be a person, not to be himself at all.
Virginia called for him. “Hey, you! Where’d you go? We’re waiting for you.”
Adams Foulds has given readers a brilliant read with Dream Sequence. I cannot repeat enough this is a read that should be savoured and reflected upon. The results will be enlightening to any book lover.
I know I haven’t been blogging for a while. I was asked if I had given up on reading and had become focused on other things. That isn’t true. It was just there was a weariness to all things digital for me and I used the computer for things that I needed to do and then turned “the stupid thing off” and read. And as the 2019 Word on the Street Festival began to post their lineup of writers, people were asking me if I had read this-or-that writer involved in the event. And it was researching writers for that wonderful festival that I came across Lynn Coady’s brilliant essay Who Needs Books?: Reading in the Digital Age that I understood why I still read printed material during the digital era.
The degree to which the internet can feel like an unwelcome and nefarious intrusion into our lives depends in large part on the way we use it – and, more importantly, the way it’s used against us (deliberately or not) by the people in charge. In a 2008 essay called “Is Google Making us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr compares the internet’s reshaping of our lives and cognitive functions to the way the invention of the clock habituated us to think and function according to the dictates of its hands. (Citation) This, he suggests, paved the way for the dehumanizing strictures of the industrial age and the eventual treatment of human workers as automatons. Of course, the clock itself didn’t actually do that. The industrial age was the result of business and factory owners rejoicing in a technology they understood would allow them to measure and exploit worker efficiency down to the very second.
. . .
My point is, let’s keep our eye on the ball here. If you have all the free time in the world and you spend it on Facebook, ok, that’s a problem – Mark Zuckerberg has clearly worked his dark mojo on you. But if you spend every spare moment frantically fielding tweets, texts, and emails because your employer requires nothing less, that’s another. Think about who, and what exactly, in either of these scenarios, is stopping you from picking up a book.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lynn Coady a few years ago. It was at a guest lecture at Western University in London, Ontario. She gave an impressive talk at that time how she was balancing both her writing for television and fiction. (Afterwards, she mentioned she was impressed that I had a hard-cover copy of her book The Antagonists for her to sign. ) Coady talked about many of her views then. to which this book – a copy of the speech she gave to the Canadian Literature Centre’s Kreseil Lecture Series at the University of Alberta in April, 2015) This book does a brilliant job of looking at the printed word as the digital age blinks blindly at us all in the face. Coady mixes a perfect narrative with philosophy, modern cultural references and humour to make some excellent points.
(Twitter participants in a survey about reading) described a craving for the sense of immersion that reading gives them. Some people spoke of it as a kind of psychological privacy, no matter where they happen to be. More than one person use the word “escape.” Here, I believe, is where the book truly does have the advantage over the internet. The internet gives us a sense of communication, as does the book. And similar to the book, it offers up a means of “checking out” from time to time – a warm bath of a narrative to immerse ourselves. But what it doesn’t and can never offer really is a sense of complete and total privacy. Of psychic escape. When you hear about people announcing that they need to “unplug” for a weekend or conduct a “social media cleanse” or take a “Facebook break,” we understand what they are fleeing – the cacophony, the very connectedness that makes the internet such a revolutionary and seductive phenomenon.
So, yes, I am blogging again. And I am still reading books. If anybody truly cares about my weariness about things digital, they merely need to read Lynn Coady’s Who Needs Books?: Reading in the Digital Age. I know I am not alone in my love of books and being left alone. And I will be seeing her presentation at the 2019 Word on the Street Festival in Toronto.
For those of us who enjoy to read, we know the pleasure of discovering a reality of the world when we read someone’s else description in print. ‘Yes,” we exclaim. “We know what you are talking about,” we silently shout to the writer as we reread that passage. But when we share that reality with someone else who craves to know that reality as well, there is an added joy to our pastime that our mind celebrates. Jacques Poulin explores that theme well in his book English is Not a Magic Language to which Sheila Fischman has brilliantly translated in to English.
I was reading her The Red Pony by Monsieur John Steinbeck. The book told the story of a little boy, shy and polite, called Jody, who lived with his parents on a ranch in California. His father had given him a pony as a gift. Jody was trying now to break him, with the help of Billy Buck, a stable hand.
I was the one who had chosen that novel, because Limoilou hadn’t expressed a preference. My choice rested on the fact that she enjoyed the company of horses. I’d had a chance to note that on my first visit. That day, showing me around, the girls had led me onto a winding path strewn with big stones that started behind the chalet and allowed you to down the cliff. At the bottom, we came out onto several fields separated by rows of loosestrife. One field, surrounded by an electric fence, served as grazing land for a group of old racehorses. Limoilou slipped in between the two wires. She stroked the muzzles of the horses, gave them berries to eat from her hand. According to Marine, she spent time telling them about the miserable years she had survived during her brief existence.
Poulin has crafted a unique story into this small volume. He has captured the essence of what the enjoyment of reading is for us all. The story deals with Francis, who is a reader for hire. Outside the complexities of his family life, we witness his adventures as he receives calls for his services and he jumps into his Mini Cooper and drives to read for his clients. And seeing the enjoyment that Francis gets when he sees his clients relate to a work of literature is a joy for any honest reader of literature.
Now and then I raised my head to see if my tardiness had them worried. I was making prgress in my reading. I’d underlined several paragraphs and was quite proud of myself. All at once Jack and Marine came out of the house without looking at me. My brother had a dark blue sleeping bag under his arm. With old Chaloupe in the lead, they came down the narrow path lined with flowers surrounding the pond.
I was about to start reading again when I noticed that Limoilou was watching me behind the screen door in the solarium porch.
She was waiting for me.
I closed the book with my finger on the page I intended to start with. The first thing I noticed in the chalet was the map of Louisiana that my brother had put up near the door next to the kitchen. It was impressive.
When we were settled comfortably, she in her chaise lounge and me in my rocker, I waited a few moments to respect our ritual: meditation eyes closed, black cat on her belly. This time though, she declared in a determined voice:
Enunciating carefully, I read the beginning of the journals . . .
There is something intellectually optimistic and serene at times in this book when Poulin describes the actions of Francis while doing his job. Francis is helping bringing enlightenment to the weary world and he knows it. It is an endearing feat and it brings a huge pleasure that he and us readers appreciate
At the last reading session I had left Clark all alone on a small island in the Missouri. The members of the expedition were resting from the first day of their journey. they had been warned that they would have to “cross a country held by savage peoples, many in number, powerful and warlike, fierce, treacherous, and cruel and in particular, enemies of the white man.”
While the lovely Irish lass was carting her dictionaries into the kitchen, Limoilou settled int her chaise lounge. She closed her eyes and I began reading. Because of the ordeals she had lived through, traces of which could still be seen around her eyes and on her wrists, she impressed me as much as ever. I was becoming bolder and at times I followed on her face the emotions that words provoked in her.
English is Not a Magic Language by Jacques Poulin and translated by Sheila Fischman may be a short read but it is a brilliant one. It documents well the enjoyment we readers all have from the enlightenment of the written craft.
Link to Vehicule Press’ website for English is Not a Magic Language
For the past little while I have playing around with photography, but it wasn’t until recently that I truly appreciated it’s power as a cultural medium. I had given it up for a period but as the popularity of the Instagram platform grew, I realized there was a strength in documenting the human condition via the camera. So for the past year or so, I have been fiddling with concepts like: exposure, focal length, cropping, colour balance, etc. but the most important concept has been portraiture. In creating the perfect portrait, one is required to capture elements of subject’s essence into the image. And I think I did that with the four images above, and they were included into my online portfolios – including my Instagram feed. And so did a heart-broken father of a abused daughter who hired me to do a portrait of his child, in hopes of giving her self-esteem a much needed boost.
We humans are vile, self-absorbed creatures. But we are capable of such strengths and beauties if we allow ourselves to see them. Each of these models above have these abilities and it was that aspect of those four photos Dad wanted me to bring forward in a portrait of his daughter. It was an easy enough job. Dad and daughter met me in a public setting and for an hour, I shot about 300 images giving me a series of pictures that I could print, frame and give to her. She loved them. But begged me not to post them online. Not only had her torment been physical but extended to the simplistic comments that occur on all social-media feeds. It broke my heart to agree, to which she hugged me and smiled. She loved the framed print I had gave her and she has placed it on her bedroom wall. And her Dad states that it gives her strength to see it everyday.
So pardon my little blurb on here about how I am planning to continue to work with photography and create portraits in the future. I needed to express the above story in some fashion and this seemed the perfect venue to do it.
Where we live is suppose to be a perfectly tranquil area where kids are suppose enjoy normal childhood lives. Yet we all perfectly know that in anybody’s life there are a series of angst, fears, hardships, and rage that darken our days. Carrianne Leung looks at one seemingly perfectly constructed neighbourhood explores some of the issues that exists behind their doors in her book That Time I Loved You.
Pages 4-5 Grass
That summer, as they watered their front lawns, the adults leaned across their fences and spoke in hushed voices, flooding their grass with their now forgotten hoses. Us kids gathered in the street with our road hockey gear and baseballs to share whatever intel we’d acquired and trade in gory details. Mr. Finley’s brain was supposedly splattered in a million bits across his basement. My friend Darren said you couldn’t clean brain completely out- that stuff sticks. Darren knew a lot about brains because he was into comic books and his mother was a nurse, so we took whatever he said as fact. As for Mrs. Da Silva, everybody knew she wasn’t right in the head. We often saw her walking around in her housecoat talking and laughing to herself.
Nothing like this had ever happened in our quiet suburban neighbourhood before. No one had ever died before Mr. Finley. In downtown Toronto, where the dangerous people lived, at least according to my dad, it probably happened all the time. Dad said downtown was no place for kids because it was dirty and full of fast cars and shady characters, while out here in the suburbs, we were free to play on the street, leave our front doors unlocked and generally not worry about such things. Granted, there was a neighbourhood thief sneaking around, but only small, mostly worthless things were taken – forgotten gardening gloves on the lawn, chipped coffee mugs left on the porch, a rusty screwdriver in a garage. People assumed it was some weird kid’s idea of fun. I had my own opinion on who it was, and it was not kid. But no one listened to me anyway.
Leung has done something truly clever with this book. The opening story deals with a troubled kid realizing that there something wrong with her neighbourhood. A series of suicides in the perfectly-designed residential area has sent the adults into a quiet tither yet none are openly discussing the situations out load. But the rest of the stories look into the domestics situations and – more importantly – the thoughts of the residents of the neighbourhood. Leung has documented the zeitgeist of a suburban neighbourhood and given a complex view of the human condition where no other writer has gone before.
Pages 21-22 Flowers
On that day, the last day, the primroses were especially pretty. There red petals opened to kiss the summer sun. Mrs. Da Silva’s first thought upon waking that morning was to water them. She had tossed and turned all night in a restless sleep and woke up already tired. There had been no rain for days. In her faded cotton house dress, she pulled the garden hose from its long coil attached to the concrete wall of the house. She liked the ease of the garden hose, its coil, its simple tap, its reach. Everything was easy here, compared with Portugal. You had a house with a tap attached to the side wall. You turned it on and water came from the hose. After twenty years in this country, Mrs. D was still amazed. Spraying the water across the patch of grass and on the petals of the primroses was among her favourite things. Each blade of grass and small flower shook and shivered under the mist raining down. When she turned, the flowers whispered two words in Portuguese behind her back that sounded like a sigh: The letter.
Her finger released the lever of the nozzle on her hose. She stood silently in the glistening grass, her toes getting wet through her slippers. She waited to her more, but the flowers went silent. Mrs. D wondered how the flowers knew about the letter, but then she remembered that they knew everything about her, as if there were an invisible thread that ran between them. The letter had arrived two days earlier, and she had read it, memorized its contents, but the news didn’t seem real, more like a ghostly whisper from far away. Only when thing flowers uttered the words in their familiar accent, as if they too had come from her fishing village in São Miguel, did the letter feel true. There were facts in the letter. The flowers confirmed it. Her mãe, her beautiful mother, was dead.
The beauty of this book is that it documents complex situations in a simple, almost every-day language. It is easy to read yet the concepts are familiar and universal. We all have sensed the frustrations and fears of the characters involved yet may have not truly considered them or discussed them out loud. Leung’s book forces many of us to come to realize many things about the world around us that we may not have considered before.
Pages 112 Kiss
It was clear how much Uncle Bill adored Louisa by the way he held her hand when they went for walks around the neighbourhood on Louisa’s good days, or by the gentle voice he used when he asked her if she was hungry. Josie had never seen a man take care of a woman before. Although her mother worked the same long hours as her father, it was still up to Josie, her mother and her sister to do all the cooking and cleaning.
Aunt Louisa and Uncle Bill lived a fifteen-minute walk away, outside the enclave of the sister streets. Instead of hanging out with June and the other kids on Winifred after lunch in the August heat, Josie would head over to her aunt and uncle’s house to start dinner. When school began that fall, she didn’t even wait to walk home with June and dashed to their place right after the bell.
Even though her aunt was sick, they had a lot of fun together. Aunt Louisa would keep her company from a chair in the corner of the kitchen while Josie chopped vegetables or swept. Aunt Louisa, already thin, would sit with her feet on another chair, propped up with pillows and wearing a big scarf around her head. She looked to Josie like a fragile egg, her skin so pale it was almost translucent. Despite the rapid changes to her appearance, Aunt Louisa still like to talk and asked her about school and her friends in a way her mother never did.
Carrianne Leung has given readers something serious and emotional to consider in her book That Time I Loved You. Her story lines are unique and insightful which makes this book a great piece of literature.
We all have had family members who have enthralled us with stories of their childhood. But for those of us whose ancestors endured the horrors of conflict and war, that enthrallment becomes a stunned silence when we become aware of the hardships and traumas they went through. Michael Kaan has taken the memories of his father growing up in Hong Kong during the Second World War and crafted a unique novel called The Water Beetles.
We’re stopped because it’s another hot day, and even the Japanese solders forcing us to march agree we should rest. We’ve stopped by a dense bamboo grove. Despite the soldiers’ warnings to stay visible, I want to be alone, so I’m lying close to the grove’s edge. If I lie on my back and look up, I can see only a small patch of sky, the bamboo stalks are so dense. I can also see the two beetles climbing up a stalk. The little green-and yellow one that is me, with the one leg hooked into the crook of the stem, doesn’t seem to care that he’s being followed.
The greenery reminds me of our grounds back home, of the beds and potted plants that the gardener used to touch so carefully with his tools. It reminds me of the gardens at school and in the city parks, and other things that I worry are gone or I may never see again. At the moment I’m surrounded by plants, the wild and farmed exploding next to each other in the light. There’s nothing gentle about cultivated plants – they dig and drink, and push upward as hard as the wild ones. But I prefer my memories to what is happening now. We have a garden on the roof of our house where my brother and I used to play a lot, before it became unsafe to be up there. It has a chicken coop and a vegetable plot, or at least it did when I left.
This is one of these books that takes a element from the history pages and gives readers a much more in-depth understanding of the events that occurred. Kaan has crafted the memories of his father into the story of Chung-Man Leung, who is coming of age in December 1941. Chung-Man’s life is comfortable and he is curious about the world around him but the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong throws his existence into turmoil as he and his family are faced with a trove of violence and repression.
Despite the caution of the adults around me, I caught bits of their conversations and fragments of radio broadcasts, and throughout December I pieced together what had happened to Hong Kong. On December 8, the Japanese Imperial Army, who had invaded northeastern China several weeks earlier and were working their way south, crossed the Shenzhen River that separated the British colony from the mainland. This left them only about thirty miles north of the mainland portion of Hong Kong, and so about forty miles from where we lived on Hong Kong Island. The Allied forces that had assembled there either succumbed or pulled back from the onslaught, and eventually the Japanese penetrated the New Territories into Hong Kong itself. Even as the Japanese moved inward on land, they had already bombed Kai Tak Airport on the eight, weakening the British. The blasts we heard at my school that morning were the sound of the airport being shelled, the sound of a fatal blow.
I’m recounting this quickly, as if I were reading from a history book, but at the time I knew even less, and the adults around me didn’t know much more. We no idea where the fighting was or what progress the Japanese made each day. We only heard of it as one hears of a change in the weather, that a hurricane or typhoon is coming.
The truth is that one never know enough. Looking back into the past is a lonely game of self-delusion, watching people and events move with an inevitability that never was. the history books tell everything with such certainty. But at the time, nothing seemed inevitable to me. Somethings were impossible or unlikely, something expected, but most of all, beyond the routine of daily life, the world was a mystery. We knew little until it happened.
What makes this book truly memorable is that is a perfect mixture of fact, description and lyricism. That combination makes this narrative that will certain be reflected and pondered upon months after the book is read by many readers. The prose also seems to flow from one section to the next, only changing suddenly when something dramatic occurs. It is a read worthy to reflect and ponder over.
A harsh metallic clang woke me the next morning. I ran out of the house wearing only my underwear. A man was running through the streets striking a gong and shouting at everyone to get up. Many people were already out, and I ran back to the house to wake Leuk, Wei-Ming, and Yee-Lin. A half dozen planes flew overhead.
The Japanese had been spotted on the road just before dawn by a civil defence volunteer. The townspeople were unprepared and panic erupted. A man from the neighbouring house said he would fight and shook an old rifle in the air to the cheers of other men.
Yee-Lin was already up and packing our belongings. I got dressed, found my belt, and made sure Leuk had his too. Only Yee-Lin knew about the gold we carried , and we never talked about it. Wei-Ming would be certain to say something if she knew.
“Chung-Man, get Kei and Ming and tell them to come with us,” said Yee-Lin.
“I don’t know. Into the woods. To a river if we can find a boat. There must be a way out. They may know how.
I went to the kitchen and found them already up and strangely calm.
“It’s the Japanese, isn’t it? said Kei. What should we do?”
“Run. We’re going to try to make it out. Come with use and tell us where to go. Is there a place to hide in the woods, or a boat?”
Michael Kaan has crafted a unique and enlightening piece of literature with The Water Beetles. He has taken his father’s memories and created a story worthy for all us readers to ponder and reflect on. It is a must read for sure.