Tag Archives: english literature

‘The Secret Language of Flowers’, by Samantha Gray – review

The Secret Language of FlowersThe Secret Language of Flowers by Samantha Gray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lily says “You’re a good friend,” and Camellia wishes “Good Luck.” Daisy promises, “I will never tell.” They talk in silence, and their beautiful reserve is all the more appreciated by the sophisticated secret messages they carry. It’s the elaborate world of Floriography, language of flowers, based upon the legends and folklore ascribed to flowers exquisitely developed in the Victorian period, when an expression of feelings and emotions was constrained as an indication of propriety and ethical virtue. For years, Floriography has been something of flower-version of Morse Codes through the use or arrangement of flowers to deliver particular sentiments in the most subtly compelling way among those who find a niche in a quiet revelation of emotions and yearnings safely guarded in the secret garden of heart. In this regard, The Secret Language of Flowers by Samantha Gray is a treasure garden of 50 flowers speaking in their own words with beautiful illustrations that promises a dazzling treat to the eye as well as the mind of the reader.

Of the 50 flowers of Gray’s own choice, my selection of flowers is threefold: Crocuses and Lilies for their meanings that chime the bells of my heart resonate with their stories and meanings. A crocus, dedicated to St. Valentine, a Roman physician and a Christian priest during the reign of Claudius II, was sentenced to death for his faith and just before his execution, Valentine gave a jailer whose blind daughter he had treated a note for her in which he had wrapped a saffron crocus, the source of healing herb, saffron. As the girl opened the note, her sight was restored, and it was the yellow crocus she first saw that was shining like the golden sun. The message the condemned physician wrote was: “From Your Valentine”. It is said that if anyone who likes crocuses has a deeply spiritual aspect to his/her nature expressed in writing, painting, dancing, and music with a caring heart.

Lilies symbolize female beauty, purity, majesty, and charm against evil. Legend has it that a lily sprang from Eve’s tears as she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. It also has a different name of “Our Lady’s tears” as it came to being due to the tears by Virgin Mary – also revered as the Second Eve – at the Crucifixion. Furthermore, it is said that when Mary’s tomb was opened, Thomas, one of the Twelve Disciples, saw that her body had been assumed into heaven, and the place was filled with fragrant lilies. However, a sacredness of lilies do not confine in Christianity in the history of civilization. A lily was first discovered in the garden of an ancient villa in Crete about 1500 BC; it was dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera. According to legend, Zeus intoxicated Hera to nurse his son Hercules whose mother was a beautiful mortal woman named Alceme. When Hera awoke, she chucked the baby out of her breasts in horrified surprise, during which some of her milk gushed through the skies, creating a cluster of stars – the Milky Way- and some of it fell to the Earth, from which grew the first lilies.

Further to the divine touch of this modest pure beauty, lilies are known to ward off evil power associated with curses, omens, and possessions. Planting lilies in a garden protected it from ghosts and evil spirits, and monks accordingly grew them for decorating altars like stairways to heaven. But the most interesting fact about lilies that piqued my special attention is that it has been used as a tonic for strengthening a weak memory by applying it on the forehead and on the back of the head. Besides, it is known to boost common sense and impediment of speech. So maybe it’s high time that the reader in search of a magic portion to improve academic performance or develop the faculty of the mind wanted to check local herbalists to procure a tonic made from lilies.

Reading this book is like walking through the author’s private garden full of enchanted flowers that are in full bloom lovingly cared for by the gardener who understands the language they speak in silence. At the heart of this book lies the author’s love of Nature and Humanity that is fancifully nuanced in her story-telling like narrative with a collection of her own paintings that I find soothing and loving. Each of the 50 flowers speaks to the heart of the reader in its own language that is magical and fascinating in this world of grand collapsed grand hokum, fake news, and many a competing vehement opinions out of unbridled angst and anxiousness in a paroxysm of existential vertigo. Both a painter and a writer, Gray draws the reader to the world of Nature where the earth laughs in flowers. Upon reading this book, the reader cannot help but agree with Hans Christian Anderson: “Just living is not enough… One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” This is a beautiful read that tallies with its beautiful subject.

Charles Dickens wanted to…

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Letters revealing Dickens’ attempt to accuse his wife of being mentally unstable (from Google)

All would have been well if the truth had remained buried under the dusty files of forgotten letters from the past in the bottom drawer of History.  Alas, it happened – a recent revelation of the letters delineating Charles Dickens, a literary great whom I admired, concocting a plot to send his sane wife to a mental institution in order that he and his 18-year old paramour could be forever together.   

How and why these forgotten letters have been brought into light out of the blue are clandestine from my reading of the article about such letters from the recent issue of a history magazine. Besides, the possession of the letters is curiously divided between the Atlantic Ocean because some of the letters are held by Harvard University in the U.S., while the others by the University of York in the U.K. The article does not provide the reader with more detailed information as to whys and wherefores of such divisional custodianship of the letters, not to mention the background of such uncovering of the provocative textual artifact that would certainly do no good on Dickens in any way. Methinks it would be a possibility that a descendant of the estranged wife Catherine Hogarth or even of their eldest child might have staged this rather dramatic publicity of the letters revealing the other side of the great writer out of indignation as comeuppance for his sins of adultery and perjury, which in a twist of whimsical irony befits the ethos of #MeToo Movement.

CatherineDickens200

Mrs. Catherine Dickens

The content of one such letter written by a neighbor of Catherine Hogarth details the following: (1) Dickens at the age of 45 fell madly in love with 18-year old actress named Ellen Ternan: (2) it was the death-knell of the marriage, pace Dickens’ complaints about his legal wife; (3) his wife confronted him when a bracelet meant for the young actress providentially was delivered to her, after which she separated from him by moving to a house in Kent with their eldest child. The rest of the children were in the care of their aunt, while Dickens continued his relationship with the actress until his death; and (4) after the separation, Dickens tried to seek for divorce from the court by trying to prove that his wife was mentally unstable and that she would be sent to an asylum. However, the attempt to seek such remedy was foiled by the absence of proof of her insanity.

The whole scandalous charade of this great literary figure reminds me of the axiom by Ralph Waldo Emerson that the admiration of great works of geniuses should not become the worship of idols. That is, one must disembarrass the idea of a story from the person of the author, who is only a fallible, whimsical, temperamental human. The works of writers, I believe, are a separate reality based upon their epistemological knowledge magically alloyed in imaginativeness, ideals, and dreams in the peculiar alchemy of literature that deserves of distinguished approbation and recognition. In this regard, my disappointment with Dickens as a person should be kept separate from my admiration of the humane characters he created and the benevolent stories he entertained. Sometimes, it’s better not to know much about whom you like lest his follies and faults should dishearten you against your wishes and imaginations. For these reasons, I am more in sorrow than in anger upon reading this troubling article about Dickens, one of my all-time favorite writers, which leads me to the lamentation of Et tu, Mr. Dickens?

‘Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa’ translated by John Bester – review

Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji MiyazawaOnce and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa by Kenji Miyazawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The worlds of fairy tales, folk tales, and fables spring from a poetic association between imagination and nature as inscribed on a mind tablet of the visionary, the dreamer, the innocent, and the humanitarian in the embodiment of the Writer who composes a continual fugue of dreamscapes, visions, imagery, and nature in a phantasmagorical display of such fancy worlds. In this peculiar context of regarding the fairy tales or folk legends anchored in everyday world, Kenji Miyazawa’s tales are full of imagery that bestows a touch of magic on every thing however trifle and insignificant it may seem to the eyes of the melee. The result is a riveting twilight world of legends and folk tales where nature becomes primary world, Reality on its own in a very mystifyingly pretty way.

Notwithstanding the subject of the book, it merits a classic literature aisle in nationwide booksellers because it contains all the characteristics of profound yet catholic themes of nature of humanity that are illustrated in the works of Hans Christian Anderson, The Grimm Brothers, and Aesop. In fact, this book is strikingly scarcely a false or childish note but strangely not depressing. If Miyazawa does not provide the reader with a sense of jostling braggadocio or a promise of ever optimistic view on reality of the world that are accustomed to and taken for granted as literary license in the Western minds, he presents a prospect of innocence, so ethereal and quaint that it almost feels physical when reading. This tangible feeling of the visions is delivered by Miyazawa’s wonderful storytelling skills enveloped in poetic expressions devoted to evoking the images of a rural Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration in the mid 19th century that no longer exists.

Kenji Miyazawa (1897-1933) was a Japanese writer who was first and foremost poet at heart concerned with particular beauties and universal truths transcending time and culture. This book, translated by the late renowned English professor John Bester, is a collection of short folk tales of the bygone eras that Miyazawa seems to fantastically incorporate with his contemporary world of reality in which whims, inconsistencies, and follies of humans are everyday occurrence. The tale of “The Earth God and the Fox” shows how love and friendship are destroyed by betrayal and misunderstanding in a blight of jealousy and fury, which then eventually leads to destruction. In the case of “Wildcat and the Acorns,” Miyazawa pokes fun at parvenus and upstarts who suddenly found themselves in the wealth of western-influenced cultural artifacts in denigration of the traditional Japanese customs and values regarded as outdated and culturally backward. However, even such acerbic, poignant criticism of the Nouveau Japan is enticingly swiveled in poetic prose with musicality and choice of the language – simple but visionary- he employs.

The tales seem to speak to our world of confused syllogism bloated with inordinate wantonness and inflated egotism, decorated with selfies in Facebook and Instagram, and vehement subjectivities, all fragmented and adrift, full of sound and fury. The tales bring the reader to another time out of this evolutionary scale and 24-hour clock, and they can take the reader to a different place of innocence that seems to be out of touch in this existential world of reality. In this regard, this book is a quaintly pretty – or twee even – marionette play, fusing Miyazawa’s poetic words with his cast of interesting characters ranging from a beautiful birch tree to wise foxes, to graceful fawns, to talking acorns, and to deities living in streams and mountains and everywhere, all in the beautiful rural landscapes as picturesque stage backgrounds. It is a fascinating read that matches its fanciful title.

‘The Butcher’s Daughter’, by Victoria Glendinning – review

The Butcher's DaughterThe Butcher’s Daughter by Victoria Glendinning

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In any period time, in any place of the world, there has always been a great human drama in three acts: Poverty, Struggle, and Reinvention. It has been a substratum of thespian play of human life in pursuit of will to meaning, freedom of will. It is a history of human society at the highest, it is a history of an individual at the best. It becomes history of the humankind woven into a great tapestry of time that transcends the subjectivity of time and discovery of universal truth – truth that is contemporaneous both with their times and with ours. Victoria Glendinning’s The Butcher’s Daughter speaks to the reader of our time this universality of human conditions through the narrative of eponymous Agnes Peppin in endless search of self-reliance, independence, and autonomy yo triumph over the vicissitudes of life with invincible resilience and unyielding quest for freedom of will.

Set in the mid 16th century Tudor England under the reign of Henry VIII, it is a historical fiction with a veneer of a contemporary fashionable memoir of Agnes Peppin of intellectual ambition and social aspiration in the face of her lowly social status as a daughter of a country butcher. In fact, this is a tale of a young woman’s incessant struggle to preserve a sense of purpose and a tenacious grasp on intellectual superiority, not of a manifesto pontificating about inequalities and injustice bestowed upon womanhood, which is elegantly conveyed in Agnes’s frequent reference to the story of Mary and Martha in the New Testament. Agnes thinks that Jesus was unjust and unkindly to Martha, her alter ego, who had to take up all domestic menial drudgery, letting her cook meals and wash dishes, while her sister Mary sit beside him and listen to him as long as she pleases. Agnes sees her pathetic self ignored despite her intelligence and intellectual ambition through the figure of Martha and berates Jesus for taking side with the noble, dainty Mary who – under the aegis of Jesus – gets away with menial labor often associated with women of lowly birth. Agnes then further identifies herself with venerable Zeta, a holy woman of the medieval Italy serving as the same family as a maidservant, calling her “good Martha.” Agnes’s defense of the domestic paragons belies her buried sense of bitterness expressed in a general resentment of aristocratic shirkers smothered under daily duties, the existential demands of life ascribed to the members of her social class.

As a matter of fact, Agnes evokes a proverbial image of 19th century American pioneer woman – a woman of coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness with that restless, nervous energy making her beautiful embodiment of resilience and self-reliance. Elsewhere in the book, Agnes unravels her woebegone wishes to chase her Pyrrhic dreams: “Silk and velvet are lovely. So are emeralds and pearls. A butcher’s daughter may aspire to those things even though it is unlikely, the way things are, that they will come her way. But too much dross comes with all that gold.” And yet, she still steadfastly holds onto her aspiration to achieve vertical social mobility to be a Mary, for she believes that it is her true vocation of life to become a self-reliant single woman with a room of her own and money, just as Virginia Wolfe asserts for a woman’s social as well as economic independence. After all, Agnes is not just another vain half-educated, semi-literate Martha trying to emulate privileged Mary but a strong-headed, courageous, and intelligent woman who finds a solace in learned solitude outside the social and religious confinements as her sense of true identity becomes conspicuous in search of her place in the world.

A richly illuminating read, it is also an informative historical account of the ways of life in Tudor England, such as customs, clothes, trades, and the general ethos of the time, without infelicity to provoke a sense of anachronism or incongruity. It is a surprisingly easy read in terms of the choice of everyday words and pellucid expressions without a display of pedantic knowledge on history and magisterial claim on academic superiority, given the author’s pedigree as Oxford-educated scholar and award-winning novelist. That is the gem of this highly fascinating read: Glendinning’s interpretations draw on her exceptional knowledge of these historical sources, but she wears her leaning lightly and writes with a general reader in mind, which is a true purpose of the Arts. Furthermore, Glendinning’s superb story-telling narrative skills makes her characters all the more realistic and alive, rendering the whole story contemporary with our time and relative to our concern. Glendinning takes the freedom of imagination in the context of regarding historical events and people to create her own fiction that reads like nonfiction. To encapsulate, this is an enjoyable and enlightening read that holds the reader’s attention without invasion of diversion or boredom.

‘The Signal-Man’, by Charles Dickens – review

The Signal-Man (Original 1866 Edition): AnnotatedThe Signal-Man (Original 1866 Edition): Annotated by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charles Dickens wrote this short story of a lonely signalman in 1866 based upon the Clayton tunnel crash in 1861. The setting of the story was a station by this tunnel with a dismal and eerie atmosphere around it, which dovetailed with the ambiance of the story itself. But while I was reading the story and thereupon, I was unsure of who’s the ghost here: the narrator or the signalman? First of all, the image of the narrator calling the signalman’s attention to him from above seems to me uncanny enough to conjure up the calling of a spectre wandering about the haunted tunnel. Or it might be that the signalman, the station, and the train per se were all in fact illusions, bewitched elements of the tunnel crash victims eternally haunting the place, not knowing their demise. Or in terms of modern psychoanalytical perspective, either the narrator or the signalman saw his own representations of the reality in his own mind, the hallucinations, which were different from and invisible to the others. And that is what I found this story at once hauntingly rueful and lingering with the images.