Tag Archives: English writing

‘A Summer of Hummingbirds’, by Christopher Benfey – review

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson HeadeA Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher E.G. Benfey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Greeks called it Ethos, and the Germans named it Zeitgeist. The world has always seen and experienced epoch-making changes of guiding ideals or beliefs that particularize ideology of an era under the cataclysmic reconstructions of social modus operendi, cultural trends, and memes. Something like that happened in the mid-late 19 century post-Civll War America, and it was something of American Renaissance. Emily Dickinson saw it as a flash of a hummingbird’s flight into a route of evanescence – of the antebellum social arrangements, hierarchies, puritanical morality, and intellectual formations, all of which seemed unseemly and even contumacious in a dawn of new era. So Christopher Benfey presents in this beautifully ethereal book his sensitive and illustrative script of Post-Civil War American literary scenes in which the likes of Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain are played on the same epochal screen, using the image of a hummingbird as a cross-cutting medium to interweave the lives of the American intelligentsia.

Benfey draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the American literary intelligentsia with a tender and intelligent contemplation on action and thought in the culturally sophisticated realms of East Coast America in the aftermath of the Civil War. For instance, he introduces the reader Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a passionate collector of expensive paraphernalia, whose Byronic-like charm and charisma led him to a famous scandal involving a love affair with the wife of his friend and parishioner. But Benfey sees the reverend as breath of a fresh air in the stuffy Protestant tenets of mortification of sensualism, which is only a friori natural to God-given human nature. In fact, Beecher substituted the drab and dreary Calvinist doctrines of predestination and infant damnation with the love of nature, the tender love, and mercy of God who created Beauty to be realized and appreciated, not to be despised and avoided. Besides, Charles Darwin’s Evolutionism manifested a perfection consistent with the Christian views: that all living things evolved into their most advanced forms meant the perfect beauty made in the Image of God. Indeed, such perceptions of God and his creations bespoke liberalization of Protestant moral codes that often yielded to perverted acts of unnaturally repressed desires. It was a leap into a new world of “fluidity and flux”.

All this seemed to conspire to reckon the moment of new arrival of intellectual zeitgeist with a divine revelation or a sibylline prophecy in this book, which is why it is deemed a contemporary nonfiction that reads like a classic fiction. Rich in detail and vivid in description that successfully resurrect the period, it is a riveting tale of the American literary legacy to be told with Benfey’s poetic use of simple language with a fascinating take on the felicitous subject worth the reading. The book embroiders on the lives of the American literary celebrities of the time by interconnecting their lives with the gossamer threads of contemporary providence or fortuity in one way or another, willed or unwilled, when a pre-Civil War mindset and post Civil War necessities still clashed. Nevertheless, Americans after the war came to see a new substratum of social order and diverse directions in all aspects of life, fittingly found in the figure of a hummingbird, an indigenous bird of the American continent, that is uniquely American. IT was also a time of Transit of Venus, as the new tone and sensibility for new era became dawned on the American social and cultural horizon. This book is a tessera elegantly and delicately put together by Benfey’s appealing narrative and approachable scholarship in a mosaic of American Art.

Jay’s Angels – fiction

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Move over Charlies Angeles. Here come Jay’s Angeles. (from l to r: Stephanie, Gwen and Monica): Illustration by Gwen B.

Director/Writer/Producer: Stephanie S.

Illustrator: Gwen B.

Ambiance Coordinator : Monica K.

Stars: Stephanie S. (Legal Assistant), Gwen B. (Accountant), and Monica K. (Legal Assistant)

Synopsis: Three ladies who are recently hired at a downtown LA law firm by a top notch  lawyer Jay C. sometimes get together during lunch hour to share their flattering hopes for their futures, remote but not that far-fetched anticipations of meeting white knights on steads, picky valuations of Mr. Rights, and other simple vignettes of their romantic adventures in Love El Dorado, all under the pretext of helping Stephanie to morph into a seductive la femme fatale, so to speak, to elevate her status to that of Irresistible Aphrodite in Pantheon of Love.

The Ladies get kick out of their funny raillery about all and sundry, ranging from a best face washer to their erstwhile significant others or would-have-been, from the pros and cons of their de facto bosses to their next best wishes and wishful thoughts about their better tomorrows. But who can deride their maiden dreams as pettifogging idleness indigenous to womanhood when they are hard-working women fulfilling everyday demands placed upon their daily tasks from within and without?

Mind you that due to their innately highly whimsical and capricious nature laced with covert extraordinary spiritual prowess, they sometimes change themselves into the Witches of the Biltmore. So it’s a league of their own, and it’s members exclusive, and it’s highly selective. But don’t you let them scare you away, my dear reader, for they are also mortals whose blood is red and hot and heart is warm and pumping. They are Jay’s Angels.

 

Author’s Note: Working in office requires lots of social skills: diplomacy, adaptability, modus vivendi, persona, euphemism… It requires a sense of humor, a handmaid to productivity imbued with can-do attitudes and stoicism to accept misfortunes and fortunes as they are – but with lovely smile all for the love of yourself – . Be it ever so naive or gullible, but one thing is certain that although my life at present is attuned for the office life as my primary reality for livelihood, which is why I lag behind my list of to-read books, this new kind of reality has called my attention to its adventurous digression from my textual existence rooted in reading the worlds of others. No, that does not mean that I trade myself for recklessly rash frolics, but it might help me to widen a social horizon to encounter a panoply of unknown characters, as piped up by  Shakespeare thus: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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How they stole Christmas spirit

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They dispirited Joy to the World; no more Christmas carols, no more resplendently colorful lights of Christmas trees, let alone no more exchanges of Christmas gifts. Instead, they brandish a Five-starred Red Flag, chanting party doctrines and Chinese cultural manifesto amid a flow of flashy foreign imports and an ostentatious charade of manufactured exports produced in high volume sales at a low unit margin of profit in world market. To paraphrase the universal Shakespeare, I must be cruel, only to be kind: Thus truth begins and reality remains behind. It is indelible truth that in this time of global community, indispensably interconnected by mutual needs and benefits, what is reckoned an Orwellian idea of totalitarianism as fabulously satirized in Animal Farms and 1984 is really happening in our time.

110179To come upon an article from the Internet issue of The Guardian on Chinese government’s banning on Christmas celebrations spurred me on to write this piece of short essay. The journalist objectively reports that the Communist government crack downed on Christmas celebrations, dismissing as “western festivals” that have no cultural values on their Chinese cultural heritage, which should be in turn actively promoted among the comrades. The governmental institutions, schools, and bureaus relayed a directive at the behest of Xi Jinping, disapproving of observation of Christmas as well as practice of Christian religions, under the pretext of “maintaining stability” and cohesiveness of Chinese cultural legacies. Moreover, the myrmidons of Xi, the cult of Communism, ingratiate themselves with old-fashioned propaganda that urges Chinese people to refuse all other foreign (especially, western) festivals because they will corrupt the purity of their culture and weaken their party ideals.

However, such is not a sudden raid on non-Chinese customs or anything that might look threatening to the despotic hegemony of the Communist Chinese Party. It has always been there, but now the tip of the iceberg is beginning to show by Xi’s political ambition conflated with his proud Chinese ethnocentrism. With respect to religious freedom in China, it has not been changed since the Cultural Revolution. For instance, China does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and it has its own version of schismatic Chinese Patriotic Church of China, which the Vatican does not recognize. Not only the Catholics but also other Christian denominators are persecuted. The article informs the reader that the police raided a children’s Bible class, shut churches, and arrested the members because they practiced the religions outside of officially sanctioned institutions, which are in fact none other than governmental institutions vested with the ostensible canopy of a few de rigeur religious objects.

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Woe betides Xi, his myrmidons, the extreme Chinese jingoists, and their sympathizers who blindly declaim about their cultural superiority and proud ethnocentrism lasting for centuries despite their historical losses against the British, the Japanese, the Americans, and the Koreans. According to Ma Jian, a Chinese-British writer whose wife Flora Drew is his English translator, in China Dream, a satire about the Chinese communist totalitarianism, the Party developed a neural implant called the China Dream Device that is inserted to a person’s brain to wipe out his entire memories and dreams and to enter the Party ideals for the glory of New China built upon a gauche mixture of blatant consumerism and blind nationalism. The result is a Big Overfed Child who only thinks for himself and behaves without a decorum of civility common to Civilized Man.

Xi and the Party should first learn by heart that Christmas is not a byproduct of western materialism – which ironically has become their chief god – or an epiphenomenon of western imperialism under the aegis of European Christendom. Christian or non-Christian, Western or Eastern, Christmas is a joyful, a feel-good day that has been celebrated for centuries. It’s a most celebrated holiday season around the world that imparts a sense of warmth, togetherness, love, and hope. It does not require of anyone a special membership to enjoy the spirit. Besides, Jesus of Nazareth was not western but eastern because Israel was and still is geographically located in Asia. In light of the aforesaid, what the leaders and its Leader of the Party should understand is the cultural, religious foundations of not only Christmas Day but also all other legacies of humanity that transcend the subjectivity of time, territory, and tribe because as Edmund Burke also attested: “The standard of reason and taste is universal in all human creatures as regards principles of judgment and of sentiment common to all mankind.” Without the knowledge, China will still be clothed in the Old Mao Suit that does not fit.

 

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The perfect Victorian wedding

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Marriage is an official commitment of love. A man and a woman tie the knot of conjugal relationship in which both of them promise to remain true blue till death do them apart. Call it anachronistic or incongruent or even antediluvian, but even in this era of the social media and reality entertainment, this traditional sense of marriage is still valid, complacently being moored to societal conventions and traditions. Well, anyway, it really doesn’t matter to Lady Seraphina, who remained maiden, still remains maiden, and will remain maiden, unless Aphrodite concocts the same kind of love-play on her as the one she did on Dido thousands years ago. But readers can rest assured because it is hardly ever so that Lady Seraphina will likely relinquish her maiden license which permits her to regale herself with romantic solitude as her sanctuary. She is above her class, she is above her sex, she is above her race. Seraphina belongs to her own class that resembles none other than itself. That’s probably why she stays unsullied by leering eyes of the undesirable.

Notwithstanding the aforesaid account of Seraphina’s maiden ladyship, she does not eschew the subject of wedding if it involves historical anecdotes and interesting vignettes, such as the following facts about the Victorian wedding she came upon from her reading. Always a student of history, especially about everyday life of ordinary folks and eccentricities of aristocrats (the persons of Sandwich and Portland conjured up suddenly), Seraphina read about it with a kind of cheeky relish conflated with a social superiority that reminded her of her uniqueness on par with Pythia, Artemis, and Vestal Virgins. Anyway, the facts about the Victorian wedding were quite interesting to compare the bygone customs and norms with those of modern day (come to think of it, the “modern day” will be a bygone day in any time soon.) The following were what Seraphina learned from the read:

  • Selection of the perfect partner (so to speak): The right status and temperament were the elemental basis of a desirable husband. Love? Enough of it was believed to follow upon marriage, as St. John Rivers proposed to Jane Eyre whom he regarded as a suitable wife of a missionary in India, a female apostle. In fact, the creator of Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte urged a friend to consider a proposal of marriage even if she felt disgusted for the man, so long as he had common sense, a good disposition, and a manageable temperament. However, crossing over the boundaries of classes was a rarity. It’s probably why a romance between Mr. Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre, a governess under his employment, was quite sensational to readers of the time. The average ages for marriage were 26 for men and 24 for women. However, girls at 12 and boys at 14 could also marry under the consents of their parents.
  • Where to tie the knot: All marriages were to be performed according to the rites of the Church of England with the exception of Jews and Quakers (Note that Catholics were still disfranchised in the realm of societal privileges due to England’s being staunchly anti-papist.) However, thanks to the Marriage Act 1836, couples were able to marry in a register office and according to their own religious rites, as long as they did so in a registered place of worship with a civil register in attendance. In fact, many an eloped couple and bigamist preferred a civil ceremony that gave them more privacy than a religious ceremony. Think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester who married in front of a magistrate as the narrative hinted at the end of the story.
  • Selection of wedding dates: Spring and summer wedding days were in-vogue among the city bourgeoisie and country aristocrats, whereas among farmers October was the most popular following the harvest season. In the wake of Industrial Revolution, Sunday became the most favorable wedding day for city workers in urban areas. Until 1886, weddings had to take place between 8:00 AM and noon with an extra half-day off given to urban laborers. Thereafter, the hours were changed to 3:00 PM to reflect both the working hours of the lower classes and change of social habits of the upper class.
  • Post-Wedding activities: The bigger and more extravagant wedding banquet was, the wealthier the host thereof – usually at the home of the bride – was regarded as. It was usually breakfast served at the banquet. After the procession of the guests and ceremonial functions, the newly-married were hurriedly off to a love nest where they could be left alone to get to know each other in the most intimate and loving way. Which attests to what George Elliot, who was in fact never officially married, said of the nature of honeymoon as aiming “to isolate two people on the ground that they are all the world to each other.” This honeymoon ritual became an important part of the process of getting married and was called “a wedding holiday,” so to speak. But alas, for some couples it was a time when the flaws and faults of a partner were laid bare, revealing cardinal irreconcilability in naked truth.

IMG_3985So the Victorian wedding was more of a social function that displayed one’s status and wealth. And with respect to the honeymoon occasion, it was something to be reckoned with in this modern time when the idea of marriage has become nothing more than official proclamation of legal co-habitation that is subject to be a void under the convenient pretext of irreconcilable differences between the partners. Besides, marriage now is more of a serial monogamy due to a fashionable trend of divorce. Seraphina thinks that although time changes and people change, marriage should be a sacred rite of starting a new family, the basic unit of society, a cradle of civilization that should not be dealt with a whimsical or capricious spark of passion soon to be extinguished time after time. Hasty marriage seldom proves well. Seraphina may be an old-fashioned lady with traditional values and pristine ideas about love and romance, but she believes that marriage as a time-honored institution throughout our civilization that has been preserved for thousands of years should be respected and kept alive as William Shakespeare concurred: “Marriage is a matter of more worth than to be dealt in by attorneyship.” And mind you that the real act of marriage takes place in the heart, not in a grand hotel or church. It’s a capital choice you make that is reflected in the way you treat your partner. Which also links to what Oscar Wilde advised to would-be lovers: “Never fall in love with one who treats you like you are ordinary.” How rightly so!

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‘Essays of E.B. White,’ by E.B. White – review

Essays of E. B. WhiteEssays of E. B. White by E B White

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The essay as a respectful literary genre has not yet established its firm meritorious footing in American intellectual society where the novel, poetry, and journals featuring de rigueur social/political issues with gravitas, surrealistic individualism, or puritanical heroism that has recently morphed into a rags-to-riches memoir are the only select legitimate royalties worth being decorated with a laurel. Perhaps it has something to do with the level of American intellectualism being at its still developing stage in consideration of its relatively “youthful” history. For what is worth, despite its general cold reception from the literary hierarchy, E.B. White is nonetheless a quintessential American English writer and a very fine essayist of the twentieth century in the English language into the bargain. In this collection of his essays published in various magazines over the years (from 1920s to 1970s), Whites recorded the overtones of humanity, democracy, and social concerns in ordinary things and experiences described in elegant and crisp prose style that resembles none other than his, thus making him one of the central figures in the canon of American literature without dispute.

Being an essayist means something of a modern day literary troubadour, an independently-minded man with childlike streaks of artless interest in all things worldly and unworldly and innocent belief that everything he thinks about and everything that befalls him is of general interest. In a way, he’s a likable egoist with venturesome effrontery and verve to write a very egoistic essay on his whims and caprice. However, Whites gently rebukes us for our general perception of the essay as an expression of exalted rootlessness without self-discipline and an intellectual basis; rather, it is a panoply of sensibilities, senses, and intelligence, all broken loose from the hidden private closet of the essayist. For this reason of being egoistically concerned in a panorama of contemporary daily that many serious writers of the other literary genres tend to downplay, an essayist should accept his self-imposed role of small-fry writing gentry in the class of scribe, advised White with a kind of avuncular manner. However, it is this estate of an essayist Whites feels exhilarated about; it provides him with a valve of the emotional influx and outflow, so that he can wield his pen across a page in an expense of his curiosity, conviction, observation, and self-discipline, producing a dazzling delight of literary pleasure in its simplicity of language and subject.

To illustrate, White’s subjects of his essays vary from his experience of moving from New York City to Maine as in “Goodbye to forty-eighth street,” to the humorous political essay of “Bedfellow,” featuring his canine family member Fred, and from his keen and humane observation of a circus girl rehearsing her show in “The Ring of Time” to his youthful poetic experience of working as a waiter on a ship to Alaska in “The Years of Wonder.”All of the aforesaid deal with a cast of everyday character and contemporary daily life written in simple but perspicacious words to contextualize the inner realm of White. There’s no priggishness or pomposity in his prose style, which I find very appealing and endearing. For someone who’s as erudite and intelligent as White, such simplicity of writing betokens that he wears his knowledge lightly with a general reader in mind. In fact, White thinks it his duty as a writing man to record all items as though he would be held personally responsible if it were to be omitted. This idea of a writer as general secretary of humanity parallels the reasons of writing as posited by George Orwell: It serves as a platform of expressing our sheer egotism, aesthetic pleasure, political evidence, or historical record. A priori, both of the great essayist of the English languages strike the mutual writing chords in their hearts.

At the heart of the essays lies White’s love of the world where he collected the flotsams and jetsam of what our contemporary human life could bring to us, which were washed up by the waves of time and memories. This collection of essay by White, I think, bestows in spades its sovereign royal heritage of its own on the American essay that merits its own section in nonfiction aisles across the country. That is, in a wide stretch of literary imaginations imbued with historical evidence, the book has made itself the founder of new royal blood in a way that reminds me of William the Conqueror’s  becoming the first Norman king of England by establishing a new royal bloodline in 1066. With a variety of topics, and the practicality of language, this book is a gem that holds the reader’s attention throughout the pages including the unforgettable cover featuring Fred and the author himself, which so fittingly and wittingly demonstrates the Element and Style of Essays of E.B. White. It’s a lovely read that warms your heart and piques your curiosity of the inner world of the writer whose thoughts and feelings chime the bells of ours own in one way or another because White is ageless in his writing and his writing timeless in his essays.