Annie Bananie en Europe

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Reading “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami

SPOILER ALERT!!! 1Q84 had me going “huh?” half the time and “HUH???” the other half. In the end, I failed to understand the implications behind the story and realized that perhaps it wasn’t meant to be “understood” in the conventional sense. I haven’t read enough Murakami to comment objectively, but I do applaud the remarkable character development in the few books of his that I’ve read, something I also noted in Norwegian Wood. I read a review of 1Q84 comparing the book itself to a dream – while you’re in it, even the most bizarre happenings seem completely normal but when you pause and reflect, it defies every law of physics and logic. And that’s exactly it – you jump into a world that at the same time makes perfect and zero sense. The setting and progression of 1Q84 captivated my mind with an irresistible grasp, and I found myself looking forward to my 30+30-minute subway commute every morning and evening, just so that I could immerse in 1Q84 – like falling back into lucid dreaming. I was triggered by so many questions and eager to continue so that the answers would be revealed (none were revealed, by the way). Air Chrysalis? Little People? Tsubasa? Tamaru? The married mistress? With more and more questions building up in each chapter, it gradually became less important to find the answers (though it’d be nice to have some…) and I instead anticipated the final convergence of 1Q84 and Cat Town. Even with their “reunion”, I think neither Aomame nor Tengo fully understood what happened to themselves, just as the reader can never fully understand the world of 1Q84. And like XXJ hinted, that is the point – not to “understand” but to “experience” 1Q84, as if you are Aomame or Tengo yourself. With that said, 1Q84 was a thoroughly enjoyable read, though not without frustrations and an inevitable sense of helplessness in not finding the answers. After all, “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” (Side note: To say that 1Q84 is related to 1984 is like declaring that there are 60 minutes in an hour, so I gotta re-visit Orwell’s 1984, which I read I think 17 or 18 years ago. I don’t recollect many details of 1984, and re-reading it might help me dive further into the mysterious 1Q84, which I intend to re-read…eventually 😉 )

The three volumes of “1Q84” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Chinese translation.

Regaining my love of reading

COVID-19 has allowed me to pick up the habit of reading again and I’m loving it. It’s strange, sometimes I would wonder how I spent my time after work pre-COVID. I then realized how much time I wasted doing…nothing? Or perhaps nothing meaningful, shall I say. I would maybe scroll mindlessly through my phone or watch short videos that don’t require much thought, and before you knew it, it would be time to sleep. The cycle repeats day after day till I’m numb toward my perception of time, and then there’d be the perfect excuse of “I don’t have enough time”.

Then COVID hit and all of a sudden I found myself in quarantine/lockdown with all the time in the world. There’s only so much on my phone that I could mindlessly scroll through before I’d go crazy, especially during COVID when the news is either about conspiracy theories or overly sentimental positivity that does nothing but exploit emotional vulnerability. So then I turned to books – physical, paper novels. I had made the resolution to read more since the end of 2019, and COVID just seemed to make that resolution easier to achieve. For a long time, I had forgotten what it felt like to be immersed in adventure through flipped pages, to be gripped by the rich emotions of imaginary figures, to be able to experience worlds I would never have otherwise even known of. I had forgotten what it was like to have to force myself to NOT start a new chapter in order to not sleep too late (last time was Count of Monte Cristo) or to anticipate the gleaming introduction of a new book. I loved reading – and I wanted to regain that love.

Books on the small shelf of my rented home – can’t wait to move into our own home soon and get a nice big bookcase!

I started buying books, most of them classics that have stood the test of time. Some I have been meaning to read for a while (like the Japanese work “Norwegian Wood”) but many were titles that I was discovering for the first time (like those from Honoré de Balzac). Of course, these were Chinese translations of the original works. I deliberately avoided English works for the moment because I prefer to read their original versions, which are rather hard to come by in Wuhan. That’s why most of the novels I’ve read so far were either Chinese originals or Japanese/French, translated into Chinese. (My French reading skills are only at the “Le Petit Prince” level so I won’t embarrass myself by attempting Balzac or Hugo in French…)

Regardless of depth or reading difficulty, there is something to be learned from each piece of literary work, whether superficial or profound. For example, “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami, while ruthlessly exposing the gravity of depression, made known to me two classic pieces of music, both named “Norwegian Wood” (English by The Beatles, Chinese by WuBai, and they have nothing to do with each other). “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera introduced me to the Prague Spring and Czech history. “The Sound of the Mountain” by Yasunari Kawabata (Nobel laureate) and “Paradise Lost” by Junichi Watanabe sparked my curiosity in the city of Kamakura in Japan, as it was the primary setting of the former and an important location in the plot of the latter. I’m currently reading “Notre-Dame de Paris” by Victor Hugo (a difficult read) and though I’ve never lived in Paris, my connection with France made me ponder about and want to explore the themes and motifs mentioned in the book (architecture vs. literature, piety vs. compassion, virtue vs. vice). (On a side note, I wonder how Hugo would have reacted if he found out about the fire at Notre-Dame last year.) As for “Dream of the Red Chamber” by Xueqin Cao…that’ll warrant its own essay, when I finish reading it in mid-June.

Reading “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

I finished “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera on the bus this morning (could have finished it last night if I realized that the last 25 pages were an incomprehensible epilogue). Yeah, I skipped the epilogue after about two pages because it made no sense to me (it consisted of a lot of references to other works that I haven’t read). But about the book itself, I probably only understood 30% of it. And what I did understand, I understood it superficially. The book had a lot to do with philosophy, religion, and mostly politics of Eastern Europe in the last century. Not having any prior knowledge of events such as the Prague Spring severely hindered my full appreciation of the book, but I finished it anyway as I couldn’t bear leaving it half (un)read. I think another reason that this book was difficult for me to read was that I read it in Chinese. Frankly, it was one of those books that caught my attention at the book store and I bought it without having done any research on its cultural background or author or even considered whether I would have liked to read it. But yes, reading it in Chinese was a little awkward, mainly because a lot of the translated expressions were awkward themselves. The essence of the original text must have been lost in translation, even more so in Chinese. There was one part that I read over and over again and still could not understand, so I found an English translation online and, immediately after reading it, understood what it was all about. This made me realize several things: (1) I need to read more literary works in Chinese because there is a lot of room for improvement; (2) English works need to be read in the original version (except for maybe CS Lewis’ “The Four Loves” – his writing style was so profound that I gave up 1/3 of the way in and in this case, it may be better to try the Chinese version); and (3) thank goodness I was not arrogant/stupid enough to try to French version of Kundera’s work, as I would not have gotten past the second page. I should probably re-read the book in English, but not before I finally tackle “The Great Gatsby” and let Kundera sink into the back of my mind for a bit. The “read more” resolution for 2020 (and for many years prior to this…) is off to a good start – let’s continue to rediscover the joy of reading!

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by French-Czech writer Milan Kundera, Chinese translation.

The art and science of cooking, part 5

I haven’t had time to organize my photos from my trip to Italy with my dad, so here’s something while that’s on hold – the 5th part of the “The art and science of cooking” series. After all, everyone likes some good food during the holiday season, no? 😉

As usual, if you want to check out the previous editions, go ahead and read PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, and PART 4.

Ever since I saw my friend Stephane’s post about the most perfect rack of lamb he made, I’d been itching to try it on my own. Then Florence showed me a mouthwatering photo of a rack of lamb that she made. That was it. I was going to make it. With a huge kitchen and a lovely oven at my disposal in Louvain-la-Neuve in October, there was almost no reason NOT to give it a try. And it worked magically. Stephane’s suggestion was so simple yet so perfect – 40 minutes at 400 degrees F, no prior marinating required. I had doubts when I was cooking but when I bit into the juicy, tender meat, I felt like my life has been completed. Thanks Stephane and Florence for the inspiration!

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The art and science of cooking, part 4

Within the past few months, I’ve realized that I like to cook more than usual. As the thesis-writing and defense season draws near, I find that I generally prefer to cook at home rather than eat out. True, I get lazy sometimes and I don’t want to cook EVERY day, but I am cooking a lot more than I had anticipated before I entered the “thesis dash”. Even if I get home late, I’d prepare some home-made goodies and enjoy it with a bowl of rice. After all, what’s better than a freshly made Chinese meal served hot on a plate? Sometimes when I’m very tired, I just make something very simple that would be ready within half an hour. No complicated procedures or recipes, simple is the best!

Of course, I am living alone and almost always cooking only for myself, unless I invite friends over. The advantage is that my experiments are allowed to NOT work, and I’ll figure out what’s wrong and make it right when I DO invite my friends over! And I do love doing that. Watching friends enjoy eating food that I’ve prepared is one of the most satisfying feelings ever. Actually, two of my bucket list items involve cooking, one of them being “Cook a full dinner for my family at home” and the other “Invite my university friends to my house and cook a meal for them”. Europe, then, has certainly been my chance to hone my skills and prepare for the big days when I complete these challenges!

Well, without further ado, let’s get onto part 4 of this series. Interested in the previous posts in “The art and science of cooking” series? Check out PART 1, PART 2, and PART 3. And now, à table!

Spicy chicken is one of the typical dishes in Sichuanese cuisine. When they say spicy, they’re not kidding – the chicken should literally be buried in the chili peppers so that you’d have to dig out the meat. One day I spontaneously decided to try making this chicken dish as part of a dinner invitation. I knew my Hunanese friend would appreciate it and might even challenge the spicy tolerance of the Sichuanese, so I decided to give it a try 😉 My recipe involved marinating, deep frying, re-frying, and a final stir frying. Seems complicated, but much less work than I had anticipated. Though I didn’t bury the chicken in chili peppers (although I already put as many chili peppers as I thought I could tolerate without burning my stomach), I gotta say my recipe worked out quite well!

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