Luncheon of the Boating Party

by Susan Vreeland

I knew little about this Renoir painting. Well, to be honest, I knew little about Renoir or fine arts… I guess whatever I learned in school had been forgotten. However, the story is nicely written to draw me in, and I enjoyed feeling that I was there to witness the birth of a masterpiece, from its conception to difficult pregnancy to birth. This is a fictionalized account of August Pierre Renoir’s creation of one of his most famous works depicting a gathering of his friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine.

I don’t believe I have read a book where I flipped the book to see the cover as much as this one. In the beginning I kept wondering which character is who in the painting, and towards the end, they are seem so real to me I can imagine them move from their poses, stretch, and continue on with their lives. As I write this now, I am looking at the cover, and each character comes alive to me again.

The book also gives me a better understanding of impressionism. The challenges Renoir face while painting provides a suspense to the plot, almost like a mystery that makes me eager to see how it gets resolved in the end. The story also piques my interest in other works mentioned. Kind of wish it includes an appendix showing all the paintings referred.

I really enjoy the creativity of this type of historical fiction, spinning a story from a painting. Now Renoir’s painting is going to hold a special place in my heart!


Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood

by Taras Grescoe

This is the type of book that you will keep quoting from to share with your friends and families, as you discover one nugget of fascinating information after another. You are, however, most likely told to shut up as you would totally ruin their appetite, and most people prefer to enjoy life with a conveniently ignorant but easier conscious.

Wanting to enjoy seafood with a good conscious, Taras Grescoe set out on a nine-month, worldwide search for a delicious—and humane—plate of seafood. From North American Red Lobsters to fish farms and research centers in China, Bottomfeeder takes readers on an illuminating tour through the $55-billion-dollar-a-year seafood industry. Grescoe examines how out-of-control pollution, unregulated fishing practices, and climate change affect what ends up on our plate.

For those who are interested in the subject of how man’s action affect the ocean, and the world at large, this is a book not to miss. It makes me shameful how men treats the environment, the lives of other animals and even the lives of other human beings. Needless to say, it makes me view a plate of seafood with new eyes and understanding. This is an eye-opening look at aquaculture that does for seafood what Fast Food Nation did for beef.

If a restaurant puts out a menu with dishes prepared from the meat of panda, jaguar, chimpanzee and grey wolf, most of us will feel indignant and a picket line will form outside th establishment. However, hardly anybody protests when a restaurant offers the seafood equivalent of such menu. In fact, diners may be delighted and considered this an indicator that this is a high calibre restaurant capable of offering such rare delicacies.

Maybe it’s because everything is hidden under the ocean, and what’s out of sight is out of mind? Just as most people can comfortably push out of their mind the question of how their meat comes onto their plate? Or maybe fish doesn’t look as cute as pandas and seal pups so it’s harder to stir up our urge to save it from distinction? Maybe the ocean is so vast that we fail to contemplate it could have a limited supply?

With farmed salmons, we create a system where we input more protein than the output. We are taking food away from fishermen living along seacoasts worldwide. We weaken the wild salmon stock. With farmed shrimps, we create a toxic environment that poisons water supplies in villages, causes lesions and sicknesses in villagers, turns marsh and rice fields into wastelands. Does all that help with ending world hunger? No. It just allows the greedy consumers in developed countries cheap salmon sashimi and cocktail shrimps at buffets. Cheap and very unhealthy. For the farmed salmons, due to lack of exercise and a diet of vegetable oil and soy, their flesh is an unappertizing grey, which has to be colored up… with addictives offered in a convenient chart of colors ranging from salmon pink to neon orange. And farmed shrimps are likely the most chemical laden seafood you can find.

I consider this book excellent, as it does not just scare the reader, but rather offer something practical. The author shows what we could do: from being a more conscience consumer and pay attention to what we eat, to fishermen adopting a more conversing approach to fishing.

If you can’t go vegetarian, if you want to continue eating seafood, at least do yourself a favor: read this book and know better what to avoid.

ETA April 11, 2010: I came across an article about Shark Fin Soup, and here’s my blog post about it:
You can also sign the petition at

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bound Feet and Western Dress

by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

When this book first came out, I became interested mostly because of Hsu Chi-mo, considered one of the most famous poets in recent Chinese history. As dreamy high school girls my friends and I were in love with his romantic poems, such as Farewell to Cambridge Again:

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky;
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream.

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here;
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

While the name Chang Yu-i was mentioned in the poet’s biography, it was simply a oneliner as an old fashioned arranged marriage forced on by his parents, a far more mundane character than the racy Xiaoman who bewitched the poet.

In other words, my interest in this book is not the life of Yu-i but rather what it says about Chih-mo.

However, I was glad that the author managed to get this story out of Yu-i before she passed away. This biography is valuable, for giving us the other side of the story, and for so vividly depicting China in the early 20th century. A turbalent time when old China collided with the West.

Born in 1900, Chang Yu-i was a victim of the tension between Western ideas and Chinese tradition. Her parents were progressive enough that she was the first daughter not to have her feet bound; nonetheless, while her brothers studied in Europe, their parents considered a girl’s schooling of no significance and a girl’s purpose in life is to marry. A fact that kept Yu-i wondering in her old age: if she were more educated, maybe her husband would have liked her better? While she eventually became the president of a bank, her action and her speech revealed her deeply ingrained traditional breeding: her duty to her parent-in-laws and her family, and her reluctance to badmouth her husband and other people.

As a dutiful daughter, Yu-i accepted the arranged marriage to Hsu Chi-mo (Xu Zhimo), one of the most famous Chinese poets in the 20th century. Chi-mo hated Yu-i with a vengance, and declared his intention to have the first Western-style divorce in China. It’s likely more for the old traditions she represented than for her personally. I really felt sorry for the abuse she had to go through. While I have grown less naive with age, it still disturbs me to know of people who act amicably and charmingly among others but treat their spouses despicably. It’s very hard for me to see Chih-mo’s handsome face and read his beautiful, romantic poems and imagine the hurt he heartlessly caused. Shouldn’t a poet be more sensitive to feelings and emotions? While one can argue that he had freed Yu-i to be herself, and in some way she had been better off for it, surely he can do it in a nicer way?

But then I remember they were both really teenagers then, living in a difficult time in history. Maybe Chih-mo was afterall just a rebellious teen, hating anything forced onto him by his parents, and being selfish and inconsiderate just as many teenagers could be. A rebel, a genius, a dreamer… one who can produce great works of art but woe to those who love him?

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment