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Spiritual Growths by Lori Ann White

June 8, 2014 3 comments

Spiritual Growths

Spiritual Growths by Lori Ann White (Eggplant, 2013) is one a series of novellas published as e-books by Eggplant Literary Productions. As publishing ventures go, this is quite brave because, if you were to ask market professionals, they would tell you short or shorter fiction doesn’t sell. That this operation has a growing list of stories at novella length should tell you something about expertise. It’s only good for what you know. People who work off the beaten track can often find enough buyers to sustain their operation. Anyway, Eggplant specialises in fantasy, horror and science fiction both as standalone stories, in Spellbound, a fantasy magazine aimed at children, and Mescellanea: the Transdimensional Library which collects and provides access to books, periodicals and other media materials from all “known” sources.

In this story, Robbie Holman finds comfort and consolation in a regular hour-long bubble bath to soak away her stress and find new joy in wrinkled skin. On this auspicious evening, she selects a lavender-scented solution and is preparing to enter the nirvana of bubbles when she catches her arm on the faucet and twangs the elastic of her new bead bracelet — a gift from a co-worker, Cousette McCandless. This forces her to consider whether to wear it in the bath. Will it be spoiled or damaged if it gets wet? Ah, such decisions slow down the ritual of entering into the water. So remembering Cousette telling her to wear it all the time, she leaves it on. Sadly, when she looks at her wrist at the end of the soaking session, it’s empty. The bracelet has disappeared. When the loss is reported to Cousette, she’s not entirely calm. The bracelet was made from the seeds of the Bodhi tree. As a purely theoretical problem, Ms Holman dismisses it until it’s time for her next bath. She then discovers there may be a tree growing out of the drain. When she asks the new guy at work for advice, he’s all-fired-up to come to her home to inspect this phenomenon. The question, of course, is not so much how the tree comes to be in her bath — obviously, she dropped the seeds — but why it should have taken root where there should be no soil and why it’s growing so fast — she does take a bath at fairly regular intervals. The situation gets interesting when one or two more trees appear in different locations. Cousette is excited because there were twenty-seven seeds on the bracelet. San Francisco could soon be a forest.

If backed against the wall by some demanding person holding a gun, I might offer the opinion this is a science fiction story that just happens to walk into religious territory when the “what if” takes root. It doesn’t matter this appearance of the trees is scientifically implausible. The story is perfectly credible as a study of human nature and the need for some people to believe in something supernatural. Let’s, for a moment, take at face value the idea this random appearance of the trees is a miracle. There would be a certain weight of expectation about how the trees might manifest, “behave” and, if necessary, defend themselves. If the Dalai Lama came in all seriousness to consider the implications of this event and to say “Hi” to the trees, the world would look on, impressed by the mystery, and enthralled by the magic of the occasion. Put the individual drama of Ms Holman against the world’s fixation with the trees as potential symbols of a faith reborn, and you have a completely entrancing story which is nicely logical and, at times, mildly humorous. I’m definitely converted to Spiritual Growths if not to Buddhism. More power to Eggplant if the other stories are this good!

A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments

A_World_Without_Thieves

A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

 

As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

 

All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.

 

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