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The International Writers Magazine: Review- From Our Archives

LESSONS IN ESSENCE by Dana Standbridge
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006, 237 pp.
ISBN (10): 1-59376-109-0,
ISBN (13):978-1-59376-109-7
Charlie Dickinson

novel of modern Taiwan, LESSONS IN ESSENCE draws on American ex-pat Dana Standbridge's more than two decades living on the island nation. But this is not the usual ex-pat novel about a foreigner's attempts to fold him/herself into a foreign culture. No, Ms. Standbridge, in this first novel, ambitiously creates an aged Taiwanese protagonist, Teacher Li, a retired instructor of traditional Chinese arts, whose soul is the battleground where timeless Asian verities clash with the chaos of the present.

When we first meet Teacher Li ("Teacher" is an honorific), we recognize a person of considerable aesthetic sensitivity, surveying his apartment-bound surroundings in the hodgepodge of a university neighborhood in Taipei. His compelling yearning, it would appear, is to leave the urban canyons and see more sky, more clouds.
Teacher's angst, however, goes far beyond visual oppression.
He's tormented by the likelihood of a takeover of Taiwan by Mainland China.
He suffers physical complaints and goes to a clinic that practices Traditional Chinese Medicine and dutifully takes his prescribed herbs.
When his favorite doctor moves to the Mainland, his despair deepens.
He's estranged from his wife Xue Mie, who flies back and forth between Taipei and New York City, where their children, working to become U.S.citizens, live. Xue Mie apparently also wants U.S. citizenship and Teacher wants none of that, a Taiwanese patriot to the bone. Moreover, on the domestic front, Xue Mie runs the show, controlling finances.

His marriage in shambles, Teacher seduces or is seduced by one of his students, in a scene where mastery of the qin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument akin to the Western lute, reputedly with similar powers of seduction, plays a key role.

Then one day, with some understanding from a third party that Xue Mie might sell their Taipei apartment out from under him, he impulsively decides he has license to leave the city and live the life of a reclusive contemplative on Grass Mountain, above the city. He will finish his life work by writing a book about aesthetics. His decision is made all the easier because they already own a derelict house on Grass Mountain.

But such a monk-like retreat is easier said than done. Despite expectations, Teacher cannot so easily jettison his personal demons by leaving Taipei. The world has a way of finding him at his mountain retreat. Teacher finds his house almost uninhabitable, requiring more in repairs than he reasonably has time or energy to do. Ironically, it is the world he left, in the form of a brigade of his students who arrive at his doorstep and with team effort make his retreat livable. There is also the temptation of a nearby mountain village, where Teacher buys groceries and other supplies--a village that appears over-retailed, catering as it does to tourists from the city below. It even boasts an unnamed coffee spot, part of a global chain, which can only be a Starbucks. Then the harsher realities of the outside world intrude on Teacher's retreat. In a neighbor's living room, he watches the Twin Towers collapse, over and over, on a TV. Then a long-anticipated typhoon hits Taiwan (the actual September 2001 typhoon was a hundred-year storm). A Taiwanese presidential election is marred by an assassination attempt, that might or might not have been faked. Teacher's best friend dies. A misunderstanding with Xue Mie is resolved. And so it goes. Teacher neither finishes his book on aesthetics, nor wrangles much contemplation time from his new life. Instead, in adapting to a new home, he sees anew and comes to grips with the demons he brought with him.
In many senses, LESSONS IN ESSENCE is a traditional psychological novel.

What elevates it is painstakingly accurate, and faithful observation of the Taiwanese quotidian lived by Teacher Li. Through his eyes, we understand the present can be relentless in the toll it takes on all values held as traditional. Teacher accepts Taiwan will outlive him. In that is the wisdom of LESSONS IN ESSENCE: As it must, Life goes on, outliving any of us who dare protest too much.
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