Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mini Reviews - Animal Farm & The Age of Innocence

As usual when the last three months in the year is coming, hectic is all around me. I still can catch up with my reading pace, but not with reviews. So, here are my mini reviews of two books I have finished—the eighth and ninth of my second The Classics Club challenge (three more to go for this year!).

Animal Farm by George Orwell

This is my first Orwell; 1984 will be following soon. It is an allegory of Stalinism—a concept I have had, until now, only a vague notion of. Orwell wrote it to satirize Joseph Stalin, with whom the UK was in allegiance with when the book was published (1943-1944). Orwell did his job well, anyone who read it would clearly see the message, and the fable is convincing and entertaining. I have only one question: What has become of Snowball? While the end of the fable was quite predictable, Snowball’s condition was one thing I looked forward to when approaching the end. But that was not the main focus of this book, of course. All in all, four of five stars I granted for Animal Farm. It is not striking, but quite inspiring and entertaining, and definitely well written.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I have no idea what criteria make a book earning Pulitzer Prize; but to me Wharton’s The House of Mirth is much finer than The Age of Innocence. The story is about old vs modern world of New York society. My favorite character is Countess Ellen Olenska. She is genuine, kind, and brave. She sets the example of being modern woman without compromising her conscience and integrity. Maybe she was to be the “victim” here, just as Lily Barth in The House of Mirth, but my sympathy, instead, is more for Newland Archer. I think he was the real victim; he was dragged by the old and the modern New York. Unlike Ellen, it seems that Newland doesn’t have a firm ground to stand on. And the ending is so devastating. I can’t imagine having a life like Newland’s: dry and hollow… for the rest of his life. All in all, it is not as I have expected, but still a treasure. Four of five stars.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

It’s official! Willa Cather will join the short list of Fanda’s favorite female writers. Other than Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling, and Edith Wharton, most of my favorite writers have been males.

Ruth has told me that it is a slow-moving read, very quiet, a-lazy-day reading. And since my previous reading is Siddharta, which was so deep and meditative, I was so grateful to get next into this book (and will definitely read more of Willa Cather!).

Actually Death is based on life and career of two historical French Catholic priests who served as missionaries on the New Mexico around 19th century. Cather then wove them into this beautiful and quiet narrative; following neither plot, nor chronology. From scattered stories or events, Cather took us to learn not only the missionaries’ struggles against rooted faith of the Mexicans and Indians, but also the unfriendly landscape, the corrupt priests, and the injustice suffered by the innocent people.

With her slow pace, Cather was able to show vividly the raw but beautiful wild nature among the desserts and prairies. It is interesting and at the same time entertaining. And she was also brilliant in building the characters and highlighting the two priests’ sweet and mutual friendship. Their friendship, especially, is so sweet—how they were so different, but could understand each other, and always ready to support the other when needed. And through Cather’s deep scrutiny of these two personalities, we can see what make a good missionary.

Bishop (later archbishop) Latour is really fit for the post; he’s intelligent, healthy, mature, organized, with high discipline and self-respect. However he always feels lonely and unfulfilled, though he has achieved his ambition to build a cathedral, in the end his mission felt like a duty satisfyingly accomplished, and that’s all. The very opposite of his archbishop, Father Joseph “Blanchet” Vaillant is a warm, humble, and easy going person with weak health. He might not have had brilliant achievement, but he does his works with humble joy, even when he must sacrifice his own comfort. I think Father Joseph is the true missionary—he is chosen by God to do His Wish. And with his simplicity, he earned many souls. But in the end, both are really chosen by God—side by side, each with all in his power—to plough His Field in New Mexico.

What a refreshing, calm reading this has been!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Siddharta by Herman Hesse

I have thought that Siddharta was about THE Siddharta Gautama—the Buddha—and that this book is all about Buddhist thing. But after finishing it, I just realized that Herman Hesse did not focus on a certain religion, but in the universal search of our Creator.

Siddharta was not the Buddha. He was a Brahmin son who was thirst of finding the “ultimate reality”. He is a brilliant young man, and when great teaching didn’t quench his thirst, Siddharta shook off his monk robe and took on every worldly habit he got on his way: sex, gambling, business—in short becoming “the child people” as he used to call ordinary people. He enjoyed these habits at first, and believed that only in becoming acquainted with worldly issues, that he would find peace. Instead of peace, he felt terrible emptiness in the end that he felt like jumping in a ditch. And then, while he was at the lowest bottom, his conscience led him to follow the spiritually inspirational river, and becoming a ferryman. Only then and there that Siddharta finally found the ultimate peace.

This little book has so much wisdom to contemplate on. I found it very soothing and calming. One day I brought the book to the apartment’s garden near the pool. There I have a favorite spot near one of the tower’s door to the pool; it is shaded in the afternoon, and quite secluded from the pool. Only people from that tower would occasionally pass there, but usually they just pass by and ignore me (maybe for them I am just a strange girl who choose to read a book in the hot afternoon, while everybody else is swimming!) Anyway, there I was on one hot afternoon, reading the last chapters where Siddharta loves to “listen” to the river’s voice; and I thought how lucky anyone who can lead a peaceful life like that! And I believe, after this, I would never listen to gurgling sounds on the lake or river without remembering Siddharta!

Siddharta’s long journey to find ultimate peace is so relatable to our modern life. Many people have been trying hard to seek God—sometimes by comparing one religion to another—but few really find the Ultimate Truth, and some have never even found it. And many more are still disputing over which religion is better and higher than the other. While the answer is very simple—Herman Hesse has shared it with us all these years through Siddharta.

The most interesting part of this book for me is how Siddharta listen to the voice of the river. I didn’t understand what it means at first, but I think the key here is the serenity. Being in the tranquil river means you can clear out your cluttered mind and soul, and only then that you can really listen to your conscience. The medium can be different for each person—for Siddharta it is the river, but for me, it is the rustling of leaves or the chirping of birds. It is not that Siddharta really sees a person’s face or an event reflecting from the water, but with his mind clear, he can see what is really in the depth of his conscience. So the voice of the river is really the voice of God.

I am very grateful that I have ever read this book—so inspiring, so soothing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This is the first time I read detective novel with Victorian background. Here I can hear you yelling: ‘What about Holmes?’ Well, Holmes is Holmes. I mean, he is a real detective, and his stories were focused mostly on the crime-solving. While The Woman in White depicted ordinary persons who were forced to perform detective tasks to solve their own problem.

In this post, I will not trying to summarize the story, but only jotting down my random thoughts while reading this awesome book.

What I realized immediately after finishing this story is the difference between Dickens’ and Collins’ style. I naturally compared them because they were close friends—Dickens published Collins’ short stories in the periodicals he founded: Household Words—and I assumed Collins style would be closely similar to Dickens. I was not completely wrong, they had a similarity, but I think I like Collins better.

Collins’ characters—at least in The Woman in White; I have not read his other books—are as strong as Dickens’ but more plausible. I felt like knowing Walter Hartright or Marian Halcombe as real persons in real life, not just characters in some tales. Hartright is a drawing master; if he was in Dickens’ novel, he would probably be portrayed as romantic and melancholic person. But Collins made him an intelligent young man with strong will and courage. Laura Fairlie, though not as strong and brave as Marian, still found, now and then, courage to resist under her tyrannical husband.

Dickens’ characters are also mostly typical. Most of his villains, especially, can be detected almost at once. But with Collins, I found that several of the characters are in grey area. Lord Fosco is one example. Everybody tends to like him. Interestingly, it was Laura who first detected something artificial in him. And how he adored Marian, and acted gentlemanly towards his “enemies”. Beyond his lack of moral conscience, nobody would disagree that he is a kind gentleman. Another ambiguous character is Hartright’s Italian friend: Professor Pesca. Who would ever suspect that behind this funny and simple man with extra warm heart, laid a dark secret of being member of a secret organization (by the way, what organization can it be, indeed?)? And how very often do we, too, wrongly judge our friends or close relatives?

To summarize, I did really enjoy The Woman in White. I loved the uniqueness and originality of the characters; loved the neat and smooth plot; loved how Collins built it slowly—neither too surprising nor too predictable. And I also loved the mature love story; and enjoyed the little—just a little—twist of the plot. It is a detective story, but the highest aim is not to punish the villains, or to reveal the truth, or to excite our adventurer side; it is just what one must do for the loved ones—it is the act of love, honor, and humanity. Oh, I just love it!

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Iliad by Homer (second reading)

Thanks to Robert Fagles, I could at last really enjoy Homer’s The Iliad! (this is a very-very late post—I finished the book on May, but due to our moving-preparations lately, I haven’t been able to write a proper review for more than two months. My memory of the book has quite faded, but I’d try to recall things which I found interesting).

Years before, I have read the abridged translation of The Iliad. I knew this is a great epic poem that you should read at least once before you die. But unfortunately, this Indonesian edition that I read re-wrote the epic to a prose. Maybe it’s because my fellow citizen rarely read poems, so the publisher decided to sell it as a mere story book to make it more saleable (*sighing hard). Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it at that time, but still didn’t get the epic. I knew that I must read the epic one day. But, honestly, I slightly dread of reading an epic poem—hence my delaying of getting to it sooner. Then I stumbled upon this Robert Fagles’ translation, and finally….read this epic poem! ^_^

Now I can say that I love The Iliad! Since it is about war, some passages can be much similar. And the names… they were so much, at the end I couldn’t follow anymore, who was on which side (apart from the big heroes). Take that aside, it was a heroic story written beautifully as a poem. Often I couldn’t help reciting it when I was alone.

Do you tend to take side when reading war stories? I do. From the beginning, I took side with the Trojan. I have no respect for most of Achaean top chiefs—especially Agamemnon, Achilles, and Menelaus. They were selfish and arrogant; and thinking how disputes about women could cause (or alter the course of) a war—! Menelaus is probably the worse—he’s such a cry-baby! When a man lost his wife because another man stole her, he should challenge him to duel, and end it between them. But no, Menelaus ran to his brother, and never stopped him when he decided to start the war. No, I could never take side with the Greeks! And Achilles… what a spoiled little brat he is!

My favorite passage is when Hercules stopped at his house for the last time, meeting his wife and playing with his son. I know he is a temperate man (maybe his only flaw), but I think I loved him more than the others because of this scene. He deserved to be a hero. While his dear little brother….. meh! -_-

That was all that I still remember from The Iliad—definitely a worthy reading, a great epic. I still have to reread The Odyssey—which I have first read also from abridged turn-to-prose Indonesian translation—but with slightly less excitement that I have felt for The Iliad. Hopefully I am wrong!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Great Gatsby Readalong: Update #4

Chapter five – Gatsby’s offer to “pay” Nick for his favor made me think that apart from his choice of getting rich, Jay Gatsby is quite a nice person. He is very polite, hate of asking favor from friends (his intricate ways in asking Nick to arrange meeting with Daisy), and he is the only one who doesn’t drink. And when he loves a woman, he respects her, and is loyal to her to the end.

According to Careless People, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land has major influence in Fitzgerald’s ideas for writing Gatsby—not the plot, but the general theme and atmosphere. I have never read Eliot, and this can be my good excuse to mark him.

Now, I have mentioned in my previous post about Gatsby as a “novel noir”. So We Read On dedicated a chapter titled Rhapsody in Noir to discuss this; and it’s very interesting. First of all, the origin of Gatsby’s real name “Gatz” is gat—a slang for ‘gun’ in the twenties. There are at least three deaths caused by gun in this story. And don’t forget the car crashes that happened too many in such a short story (including Tom Buchanan’s which then revealed his affair with a chambermaid only a week after his marriage with Daisy!). Add it all with the desolate valley of ashes, the abandoned billboard of the oculist, and Wilson’s shabby garage. Yes… this is not a romantic story of unrequited love or the lost of illusion; it is the gloomy image that Fitzgerald felt was happening in America—emptiness and deadliness. Corrigan even questioned about Myrtle’s accident: “Who can say for certain whether Daisy’s hit-and-run murder of Myrtle, her husband’s mistress, is just an accident or a subconscious homicidal drive realized?” Yeah… that has made me shiver a little! And horrifyingly, it made sense to me.

Gatsby-Daisy’s reunion is full of emotion. Daisy was crying, but for what? Remember when Gatsby thrown his colorful shirts and Daisy cried? Of course she’s crying not because she has never seen such beautiful shirts before, but I think, because she lamented her faith of being a wife of the brutal man: Tom. If only she had waited for three more years, she would have had a rich AND loving husband: Gatsby. But after their trip, where Tom confronted Gatsby, and Gatsby persuaded her to flee with him, I think Daisy got so confused… and drunk. I think she realized that Gatsby would never fit in her circle—no matter how she loved him, her husband would always be Tom. But then seeing his mistress on the road… I don’t know whether she knew about Myrtle or not—probably she did—but that is enough to lead her to Corrigan’s homicidal theory.

I am still wondering about the history of Gatsby’s mansion which Nick told us, particularly this passage: “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry”. To what exactly did Fitzgerald want to allude with it? What do you think?

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Great Gatsby Readalong: Update #3

Chapter four and five are awesome! Chapter five, especially, as this is where Gatsby-Daisy reunion took place. They are short, but hey!...there are so many interesting things I want to share, that I decided to only pour out my thoughts on chapter four in this post, and will write another post for chapter five. Here are my personal notes from the book itself and two companion books that I am reading along with Gatsby.

Chapter four -- The big question that arose from Gatsby’s and Nick’s chatting on their trip to New York for lunch is whether Gatsby was boasting or telling the truth, when he told Nick about his background. Fitzgerald never told us the truth (what is exactly Gatsby’s business, for example?); Gatsby remains a mystery. I think some of what Gatsby told Nick might be true, but the way he boasted it made Nick think he’s lying. Fitzgerald also boasted often in parties he was invited. It’s rather touching to see them—“nobody from nowhere”—in their struggles to climb the social ladder, not to be regarded as nobody.

On the same trip to New York, Nick laughed when “some negroes in limousine rode passed them with haughty rivalry”. This is the second time I noticed a bit of racism in this book, but maybe at that time, it’s not counted as racism. It’s just to show how Fitzgerald—or the American—felt that the nation was on the brink of changes, and that “everything is possible”. The hearse that also passed them creates a dark atmosphere into this story—something I have not realized until Sarah Churchwell labeled Gatsby as “noir novel” in Careless People. And to think of how many tragic deaths that had happened or told in the story; not only of Myrtle, Wilson, and Gatsby, but also “Rosy” Rosenthal—apparently a real person—of whom Meyer Wolfshiem witnessed the shoot.

Careless People revealed to me that Gatsby and Daisy are inspired by Fitzgerald’s (unrequited) love story. Young Scott was in love with Ginevra King, one of the rising debutantes in pre-war Chicago. Ginevra rejected him and later married a wealthy young man from her own circle. Fitzgerald took it that she discarded him because he was poor. Only on my second careful read of Gatsby that I realized how Daisy’s feeling about Gatsby and Tom. On her wedding dinner she was torn between love and money (she chose love when “drunk like a monkey” but eventually picked money after cooled up and could use her logic).

I wonder about the final paragraph of chapter four: “Unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs...” What does it mean?