Thursday, July 24, 2014

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: The Three Level of Inquiries

Grammar-Stage Reading

Does the writer state his purpose for writing?

As the copy I read is the abridged edition, Gibbon did not speak much in his Preface. But from first chapter, I gather that he would like to deduce how such an empire as Roman (the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind) could have declined and finally fallen. It is something that all nations will remember; probably the most extreme revolution that ever happened?

What are the major events of the history?

Click the image to bring you the the complete list of events.

Who is this story about?

It is about an empire; but since Roman was once the largest territory including Asia, Africa, and Europe, and the most civilized portion of mankind, this history is actually the history of mankind. It is also a story about our religions.

Who or what causes this challenge?

There are several causes that work together; the incapable emperors, the threat of the conquered provinces/tribes (Barbarian, Goths, German, Persian, etc), and the rising of both religions: Christian and Islam.

Logic-Stage Reading

Look for the historian’s major assertions

The cause of the decline and fall of Roman Empire is very complex; it involves almost the whole human civilization and its circumstances, and they are all connected each other. The single power of the monarchs is the first cause, then the rise of the barbarian nations, and even the establishment of Christian and Islam religions, as well the reign of their leaders. So, perhaps, Roman history has brought the biggest influence over the history of our mankind.

Rhetoric-Stage Reading

What is the purpose of history?

With The Decline and Fall, Gibbon wanted to connect the ancient and modern history of the world.

What does it mean to be human?

The Roman Empire could be powerful for so long (and in so large territory) because of their qualified values: dignity, discipline, and valour.

Why do things go wrong?

With all the expansions, the Republic of Rome became very large. But then, Julius Caesar, with his great ambition, proclaimed the first triumvirate, and after the bloody civil war, Roman became an Empire, with one Caesar (Augustus) to lead the whole nation. Then came Pax Romana; but with the prosperity came the lack of discipline in Rome. And when they were weakening, their enemies got stronger.


Friday, July 11, 2014

My Personal Readathon #3: Idul Fitri Holiday 2014

In my country, Indonesia, Idul Fitri is the biggest national holiday. This year, we would have nine days holiday, from 26th July to 3rd August (yay!), and so, I think it would be a perfect time for another (long) personal readathon…

There are two books which I am very excited to read from my August schedule:

The first one is obvious, because it’s another Zola! :) But the second book would be my first encounter with Edith Wharton. Like Zola, she was a naturalist, so, it will be very interesting to read them one after the other.

Right now I am in the middle of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, but I think I would have finished both before the holiday. As Zola’s The Debacle would be my first choice for the readathon, I might start it earlier, if I have finished my present reading before the 26th. I don’t have any reading target, and will just enjoy the readings; I’m so… excited!

What about you? Will you be on holiday too at the last week of July? Are you planning on having a personal readathon?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Classics Club’s July Meme: Biography on Classic Authors

The question for July's meme is: 

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not?

I am not a biography fan, so I have not read much of it. But I was really interested in Dickens’ life, particularly in his love affair with Nelly Ternan. I felt like there were two different personalities in Dickens which I’d like to know more. However, instead of reading Claire Tomalin’s biography on Charles Dickens, I picked her The Invisible Woman, which is Nelly Ternan’s biography. Maybe I thought seeing Dickens from Nelly’s perspective would be more interesting….and honest.

Reading it changed my thoughts about Dickens personalities, which I have been gathering from his writings all these times. Now I see him just as a imperfect human being who can make mistakes. He had principles, and he knew what’s right and wrong, but like us, he could not resist the temptation.

Did it change my perspective on his writings? It did, but in a positive way. Now that I know Dickens better, my thoughts towards conflicts and characters in his books change a bit. And whenever I read about some cases, I might think to myself, could they be influenced by a certain experience in his life? Knowing Dickens better only makes me more related to his books, and makes the reading experience more familiar.

Now I am curious about Émile Zola’s biography: The Life and Times of Emile Zola by F.W.J. Hemmings. That will be the next biography of classics author I am going to read. How about you? Have you read any biography on Dickens and Zola? How about other authors’?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In honor of the late Maya Angelou—the honorable author, poet, and activist—who died on May 28, 2014, I decided to read her beautiful autobiography: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Really, before actually reading it, I have never realized that this book is really an autobiography of Maya Angelou, not just an autobiographical fiction. I just realized my fault when Marguerite told how her brother, who loved her so much, used to call her Maya (from Mya sister). It was then that I realized that is has been Maya Angelou herself who was telling her story.

Maya was only three years old when her parents divorced. They sent her and her big brother Bailey (four years old) to Stamps, Arkansas, by train, with only a porter to accompany them, to live with their grandmother. This journey (and the sense of abandonment) wounded both children. In Stamps, the grandmother, Annie Henderson, lived with her crippled son Willie (Uncle Willie). It was the two of them who raised Maya and Bailey. Momma Henderson (Maya’s appellation for her grandmother) ran the Store where the Blacks (mostly very poor cotton pickers) shopped their daily needs. Mrs. Henderson was a strong and respectable woman, and the way she maintained her dignity against the Whites’ insults was tremendous. During her life in Stamps, Maya witnessed the struggles as well as the bitter hopes of the Blacks amidst the Whites dominion. All these built the inferiority (if not hatred) in little Maya towards the Whites, although she almost never saw them in reality. She even felt guilty of having Shakespeare as her favorite author because of his whiteness.

When Maya was still nine or ten years old, her father came to Stamps and brought the brother and sister to St. Louis, to stay with their beautiful mother. One day Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and this changed her life completely. She became very quiet, and suddenly Maya grew much more mature than her age. I think Maya’s turning point optimism of being black was in her eight grade graduation, when Henry Reeds led the audience to sing Negro National Anthem with pride. It was then that Maya started to realize of her own value, as a Black, and as a human being. Her visit to her daddy’s home was another phase of Maya’s transformation, where she eventually found her own strength.

I liked this book from the first page; in fact, it did not feel like reading an autobiography at all. Maya Angelou was certainly a great story teller, and her way of re-telling her own bitter past was filled with hope and optimism, instead of condemnation or lamentation. As a title, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” offers a deeper meaning of Angelou’s sight of her people. I found an interesting article about this, which revealed that the title was taken from a poem by an African poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar—and it is a beautiful poem! When the world has not been free from prejudices and discrimination—even until now—what the oppressed must do is to maintain hope, and to keep in mind that as long as they think they are free, no one can snatch that from them.

A beautiful and inspiring reading indeed! Four stars for Maya Angelou!


I read Ballantine Books Mass Market edition

This book is counted as:

Monday, June 23, 2014

If on a winter’s night a traveler: Final Review

This must have been the most deceitful book I have ever read in my life: If on a winter’s night a traveler. From the unique title I must have realized that this won’t be a regular thing. It’s an unfinished sentence; plus it was obviously written as an ordinary sentence, without capital letter on each word, as a title should usually be written. I have also read several reviews and a few analysis, and all of them promised an extraordinary reading experience from Signor Calvino. So, I encouraged myself to read it, together with several other bloggers. And what an adventure we have had for about two weeks!

Calvino addresses us in the form of his main (male) protagonist, The Reader. He uses second person point of view, which made it felt like he is talking to me, who was reading the book, personally. The Reader has just bought the new novel from Italo Calvino: If on a winter’s night a traveler. It’s about a man who arrives at train station in a “mission”. He is instructed by his ‘organization’ to meet someone (a connection) but somehow he missed it. I knew instantly that it would be a conspiracy-thriller. However, as the story reached the most exciting part, the Reader found that his copy was somehow mixed with the signatures of another novel. He went to the bookstore to complain, and got an ‘unspoiled’ copy as a replacement. However, when he opened the book, it turned out to be a different book. He was disappointed, but he was interested in this second book as well. So he read it anyway. But the same thing happened, the second book ended abruptly, and when he wanted to get the unspoiled copy, again, he got another novel.

The incident repeated for ten times, which forced our Reader to read ten different unfinished novels in the process of getting the complete one. During his quest for the right books, he met a Second Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a passionate reader like himself. He got attracted to her, but just like his desire to read books with complete ending, his desire to possess Ludmilla’s heart for himself was blocked by some incidents; which—interestingly—was also connected to his book quest.

This is indeed an extraordinary book! Only a genius writer could create many plots which are entangled to each other like this. And if you read all of the novels—unfinished, though, they are—you’ll see that Calvino is a great story teller. Even when I knew that my reading would end abruptly in a few chapters, I still enjoyed the stories. My favorite was perhaps “Around an empty grave”—well, I always have a soft spot for the Indians, I think….

Our question at the end must be: what did Calvino wrote this complex book for? After having a thorough analysis I believe Calvino had two big messages to convey regarding the literary world. He criticized readers who read innocently, only for satisfying their desire, without trying to dig deeper into what the author tried to communicate. Calvino analogized it with the ‘void’—he mentioned this word many times—below the words in books. He also alerted us that in some point readers are not as free as they think; that there are the hands of the publishing industry who are controlling our reading behavior. We deal with it in different way. The Reader confronted them directly; while Ludmilla refused to join him because she didn’t want to know about any aspect of the book but the story itself. While Irnerio—Ludmilla’s friend—chose to stop reading at all. But in reality, none of them were actually completely free; not even Irnerio, who, instead of reading the books, produced handicraft using books as the media.

I believe there are more in this story than what I have been analyzed; one of them is feminism issue, which I sensed within the book (in Lotaria’s seminar, as well as dominant female in several of the novels). There are also the thoughts of erasing past consequences (zero moment), and restart from zero. What was it? I don’t think I would ever find out the answer, as this book, for me, is not the kind that I would like to reread someday. No, this is a unique book, and an extraordinary reading, but once is surely enough!

Three and a half stars for Signor Calvino!


I read e-book from BookFi dot org

This book is counted as:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

If on a winter’s night a traveler: The Three Levels of Inquiries

After posting summary of the first half of the book, I decided not to do the second summary post, but immediately jump to the three stage readings.

Who is the central character of this book?

It’s definitely The Reader (and that includes us all, the readers of this book).

What does the central character want? What is standing in his way? And what strategy does he pursue in order to overcome this block?

Reading-wise, he wants to have a straightforward novel with clear plot and ending; he reads just for pleasure, to satisfy his appetite. Unfortunately he keeps stumbling upon unfinished novels, so he confronts the publisher, the writer, the literary authority; he travels around the world to get to the novels he desired. Parallel with his quest of books, the Reader is also attracted to Ludmilla, the Second Reader. He wants to have her for himself, but there are the writer and the translator who seem to be involved in her life. He pursues them to get his books as well as to win his girl.

Who is telling you this story?

Calvino uses second person point of view. Interestingly, he never reveals the name of the protagonist (The Reader), so actually he wants to address all the readers of his book.

Images and metaphors

There are several metaphors in those unfinished novels read by The Reader, but the most distinguished ones are probably:

The void – In the second novel, Irina is having vertigo when she looks down the void below the bridge. Later in the book, Calvino repeats this word ‘void’ several times to emphasize the unreality beneath words in books. The stories have no relation with real things in real life.

The invisible power – The sense of power or control over a person is dominating the unfinished novels, either from an organization (like in first novel where the man arriving at the station looking for a message from ‘the organization’) or a person (Irina over Alex in 4th novel, or Jojo over Ruedi in 5th novel, and in most of the novels). I think it represents how readers, without realizing it, are actually controlled by authors, publishers, and all authoritative agents in literary industry. The Reader and Ludmilla think they are controlling their own reading, but in reality they depend on how the author writes; the translator translates, the publisher prints and binds the book, and so on. One little fault, and that will affect our reading very much.

Beginnings and endings

The novel begins with the narrator asking The Reader to prepare himself on the position of comfortable reading. He points out that he does not expect anything from the book he’s about to read (You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything… You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst.) I felt like Calvino here wants to dictate the Reader how to behave in reading, and kind of reprimand him on being passive or innocent towards his reading.

The ending is a resolution, with different result. Reading-wise, the Reader did not get the books he intended to read (and he seems okay with that), but he finally wins Ludmilla’s heart, and marry her.

Do you sympathize with the characters?

Both the Reader and Ludmilla represent parts of me, reading-wise. With the Reader, I share his enthusiastic quest for a more meaningful reading, although in different way. For me, it’s more of analyzing, philosophizing, and relating the story with real life; whereas The Reader’s focus is more physically. With Ludmilla, I share her desire to read freely without being influenced by the author or the institution who produces the books. In short, I sympathize with both of them for demanding and respecting the freedom in reading.

Does the writer’s technique give you a clue as to his “argument”—his take on the human condition?

From the way he hops from novel to novel without ever coming to completion, I think Calvino suggested that novels can never convey authors’ true intention completely to the readers. There is always gap between the two, especially when the reader is like Ludmilla or The Reader, who only read for pleasure; indifference of the author’s intention, or even existence.

And from how much the Reader struggle from wanting to read a good novel, the literary industry also has control over readers, though we do not feel it.

What exactly is the writer telling you?

That reading is an individual activity. Authors, publishers, translators, or whoever works in literary industry—and even country or sects—could try to control or persuade our reading, but we, readers, are free to have our own opinion on books we read. Marana and Flannery want Ludmilla to love them through their writing, but Ludmilla has her own way of appreciating books, which nobody can change or interfere.

Do you agree?

I agree that reading should not only for pleasure seeking or satisfying our desire (to reach the end). We should dig deeper than the surface of those printed words to get the author’s message. Because beneath the words—as Calvino said—there’s only void, unreal, and immaterial. Reading could be meaningful when we relate it with the real life; the author, the characters, and our present society.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

If on a winter’s night a traveler: Chapter 1 – 11

This Italo Calvino’s novel is probably the most complicated novel I have ever read in my life. From the beginning I have been criticizing every strange passage (and indeed, there are so many!), and put effort to note them down. I suspect there are similar aspects in those different unfinished novels, one theme that binds them. So, I was looking for it. Here are some of my thoughts on first half of the book. If you haven’t read it, you’d better stop reading right now as it would contain a lot of spoilers. It’s your choice of course, but you have been warned!

Novel # 1 If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

The main character of the whole book is the reader (or ourselves); he is reading Calvino’s latest novel: “If on a winter’s night a traveler”. It’s about a man who arrives at a station but misses the connection. He carries a suitcase, and his instruction is to meet a contact to exchange the suitcase with (he is anxious to get rid of it). Here I sensed an invisible power (organization); the man seemed to be an innocent pawn; only being used for a mysterious purpose. He wants to return to zero moment and reestablish the normal course. The organization is so powerful it can control police and railroads. There is also smoke from the locomotive which seems to block the narrator’s reading.

Novel # 2 – Outside the town of Malbork by Tazio Bazakbal

Gritzvi must switch places with Ponko, as each would stay with the other’s family to learn something about farming. Gritzvi is afraid of losing his past which would soon be Ponko’s, so he fights him. The narrator meets a guy who forces himself not to read anything because he is sick of all kinds of writing that bombard him in daily life.

Novel # 3 – Leaning from the steep slope by Ukko Ahti

The narrator of THIS novel (not our narrator--it’s a bit confusing, I know!) feels that the world sends him signals and messages. He meets a woman who often meets a convict in prison, and asks the narrator’s help to buy her a grapnel (anchor) with long rope. The fishers refuse to sell the grapnel, fearing that it will be used as an escape tool by prisoners. The narrator is also ‘forced’ to help a meteorologist to take care of his observatory while he is leaving, but then two men ask questions about the meteorologist. Seems that the innocent narrator has been used in some fishy trick, eh? While taking care of meteorological instrument, the narrator feels like controlling the universe. The story ends abruptly, and the Professor who is reading it explains that reading is reaching something immaterial through writing material (wordless language?). The Other Reader (who is reading together with our narrator) argues that as a reader she needs to know that the material book exist that she can read it. There is a sense of power here, we readers seems to lack control of books we like to read.

Novel # 4 – Without fear of wind or vertigo – Vorts Viljandi

On duty in a war, Officer Alex Zinnober helps a girl, Irina, to cross a bridge when she is having vertigo after looking at the void down below. He finds out that Irina is the girlfriend of his friend Valerian, whom he has been spying for a traitor. Irina is a dominating girl when the three are having sex. When this novel stops abruptly too, the narrator suggests The Other Reader (Ludmilla) to visit the publisher for explanation, but she refuses. She doesn’t want to involve too deeply in book publishing; she want to keep being innocent reader and receive books as finished goods to be devoured. The whole publishing houses are made disordered by Ermes Marana’s (translator) series of fraud.

Interesting quote:
“Beneath every word there is nothingness.”
“The world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers.”

Novel # 5 – Looks down in the gathering shadow – by Bertrand Vandervelde

Ruedi killed Jojo, helped by Bernadette, because Jojo cheated him financially and ruined him; feeling that he was entirely in Jojo’s power. Ruedi wants to have a clean break, to start again from zero by erasing his past traces, but he finds that the pasts cannot be erased; they will entangle one another. Bernadette turns out to be demanding when insisting Ruedi to satisfy her sexual need. His wife also has power over Ruedi.

While in the publishing office, the narrator witness how books are treated as raw material or spare parts ready to be dismantled or reassembled; another sense of authoritative power? Marana then offers a new novel from an author who couldn’t finish his novel, but Marana offered him a computer program which can ‘finish’ any unfinished books. The existence of ghost writers, who can imitate author’s style to complete half-written text as if written by the author, is also mentioned. Another interesting fact is that there are novels which are paid in advance by publishers, involving banks and financing, through contracts with certain products to ‘scatter’ their brands into the books.

Interesting quotes about Authors:
“Exists and don’t exist at the same time.
“An invisible point from which the books came, a void traveled by ghosts.”

My thoughts
I think this is a book about book publishing industry. From the novels, the sense of ‘power’ or ‘control’ emerges most of the stories. And our main character, the narrator and Ludmilla, are trapped in the publishing house’ catastrophe in their needs of reading a good book; they are helpless. So, it is, perhaps, about reader vs publisher in the book publishing industry. Let’s see….

What’s in the titles?
This book title is unique (as well as the novels’ inside); it’s written without capital letters on the beginning of each word (which is common in title writing). So, it seems as parts of an unfinished sentence. Particularly when I reached novel # 4, the title intrigued me, because it seems to be in correlation with the title of novel # 3. Then I thought, what if the titles are part of a long sentence? So, I put them together, in order, and this is what I got:

If on a winter’s night a traveler outside the town of Malbork leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow…

Interesting, eh? Now I can’t wait to read the whole book to know if the titles are really part of a sentence (very long, indeed); and what sentence that would be.