Friday, March 20, 2020

Author Birthday [March]: Tobias Smollet

Some years ago I used to do monthly post of Author Birthday, picking 3 or 4 authors to be featured on the respective month. For some reasons, I stopped doing it, but now I had a craving to write other stuffs beyond book reviews. So, starting this month (hopefully) this new feature: #AuthorBirthday will appear in this blog every month.

I will highlight one author each month, mostly the ones I have not yet read. Part of the aim is to get familiar with the author and (hopefully) encourage me to start reading his/her work. For the first appearance, please welcome:


Tobias George Smollett is a Scottish poet, novelist, and surgeon. He was baptized on 19 March 1721. Smollett's father, a judge and landowner, died when he was just 5 years old. He was educated at University of Glasgow, and qualified as surgeon. As his real passion was always in literary career, he went to London in 1739 to become a dramatist, but unsuccessful.

So, when the British Navy opened a vacancy for naval surgeon, he went abroad HMS Chichester heading to Jamaica, then settled down there for several years.

In 1747 Smollett returned to England, married a wealthy Jamaican heiress: Anne "Nancy" Lascelles, and established a practice in Downing Street.

His first novel was The Adventures of Roderick Random in 1748 (published anonymously), of which he began to be famous with his satire and picaresque genre. Besides novels, Smollett was also notable for his translation of Cervante's Don Quixote in 1755, (part of) A Complete History of England in 1757-1765, and translation of The Works of Voltaire in 1761-1765. Some of his other works are The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), and The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760)

Smollett moved to Italy on 1768, but made a brief visit to Scotland in 1771, where he got inspiration for his last and most famous novel: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.

Smollet has been suffering from intestinal disorder for several years, and when he didn't get proper treatment on Bath, he returned to Italy, and finally died near Livorno, in the same year of his last novel's publication.

Smollet has been struggling almost all his life with poverty. And after his death, he kept inspiring many authors, including Charles Dickens, who was one of Smollet's great admirers. Without Smollet's influence, we might never gets entertained by four comical gentlemen of The Pickwick Club! :)

Monday, March 16, 2020

How to Read Zola: A Personal Guide

One of the things I love the most from hosting Zoladdiction is to find new Zoladdicts (readers addicted to Zola's) - either people who have read Zola for some times, or those who read him for the first time. And from my eight years of hosting Zoladdiction, I have been observing that most of those who have read Zola, tend to love him and keep reading his books.

From year to year, people keep asking me almost the same question about how they should read Zola - especially his Les Rougon-Macquart cycle - or which book they should start with. Hence, you can regard this post as a sort of guidance - not from an expert, but just an enthusiastic reader. It's my personal view, and hopefully you will find it useful.

First of all, you need to know how many books Zola had written. The answer is... A LOT! He would be your perfect choice to start an "author challenge" (reading works of certain author) - you won't run out of good materials for years! :) Not only novels of many titles, Zola also wrote some short stories, essays, novella, plays, and in case you didn't know, he even wrote the controversial J'accuse! - an open letter to France President criticizing the unjust anti-semitic accuse of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer.

Now, back to the main question: Where should I start? There are several entry points which you can chose according to your need.

Start from the best

My common advice to start reading a new author is always starting from his/her masterpiece or most notable work. If it resonates with you, then it's very likely you would love his/her other works. In the case of Zola, it's: Germinal. It is a very thoroughly researched book - Zola took effort to go down into the mine pit and interviewed some workers, and you'd feel suffocated yourselves when reading it, as if you were there! It's so beautifully written with complex plot, and alternately emotionally touching and aggravating. It's also my favorite novel of all time!

The Rougon-Macquart cycle

Have you heard about this monumental project of Zola? There are two possible approaches to start your project:

Chronological order

The best way is starting from the beginning: The Fortune of the Rougons. It's the introduction to the two families (Rougons and Macquarts, plus Mourets) and historical background of the Second Empire of France. It lays the foundation and serves as navigation map to the following novels.

Random order

You have one or two Zolas on your TBR right now, and just want to read it? NO PROBLEM. The Rougon-Macquart's are standalone novels depicting different issues. You can easily pick one randomly according to your whim. In fact, I have started from L'Assommoir myself, then continued randomly through the cycle.

Short Stories Teaser

For some readers (including me), it's not easy to try a new author, especially one whom you're not sure you'll like. Start from his/her short stories! It serves as teaser, and you'd have nothing to lose. Zola wrote quite a lot of short stories, you'd love him after reading few of them, I guarantee! :) You can download/read online, or picking one of Zola's short stories collection.

Mildest Zola's

You might have heard/read about Zola's blunt honesty of writing? Well, in case your reading comfort has been Victorians, and you are a bit worried about raw Naturalism, you might start with Zola's mildest novel (also from The Rougon-Macquart cycle): The Ladies Paradise. At least it won't "blow your head" unexpectedly, and there's a bit... ehm... love story in it! :)

The Rawest

Maybe you are one of the minorities who are always eager to pick the most extreme choice? Then you'd thank me of ever picking The Earth. It's the rawest of all (I have read so far). Though the severity of the "blow" is only second after L'Assommoir, the brutal scenes are the most shocking.

Single Novel

Rather daunted to start The Rougon-Macquart, a cycle of twenty novels, and prefer, instead, a single standalone noncommittal novel? Therese Raquin would be perfect. It's one of Zola's most notable works, and one of my most memorable - it's my FIRST Zola! I remember being hooked from the beginning, and I think I finished it in just two days.


If you haven't been impressed so far, maybe you'd prefer his semi political semi humanitarian piece: J'Accuse! and other writings concerning the Dreyfus Affair. I loved especially Zola's last speech before his self-exile. Wait... you do know about Zola's self-exile to avoid jail, right? No? Then perhaps you need first to...

Know Zola from Biographies

This is my last attempt to convert you to be a Zoladdict! LOL.. just joking :D But sometimes, knowing an author - what he valued and how he viewed things - would lead you to love his/her books.

Now I assume you have made your mind of WHICH book to read next from Zola? Next you'd need to decide WHEN. Let me help you...


It's Zola's birth month (2nd April is his birthday), and we will have a Zola reading event....

If you haven't signed up yet, you can still do it at the Announcement post. Don't forget to let me know in the comment or tag me on Twitter/Instagram.

See you on April, then, and prepare to have FUN!

Monday, March 9, 2020

February Book Haul Amidst Importation Obstacles

Painting: Still Life with Books (1887) by Vincent van Gogh

Being classics reader in a country where literary readers are minority is not an easy business. I could not obtain classic books at a local bookstore - except translated works, whose quality is mostly dubitable, yet the price could be higher than original/English version. Nor could I borrow from "local library" - which is not numerous here, obviously.

So, the only choice is to buy/import from international online stores. My favorites are Book Depository (free International delivery!) and Better World Books for second hand books (also free International delivery). Of course, patience is required here, because shipment to Indonesia can vary from 2-3 weeks (their claim) to more than two months! They use standard airmail services, which is understandable for free-delivery. I sometimes forget what books I have ordered in the last months, so when the postman comes with my package, it feels like getting a surprised (though very late) birthday gift! LOL..

Another cheaper and much faster option is Google Play Books. I'm no enthusiast fan of e-books, though, so I pick this option only when:
  1. Not sure I'd like the book/author.
  2. The paperback is much too expensive for "disposable books" (won't read more than once - mostly popular books.)
  3. The physical book is rare or with fantastic price.

There are also some free websites where you can download classics e-books - the biggest one is Gutenberg Project - but I'm not so keen about free e-books. I know it's legal, but owning it without spending money makes me appreciate it less; it feels a bit inappropriate - I don't know it it's normal, but that's what I feel. Sometimes I also find some rare classics at local online second-hand bookstores, but I depend most of my routine book supplies to imported books. Waiting for one or four months makes no different to me, I'm never running out of supplies, as long as it eventually do arrive :)

However, early this year, our government brought a shattering news to Indonesian imported books lovers. The de minimis value threshold was changed from $75 to $3. Three Dollars! Can you believe it? It means we must say goodbye to duty free books forever (at least until the rule changed) - for are there many books price less than $3?

From my calculation, the duty for most items - including books - amounting >$3 to $1500 should be 17,5%. Maybe it seems like nothing for some people, but for me it is very disappointing. I don't buy books whenever I like it; I have certain budget to be spent for books every month. With 17,5% increase, I must cut off the number of books I buy, or I can only shop when Book Depository offers discount vouchers (which is only once every some months). Or I can shop from Better World Books' bargain bin (they offer 20% discount for 4+ books), but I have to reduce my shopping to only once every two months. It seemed okay for a while, until I heard another news: we can only import items in brand NEW condition. And there are some cases where second hand customer goods (not book) were rejected during customs clearance. This has raised a second alarm to my book shopping routine that I haven't bought any books last month.

Fast forward to end of February, when I expect to receive my latest order from Book Depository (bargain bin) and Better World Books (also from bargain bin) on January. I have prepared (grudgingly) to pay the duty. However, first package arrived from Book Depository, and the postman just gave me my package and went away. Wow... no duty! That was surprising, though I didn't understand how it's possible. But I still feel uneased about my other order from Better World Books, will it finally arrive? Or have I paid for nothing? And then.. the postman came, bringing all my five second hand books, still without charging anything! Yippee!!

Though still don't quite understand how that happened - is it post office's carelessness or government's leniency to bookworms? - I think there is still light at the end of the tunnel, at least for now. I have ordered again from Book Depository, using their 10% discount voucher, and let's see how it will be. Boy... do I wish there's library here who often opens its garage-sale of classics collection! But you gotta accept what life gives you, right? And right now, I'm quite happy with my present classics supplies!

How about you? Do you ever have problem with book supplies?

Friday, March 6, 2020

It’s So Classic

I got tagged by Joseph from The Once Lost Wanderer last year to post this, have prepared the draft, but then forgot it in the year-end frenzy at work. I have found the draft again when rummaging my notes. It's too nice not to post, so here it is:

What is one classic that hasn't been made into a movie yet, but really needs to?
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas. We have seen several adaptations of The Three Musketeers, but none of its sequel - though it's a much better story than Musketeers!

What draws you to classics?
Its relevance with our struggles in life today, for one. The way it opens our eyes to things (humanity, social, cultures, religions, etc) which would otherwise been only a vague theory for us. Classics have layers of stuffs that we can keep digging in every read (and reread), and it tends to mature together with the readers. And most importantly classics shape us to be better persons.

What is an underrated classic?
Karl May's Winnetou

What is one classic that you didn't expect to love, but ended up loving anyway?
Austen's Persuasion

What is your most favorite and least favorite classic?
Most favorite: Zola's Germinal
Least favorite: can’t decide between Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind or Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

What is your favorite character from a classic?
Helen Graham from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Who is your favorite classic author?
That's easy: Émile Zola

Relating to newer books, what attributes does a book need to have in order to be worthy of the title "classic"?
Same as my answer for no. 2: the relevance with our struggles of life today, and the layers to dig deeper from.

Thank you, Joseph, for the tag! And for you who haven't done this thing and feel inclined to, you are welcomed to tag yourself.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Zoladdiction 2020 Announcement | #Zoladdiction2020

It's almost that time of the year again: Zoladdiction time! For you who are not familiar with it, Zoladdiction is a reading event on April, to celebrate the birthday of Émile Zola. It is mainly because we love Zola's writings, and also to get more and more people to appreciate his works. For the whole month we will read, post, and talk about Zola - his life and his works. This year I will focus mostly on blog and Twitter, though I still encourage you to post on Instagram too.

Here's what you can do to participate:

  • Sign up in the linky below -you can link to your blog (or post if you post about it), or your Twitter/Instagram/Goodreads account if you don't have blog.
  • Share this event and the banner (or your blog post if you post about it) on Twitter/Instagram, using hashtag #Zoladdiction2020.
  • Pick book(s) you'd like to read (it can be Zola's works or works about Zola). You can share them in your post if you want, or if you're still unsure which one to read, that's fine.
  • Post your thoughts on your blog, and link it up on another linky I will provide in the Master Post (will be published on April 1st). Or, you can post/share them on Twitter/Instagram, using hashtag #Zoladdiction2020. Don't forget to mention/tag me, so I can repost/retweet it.

That's it! In short, read, have fun, and spread your love [addiction] to Zola to the world!

Now I'm curious.. what will you read (or reread)? I will reread The Kill for my The Rougon-Macquart Project, and one more book, of which I still cannot decide between Zola's short stories or his biography by Alan Schom. But considering my current reading pace, I think it's be impossible to read the biography AND The Kill in one month. I have two Zola's short stories collections, however, as I am working on the project, I think I’d better finish The Cambridge Companion on Emile Zola by Brian Nelson, which I have started end of last year but abandoned since.

What will you read?


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is officially my least favorite of Dickens (so far). I feel like he's venting his anger on something when writing the story. It's not just a satire to criticize something, it felt more like a punishment or avenge on something/someone.

Shortly, it's about a gentleman (Mr. Gradgrind) who is fanatical to facts and numbers, that he brings up and educates his children (Louisa "Loo" and Tom Gradgrind) by cramming their minds with only facts and statistics. They never get teaching about morality, love, or charity. Mr. Gradgrind even opens a school teaching and emphasizing on these utilitarian curriculums. As the story unfolds, we get to witness how wrong this kind of education is. Louisa becomes almost like robot, who isn't familiar with emotion, tenderness, and affection. She had a loveless marriage with Mr. Bounderby, only to save her beloved brother Tom - an egotistical boy who doesn't return his sister's love, and ends up as a criminal.

The second theme brought up by Dickens is social and economic disparities of upper and working classes. The story is set in a small industrial town: Coketown. Mr. Bounderby (Louisa's husband) is the owner of a factory - a hypocrite man who boasted himself as a self-made man, while it turns out it was his mother who has sacrificed everything for her son's success - and he always unfairly accuses his workers of being greedy. One of the poorest of the workers is Stephen Blackpool. He was falsely accused of robbing Mr. Bounderby's bank, while the real culprit is from the upper class.

There's nothing wrong with these ideas; I totally agree. The nurturing of brain and soul has to be balanced in order to produce great characters. My objection is in Dickens' rather generalization of contrasting the upper and the working classes. He made it look like the gentlemen were almost always immoral, while the kind people are mostly the working class. But I chose to believe that morality is more individualistic, though it is still influenced further by breeding and education. Proof? Exhibit A: Louisa and Tom Gradgrind. Were they not brought up and educated equally to the Gradgrinds' standard? Yet, from the start we could see that Louisa was more than that. She was more troubled and confused with her upbringing than Tom. Though vaguely, she realized that there was something missing in her, something hollow in her soul; while Tom... well, as Dickens nicknamed him, is just a whelp. Moreover, the idea of an education based solely on facts is rather ridiculous.

James Harthouse & the Whelp!

Another thing that annoyed me **spoiler alert!** is how Dickens let Tom get away with his crime, while Stephen Blackpool - the only character I could relate with - must die, even before he could witness his reputation be rehabilitated. Dickens didn't let Stephen experiencing any happiness at all, however tiny, but he let the whelp go easily from punishment - if not imprisonment (okay, because his crime is partly caused by his upbringing), then at least let him suffer from humiliation! He who ruined Stephen's reputation (if not his entire life) gets second chance without harm - and helped by Sissy Jupe and Mr. Sleary too - while Stephen gets double 'punishment' (ruined reputation AND fallen in the Hell Shaft), and at the end.... dies without at least properly showing his love to Rachael or even a humble marriage. Come on, what happened here, Mr. Dickens? It's not like you!

Is it maybe that this book is too short (in fact it's Dickens' shortest novel) to let the characters developed a bit without them being so typical? The immoral dark handsome James Harthouse, the cunning widow with her sharp nose Mrs. Sparsit, the liar and boastful Mr. Bounderby - they're all so... hmm... typical? And then there is the "fairy" Sissy Jupe who is selfless, won everyone's heart, always to the rescue (yea.. even rescuing the criminal whelp!). They are all so unnatural. I know that Dickens always include some inhuman fairies throughout his books, but usually, he’d balance them with other humane characters. Not in this book, though, unfortunately. Maybe Louisa Bounderby (nee Gradgrind) is the closest to reality.

Well, I have been ranting too long. In short, it's a bit an unpleasant reading for me, though Dickens never fails to make me laugh at times with his comical writing. I was also disturbed by the way he wrote Stephen's and Mr. Sleary's speeches - I must think hard all the time to decipher what they're saying. So my final rating is...


Monday, February 17, 2020

The Fortune of the Rougons by Émile Zola (second read)

o once commented on my first review, that The Fortune of the Rougons won't probably be considered great if it were a standalone novel. Its greatness lies in it becomes the first (the foundation) of The Rougon-Macquart cycle. I can't agree more. Fortune acted as the introduction of the whole cycle. From this book we get to know what Zola was aiming, which is to portray the disequilibrium of Second Empire of France, through the disordered two branched of a family: the Rougons and the Macquarts.

Basically, Fortune interweaves three stories into one frame:
1. The origin of the Rougon-Macquart family.
2. The historical account of the birth of Second French Empire.
3. The innocent love story of Silvère and Miette.

Published in 1871, Fortune takes place in a provincial town of Plassans. Adelaide Foque aka Tante Dide is an orphan girl of a merchant - a queer, nervous, imbalanced, passionate girl. She married the family gardener, the coarse, vulgar Rougon, and had a son: Pierre. However, she also had a lover, a drunkard good-for-nothing poacher: Macquart. Soon her husband and lover died, leaving her with Pierre and two illegitimate offsprings from Macquart: Antoine and Ursule.

Pierre is the perfect combination of his mother and father: crafty, ambitious, with insatiable desire. He married a local merchant daughter (though rumor has it she's an illegitimate daughter of a Marquis) Felicité Puech - intelligent, full of intrigue, envious, and ambitious. They had three sons: Eugène, Pascal, and Aristide. When their oil business didn't give them the wealth and respect they badly craved, they were full of bitterness.

In 1851, the Rougons, in the last attempt to gain respect, opened their yellow drawing room to some merchants and dealers to have meetings and discuss politics. These local conservative bourgeoisies secretly supported the monarchy as they're afraid of losing their privilege against the working class, if France continued to be led by the Republican. When the eldest son Eugène Rougon sent his parents reports about the upcoming coup d'état, Pierre & Felicité saw a brilliant way to gain fast fortune.

Antoine Macquart is almost a duplicate of his father - lazy, cowardly, alcoholic, egoist, hypocrite; while from his mother, he inherited very little - lack of discipline, and insatiable desire for pleasure and comfort. He married a hardworking and alcoholic woman, Fine, and they had three children: Lisa, Gervaise, Jean. Besides heredity influence, Zola also believed that guilty sex produces faulty behaviour in subsequent generations. The strongest result is in Antoine Macquart's family. Gervaise - we would follow her faith later in L'Assommoir - but here we get a glimpse of how she was brought up literally with drinks and by her drunkard parents. She was conceived when her parents were drunk, resulting to a delicate feature and a liking of drinks.

Ursule Macquart inherited more from her mother, than her father. She is shy, whimsical, melancholy, with sudden changes of nervous laughter and dreaminess. She married a respectable hatter: Mouret, and they had three children: François, Hélène, and Silvère. After Ursule died of consumption, Silvère lived with Tante Dide.

Fortune opens with the story of Silvère and his sweetheart, a very young girl called Miette. Theirs is an innocent relationship, almost childish. It was on the night of December 1st, 1851 - the night of the coup d'état. Together with Miette, Silvère, full of idealistic (more of a nervous hysteria, actually - inheritance from grandma Dide!) views of Republican, joined a group of insurgents which was marching towards Plassans. Fortune could be viewed as a miniature of the recorded history about the coup d'état. Louis Phillippe staged the coup; just as the Rougons, according to Eugène's secret letters, staged Pierre's heroic salvation of the city. And just as the bloody origins of the Second Empire, so did the fortune of the Rougons was paid for in blood.

As usual with Zola, Fortune is full of metaphors. In fact you would be surprised with how often the word "blood" or something represents it (red color in the flag carried by Miette and Miette's coat, for instance) surfaced from the entire story, especially near the end. The most obvious one is when Pierre and Felicité was in bed after planning their own "coup":

"They kissed each other gain and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seems to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinking at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor."

Even Pascal, the naturalist self of Zola "could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood."

Another less obvious metaphor is how Zola described the cycle of life using "the door" built by Macquart the poacher to smoothen his adultery with Tante Dide. Dide has closed it after Macquart's death, but later on Silvére and Miette found and opened it once again for similar purpose, though theirs are pure and innocent. It represents how each generation was condemned to repeat the actions of the former. Here is a tinge of the determinism views not uncommon in 19th century.

But the last paragraph (my favorite) is the strongest of all, where Zola stroke his hammer for the last time with all his might:

"But the strip of pink satin fastened to Pierre's buttonhole was not the only splash of red marked the triumph of the Rougons. A shoe with a bloodstained heel lay forgotten under the bed in the next room. The candle burning at Monsieur Peirotte's bedside, on the opposite side of the street, shone in the darkness with the lurid redness of an open wound. And far away, in the depths of the Aire Saint Mittre, a pool of blood was congealing on a tombstone."

Another metaphor of cycle of life I found in the third paragraph of Chapter 1 - the cemetery:

"In 1851 the old people of Plassans could still remember having seen the walls of the cemetery when they were still standing, though the place had been shut for years. The earth, gorged with corpses for over a century,  exuded death... The abandoned cemetery had then gone through a process of purification every spring by covering itself with thick, lack vegetation.... After the May r rains and the June sunshine, the tallest weeds sprouted higher than the walls and could be seen as far away as the main road; while inside the place seemed like a deep, dark green sea bestrewn with big, strangely colored flowers. Underfoot, between the mass of stems, you could feel the damp soil bubbling and oozing with sap."

Life ends in death, and sometimes, death is needed to get a new life on top of it. So Zola opened the book with new life germinating from a cemetery - could the cemetery interpreted to be the dead of First Empire (after February Revolution in 1848)? Then the new stems should be the present Second Republic. Or is it the Republic that is dying, and the new life oozing from the damp soil is the germinating of the Second Empire? Either way, as with all Zola's novels, there's always hope and regeneration after each death.

In his preface Zola mentioned that Fortune, as the first of twenty novels, "could bear the scientific title Origins.” And with such a great origin, it's no wonder that The Rougon-Macquart turned out to be an epic tale of a disordered family during Second Empire of France. Or is it because I have read all the novels (except Doctor Pascal) that I can regard Fortune as great? It's true that when I first read it, I didn't see something special. It is true then what I have mentioned in the beginning, Fortune becomes great because it's an 'origins'. Hence, the title 'cycle' which we put to The Rougon Macquart. Bravo Zola!

Rating: 5 to 5