Wednesday, September 12, 2018

6 Degree of Separation: From The Origin to….

I have just finished a wonderful book, of which I still need time to digest: Irving Stone's The Origin—a historical account on Charles Darwin. As always with great books, it'd take me much time and efforts to review. On the other hand, my head is full of it and I was eager to write something. Several weeks ago I saw a meme called 6 Degree of Separation (hosted by Kathy), and thought: why not working on one with The Origin? This book has reminded me of many books as I read it, so I think I would work on two different routes of separations, starting both with The Origin. Let's see where it gets! And to make it more interesting, can you guess the relation of each separation only by the title (without reading my explanation)?

From The Origin to The Lord of the Rings

The Origin

Irving Stone has done a tremendous research on the life and work of Charles Darwin, including the reason why he, in the first place, had courageously written and published On The Origin of Species despite his fears of strong rejection and public accusation of blasphemy: it's because he longed to tell the truth!

The truth was also Émile Zola's reason when he heroically published an open letter to the president of France:

The Dreyfus Affair: J'Accuse!

It was Zola's fight against the injustice imposed upon Alfred Dreyfus—a Jewish officer accused of committing treason.

Robert Harris has written a thorough account of the Dreyfus Case in his historical novel:

The book made it clearly understood that the biggest crime behind Dreyfus Case was racism.

The real event of racism in a higher level could also be found in this history book:

The book retells the history of injustice, genocide, and, at the end, massacre of the native Indian in American West. 

The native Indian was also picked by a German writer who has never been to America but could tell the story so vividly: Karl May with his masterpiece: 

Winnetou (series)

One thing I admired from the series is the true friendship between Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, which overcame their differences—in culture, race, beliefs.

The same true friendship over differences I have also encountered in a fellowship from the other "world" in:

One of my favorite things from this least favorite book of mine is the friendship of Legolas, the elf, and Gimly, the dwarf. Theirs is nothing compared to Winnetou-Old Shatterhand's, but still... how they could be brothers in spite of their differences, is what we all must keep in world present world full of hatred; is it not?

And there, the first route of separations must end. What do you think? Which part is your favorite? Or do you need a more encouraging piece? Keep reading, then...

From The Origin to La Bête Humaine

The Origin

The easiest path is, of course, that which lead to Charles Darwin's magnum opus:

On the Origin of Species

Darwin's "evolution" was an unprecedented theory amidst the conventional Christian views (that God created living creatures as a whole and unchanged), thus it triggered more disputes between the Church and Naturalists (scientists).

The similar conflict (albeit only in the person of Abbe Mouret) also appears in a book of a naturalist in literary world: Émile Zola:

The priest was torn between the rigidness of the Church and the fertility of the Nature. These conflicts eventually led him to committing the sin.

Speaking of sin, reminded me of The Sin which is discussed in:

This is also a magnum opus; of a fiction writer. Besides sin, it also talks about good vs evil--our freedom of choice (or Timshel). This led me to think about...

Remember a bunch of teenagers who was stranded on an uninhabited island? Isn't there one boy who was 'forced' to choose the path of good vs evil, finally chose to keep his common sense, while the others succumbed to their "beast" within or....

Zola highlighted the importance of controlling our beast within in this beautiful yet provoking novel.

And so, that's the end of the second route of the separations.

Tell me, which route do you like most?

Monday, September 10, 2018

R.I.P. XIII (Readers.Imbibing.Perils) Reading Challenge

I have never participated in this challenge before. But this year is the thirteenth year of R.I.P. (Readers.Imbibing.Peril), and it does make it appealing… Coincidently, I have several gothic/mystery books on my TBR, so…why not?

This challenge challenges us to read mystery, suspense, horror, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic during September and October. I am starting rather late, as I have just finished Irving Stone’s The Origin—which is great!—today, but I think I’d be able to manage four books until end of October.

My choices:
- The Turn of the Screw and the Aspern Papers by Henry James
- The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Interesting choices, eh? Are you joining too?

Monday, August 27, 2018

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

This was my third encounter of Jules Verne. My favorite remains 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, followed by Around the World in Eighty Days. I felt that Journey to the Center of the Earth is too short; it ended too abruptly. There should have been more room for Verne to expand the story; at least to dig deeper the emotional side of the characters.

The story is told from Axel's point of view. He is the nephew of Prof. Otto Lidenbrock, a German savant (a distinguished scientist) specializing in mineralogy. Axel himself is also a scientist--geology is his specialty, and has a great interest in his uncle's field. One day Prof. Lidenbrock bought an old runic manuscript, inside which Axel found a cryptic runic script written by a 16th century savant called Arne Saknussem. He claimed that he has travelled to, and found, the center of the Earth; and encouraged others to go and follow his steps through a volcanic tube inside crater of Snäfell in Iceland. The exact entrance would be pointed by the shadow of Scartaris mountain peak, at noon, by the end of June. So, off went Lidenbrock and Axel to Iceland; hired a Danish eiderdown hunter called Hans; and soon the three began what must have been the most dangerous journey men have ever taken to the center of the earth.

Of the three, Lidenbrock was the most enthusiastic traveler; while Axel the most reluctant (quite understandable as he was a young man who just fell in love with a lovely girl). Hans was indifferent, silent, but practical, as was usual for hunter.

The journey proved to be full of suspense and wonder. Down the Snäfell crater they descended a kind of steep-sided well (jökull--or volcano tube), about 2000 feet to the bowel of the Earth. Amazingly there they found a subterranean river flowed on the underground cavern with granite walls and roof. But the journey was not all wonder and comfort; at one point Axel was separated from the others and got lost in the labyrinth of the cavern. When all hope was lost, another wonder happened. A strange acoustic effect has enabled Axel and Lidenbrock to communicate from far distance, without which Axel would have been dead.

Resuming the journey, they then met another wonder: a huge subterranean Sea, off which they embarked by a raft made by Hans. During the sail they also met and escaped giant prehistoric sea monsters; found a large geyser in the middle of the Sea; then hit by a terrible storm that lasted for days and which finally wrecked their raft.

Stranded on an island, they continue the journey by foot along the coastline, where they found a prehistoric forest full of mastodons, giant birds, and even giant men—underworld civilization totally hidden, unknown, and untouched by the upperworld! This passage really felt like watching Jurassic Park! But the last stage of their journey was the most deathly, and, for us readers, the most thrilling!

Through all the excitement of scientific discoveries and the fearful or painful perils, Verne also slipped every now and then the emotional touch of humanity, like how Lidenbrock turned compassionate and tender to his dear nephew when Axel was weak after his lost. However, as I said before, I felt that Verne could have dug this field still deeper. Anyway, Journey to the Center of the Earth was written in the form of a scientific journal; so maybe it is was the perfect way anyway to weave the story.

4 / 5 is my final verdict.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Reading Challenges Update: August

I have skipped three challenge update posts from May to July, but here I am again!
Book(s) read = 18
Review(s) posted = 17

  1. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier for #TBR2018RBR
  2. The Phantom of the Opera by GastonLeroux for Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (Re-read a favorite classic)
  3. Towards Zero by Agatha Christie for Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (a classic crime story)
  4. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene for #TBR2018RBR and The Classics Club
  5. March by Geraldine Brooks for #TBR2018RBR
  6. East of Eden by John Steinbeck for The Classics Club and Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (a 20th century classic)
  7. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy for #TBR2018RBR, The Classics Club, and Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (a classic with single-word title)
  8. The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder for The Classics Club
  9. A Love Story by Émile Zola for Victorian Reading Challenge
  10. The Sin of Abbé Mouret by Émile Zola for Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (a classic in translation)
  11. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff for #TBR2018RBR
  12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte for The Classics Club, Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (classic by a woman author) and Victorian Reading Challenge 
  13. Famous Five: Five Go Off in a Caravan by Enid Blyton for Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (children’s classic)
  14. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco for #TBR2018RBR
  15. The Siege by Helen Dunmore for #TBR2018RBR
  16. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien for The Classics Club and Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 (classic that scares you)
  17. Howards End by E.M. Forster for The Classic Club and #TBR2018RBR
  18. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris for #TBR2018RBR (review will be up early next week)

Question of the month from #TBR2018RBR:

Have you challenged yourself with a genre outside of your “comfort zone” this year?
Yes, I have. I’m no fan of fantasy; yet I have forced braved myself to finally read The Lord of the Rings (yay me!) Did I enjoy it? Not really… ha! Only because it’s an epic tale and beautifully written that I can get through the three books.

It is four and a half months to the end of 2018, and I have some exciting books to read. Also, I will be participating in the 13th Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) challenge, which will start next month. I have three or four books on my TBR pile that I’m going to read through September and October:
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton
- The Whistler by John Grisham

If there is still time, I might also squeeze in Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? 

How is your reading pace right now? Will you join in #RIPXIII too?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Howards End depicts three English families from three different classes whose lives were accidently intertwined. There are the Wilcoxes—the wealthy and business-minded, the Schlegels—the cultured rural middle classes, and the Basts—the poor and submissive working classes.

The story began with Helen Schlegel's (the youngest of the girls) short love affair with Paul Wilcox, which then continued in Margaret's (Helen's sister) friendship with Ruth Wilcox, Paul's mother and mistress of a country house called Howards End. Ruth is the only Wilcox who loves the house as a home, cares for its lovely garden, trees, and all. She values the 'spirit' of the house; while the others only value Howards End as property; they care more about motors, business, money, and luxury. And that's why she connects well with Margaret because they both believe in personal relations, in family ties, which 'build the spirit'. Before Mrs. Wilcox's sudden death, she bequeathed Howards End to Margaret. As business-minded family, of course the Wilcoxes cannot accept this, and they decided not to follow her wish.

Leonard Bash is a poor clerk of a bank who wishes to step up to middle class by way of culture and learning. He met and got to know the Schlegels on an opera night. The Schlegel girls heard from Henry Wilcox (husband of the late Ruth Wilcox), that the bank where Leonard works is in financial trouble. They told Leonard this, and advised—even  encouraged—him to resign.

Margaret and Henry Wilcox then fell in love and soon got married (though opposed by Wilcox children and Helen). Soon after this they learned that the Basts (Leonard and Jacky—the woman who lives with him though unmarried) were financially ruined because Leonard eventually left his proper job but never found another as good as his previous job. Helen the 'ever-emotional' was enraged because Henry was totally unperturbed with the Basts' misfortune. And when it's revealed that Henry has apparently had an affair with Jacky in the past (which was the cause of her ruin), Helen was mad with rage, even to Margaret, who of course forgave and defended her husband, practical as she always is.

The country house which became the set of Howards End the movie

This was my first encounter with Forster. It may not be my favorite, but I enjoyed every moment of the reading. Howards End is either Forster's dream or prophecy of what kind of people who should or would shape England as a nation in the turn-of-the-century (it was published in 1910); whether it'd be the business/industrial people like the Wilcoxes; or the cultured Schlegels; or the working class Basts. Unlike most Victorian novels, I felt that Forster did not judge; he merely gave us glimpses of each class' character, for our own analysis and judgment. To me, Helen is overreacting about the Basts business. Opinion is opinion; the Schlegels should not meddle with Leonard's career. They are right to forward Henry's insight to him, but they or Leonard should have never swallowed it wholly, but then blamed the informer when it didn't happen as they wished. I couldn't blame Henry here. And when Helen was mad at him for ruining Mrs. Bast, while she herself did the same with a married man, well... I think she disliked him for the wrong reason.

In the end, I believe Margaret represents the next ideal generation of England (at least Forster's ideal). Cultured, can accept modernity and respect business culture, but still maintains love of nature, and above all, personal relationship, which makes houses to be homes, and where morality and integrity will keep germinating in the next generation's homes. The mixture of these qualities is the key of surviving the turn of the century, and preparing for the future. Ruth Wilcox is too Victorian, while the other Wilcoxes are too business minded. Both are in the extreme poles.

It has been a tranquil read for me, but I guess it should be read when you are in certain level of calmness in mood; otherwise you'd find it rather flat and dry.

4 to 5 is my final verdict.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read the e-book version

Right after I closed the last page of LOTR, I said to myself: "Finally... I have conquered thee!!" Indeed, LOTR has been one of books I dreaded most because of its length; but most of all, because fantasy is not my cup of tea. Someone told me to read it as myth, not fantasy; but even myth is my less favorite genre. Then too, people praised it so much that I felt I must at least give it a try. In fact I have tried years before, reading the Indonesian translation, but only after the first pages. I got bored, and gave up. So this time I 'forced' myself to read all the three books from first page to the last. And I did, yay!

As everyone seems to have read LOTR, I need not taking effort to write the summary. In short, a group of nine delegations was assigned to destroy a dangerous ring, lest the Dark Lord, who was rising in power, found and used it to rule the Middle Earth. Curiously, from the nine members, the fellowship composed of four hobbits—creatures that were famous of being weak and lazy (they were also called 'halflings'), one wizard, two men, an elf, and a dwarf. Trusting a job so crucial against such powerful enemy to some hobbits seems absurd. That Frodo is the ring bearer—because his uncle, Bilbo Baggins, was the latest owner and has bequeathed the ring to him—it was understandable that he was one of the delegations. Sam Gamgee is his esquire, so he too must go. But Merry (Meriadoc) and Pippin (Peregrin), why must they? But that is one of the most important points that lay behind this adventurous epic: minority and diversity.

While there was a wizard and a valiant knight and Lord (Aragorn), yet in the end, the greatest heroes were these halflings, who often hindered them during the journey, while complaining about food or pipes, aka the hobbits! I am glad that though people regarded them as "nobody", Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli treated and respected them equally. That is why, I think, Boromir must go very early, because he was no team player; he was too much into himself.

Of the four, my favorite is Sam Gamgee. Here is a simple, warm, and honourable man.. err... hobbit. Heroism is when you face terrible danger, you are horrified and hopeless, yet you force yourself to go through, for the sake of something (or someone) dearest to you. And Sam is simply the highest hero here!

My favorite part is everytime Merry or Pippin was around. I enjoyed the comical or emotional side of their journeys, and how they fit completely with each other. Frodo, on the other hand, is too dreamy and felt a bit unreal to me. At least his hundred-years-old uncle Bilbo was much more vigorous (in The Hobbit) than him.

Finally, of the three books, I liked Book 3 (The Return of the King) the most. Book 1 (The Fellowship of the Ring) is full of flat narration on Middle Earth and its people, and it instantly bored me. The names of the houses, mountains, lands, country, and I don't know what else, overwhelmed me from the first, that I neglected them altogether since Book 1. Book 2 (The Two Towers) was more enjoyable, but the best was Book 3. Overall, LOTR is the modern version of epic fantasy written in poetic prose. Despite my satisfaction of finally reading it, the journey has been rather a struggle—I skipped most of the songs and description of woods or lands. Again, fantasy is not yet my cup of tea (Harry Potter is the only exception), and through the book I have longed for ordinary lives!

And for all that...

3,5 to 5 is my fairest verdict

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Disappearance of Émile Zola by Michael Rosen

Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason (passing secrets to Germany). Perhaps it was the fact that he was a Jewish, that blew out the case into anti-semitic issue, which then torn France into two bitter sides.

At that time, Zola has established himself as a successful writer, having just finished his ambitious literary project: the Rougon-Macquart series. He could have stayed at home with families, enjoying his wealth and comfort while, perhaps, preparing for his new novel. But no, Zola, who was not a politician, plunged himself into the war with his open letter: J'accuse!, defending the innocent Dreyfus. Then Zola—who loved his country, and has put huge efforts in creating the Rougon-Macquart for the sake of his beloved France, and even risked his life and reputation by taking side with a Jewish—was now found guilty of libel. His friends decided that he must flee from Paris.

Michael Rosen compiled old notes, journals, letters, and newspapers on the events around Zola's exile, and then recreated them into this interesting story. This book does not only record the whole episode from the night Zola fled to England to after his death, but also reveals a different side of Zola's personal life which was rarely exposed: his intimate life with his wife and his mistress. Let's unwrap it all here...

Zola's English was zero, and he was 'forced' to leave France at night by train, bringing only a pack of nightshirt and a piece of paper with the name of the hotel written in it. Imagine... forced to leave your beloved country, snatched from the warmth of family and loved ones, and arrive in a foreign country where you couldn't speak the language; alone, wretched, and abandoned. No wonder that Zola suffered at least two nervous breakdowns during the exile.

There are several new and interesting facts around Zola's exile I got from this book. First is his intricate love life. I already knew about Zola's childless marriage with Alexandrine, and about his much younger mistress: Jeanne Rozerot, who gave him two children: Jacques and Denise. But that Alexandrine, when she learned about the affair, rushed to Jeanne's house with rage; or how the two families always stayed not far from each other (either in Paris, or Zola's house in Médan, or in Verneuil); that Jeanne and the children always stayed nearby—that, I had no idea. And from this account, I suddenly had a high admiration for Madame Zola. That, I thought, is the true wonder woman. It was not uncommon in 19th century for a gentleman to have mistress(es), but it was usually kept discreet. That the wife accepted the mistress into the family (though lived separately) and 'shared' the husband (stayed with the wife in the nights and the mistress in the afternoons)—that was really unconventional.

left: Mme. Zola, right: Zola with Jeanne Rozerot
and the children: Jacques & Denise

I began to imagine Alexandrine—strong willed and respectable woman, but with tender heart too. She must have lived desperately through rage, shame, and jealousy, but she loved her husband so much (otherwise she wouldn't sacrifice that much) and knew that she must save his reputation; that he needed peace and comfort of a home and surrounded with hid children to produce his masterpieces, so that in the end she finally accepted the bizarre arrangement. I imagined it was she who has found a small quiet house round the corner for Jeanne and the children, and she perhaps also managed to provide household needs for the 'other' house, all for the convenience of dear Zola. How she endured questions from the neighbors? Or maybe it was so common that people didn't talk about it? How she must have felt when Zola went there? Knowing that Zola felt more at home there than at her own house? That Zola did not love her as a woman (I think he respected her and treated her like a best friend—someone that always understood him), and how he always looked happier when he was there. Well... it must have been terribly hard to endure!

But I was rambling here... Another interesting point I have also learned from this book is 'Zolaism'. Around that time, writers who dared to write about sex scenes or other vulgarities were accused of Zolaism. Zola's influence was widespread later and can be found in the works of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, and many more. But before, his books were banned and rejected. His translator and publisher Henry Vizetelly was imprisoned and fined for translating and publishing Zola's La Terre, and finally died following his ruin. Why La Terre? Only if you have read it, you would know why. But the funny thing is, they particularly questioned the passage where a farm girl (I forgot her name) assists, with her hands, her bull to mate with a cow. That passage they found vulgar, but not the rape scene?? Strange…

There is also Zola's photography. I came to know in detail how Zola was obsessed with his new hobby. I haven't related it with his extraordinary writing method at first, but this passage intrigued me:

In relation to his writing, Zola claimed that his visual memory was equipped with an ‘extraordinary vividness’ and that he could evoke objects he had seen in ways that meant he could see them again as they really were. Photography supplemented and enlarged this for him and is linked to what he thought of as the scientific approach to writing.

Remarkable, is he not? It made me quite interested in his photographer side now. In fact, I have ordered a book on it: Zola - Photographer (edited by Massin), a compilation of about 200 photographs by Zola.

In his later work: Travail, and in educating his children, Zola interestingly viewed work as something pleasant, satisfying, and the source of happiness, instead of as obligation or labour. Travail is the third of the Gospels series. I loved this part because it reflected my personal view. Work has become my second hobby, besides reading (obviously), and my life feels complete only when these two fields are balanced.

There are so many things you might find in this book that I can’t share here lest this post becomes tedious (and I have not yet talked much about his disappearance!). Anyway, my admiration grew higher still for Zola, after reading this book. He is not only a great author, but also a very brave man to stand (almost alone but a few supporters) against injustice and to fight for the truth, by sacrificing a lot in the process (his career, his happiness, and almost certainly, his life—it’s never officially approved, but I’m almost sure that he was really poisoned to death by his opponents)! To me, he is a hero.

Rosen has done his job very well, but for inserting his own short story in the end. What was the purpose? It really ruined his efforts in bringing the inside story of one of the greatest authors that France (if not the world) has owned. Therefore…

4 / 5 is my final verdict.

Paris, look what I’ve done for you! And yet this is how you treat me!” ~ Émile Zola