Monday, September 23, 2019

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

This was my first Cormac McCarthy. Years ago I have meant to try The Road, but after reading about his poor-punctuation style, I cancelled it. All the Pretty Horses is the first of his Border Trilogy, and since I'm always interested in similar theme, I thought this would be my entrance - and who knows, I might enjoy it!

I was wrong. The theme is great, but it's far from what I've expected. The story is dark, and at times it's even quite bloody, despite of "all the pretty horses".

John Grady Cole is a 17 y.o. boy grew up in a ranch. The ranch has become his life, so when his mother decided to sell it after all the family died, Grady decided to leave the ranch altogether. Together with his friend, Lacey Rawlins, he travelled to Mexico to become a cowboy - a romantic dream of boys their age.

Before crossing Mexican border, they met a skinny and shaggy young boy called Jimmy Blevins, who insisted that he was 16 y.o., and that the (too fine) horse he is riding is really his. Out of compassion, the two boys (Grady in particular; Rawlins distrusted Blevins from the first) let the skinny boy rode with them along the way. Blevins' horse run away one night after a terrible thunderstorm, bringing with it Blevins' vintage pistol (again, they doubted it really belongs to the boy). Blevins convinced Grady and Rawlins to steal the horse back after they found it in a nearby village. It turned into a chaos; Blevins was caught, and the boys ran away.

Eventually they found a big ranch, and were hired as workers. Impressed with Grady's great skill with horses, the owner brought him to stay near the big house. Grady fell in love with the boss' daughter Alejandra. At around this time a group of rangers came to the ranch, caught Grady and Rawlins, and put them into jail, where they had hard times, and almost got killed.

Enough with the summary, now let me bring out my scale to weigh the whole story:

Positive things:
* the cowboy things, both during the journey, but especially at the ranch (the horse trainings are fabulous!)
* bildungsroman - it's marvelous to witness how their journey matured Grady and Rawlins. When you are close with the nature, you'll think a lot about life, God, and all spiritual and philosophical stuffs.

Negative things:
* lack of punctuation - how annoying it is to follow a long dialog without proper punctuation; you'll get lost of who's talking right now, and it lacks the emotion too.
* polysyndetic syntax - okay, I confess I have had no idea that Hemingway's style has a name! Yep, it feels like reading Hemingway, you know... with a lot of "and" serves as the only conjunction on a passage. I guess it's half the reason I'd stopped reading Hemingway! So polysyndetic is something about "conveying a flow and continuity of experience in a passage" using certain conjunctions.

So, what's the final verdict? I guess 3 / 5 is the max. Another writer to be deleted from my list.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Classics Club Spin #21, and a Tough Decision!

The next Classics Club Spin has come at the perfect time when I really needed it! The second semester of the year has been very hectic for me - and it will be until the end of the year; it might even stretch to early next year. I am very exhausted right now - more emotionally than physically, and my reading mood has kept altering between calm-and-soothing ones and light-fast ones. It means I always need to have two books to read simultaneously; and I can shift between books two or three times in a day. Really crazy, I know! And that's why, I was very excited to have the 21st Classics Club Spin!

Here's my list:

5 Random Classics

01. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
02. The Glass Menagerie - Tennessee Williams
03. The Crucible - Arthur Miller
04. The Deerslayer - James Fennimore Cooper
05. Tarzan of the Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs

5 Victorian Classics

06. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
07. Hard Times - Charles Dickens
08. Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
09. Silas Marner - George Eliot
10. The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane

5 Gothic Classics

11. The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
12. The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins
13. We Have Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
14. The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
15. Othello - William Shakespeare

5 Modern Classics

16. Under the Net - Iris Murdoch
17. The Pearl - John Steinbeck
18. The Beautiful and Damned - F. Scott Fitzgerald
19. This Side of Paradise - F. Scott Fitzgerald
20. Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

Which one I look forward the most? I don't know - I say, I'm quite excited to read any number the spin would get me. Maybe, I'd rather having something gothic to read for #RIPXIV. But, I will read from no. 11-15 anyway, so.... anything is welcomed.

Now it comes to the hard decision I have mentioned in the title.

I have made the toughest decision in my reading life, to sign out from Moby Dick Readalong. The thing is, I don't have the right mood for deep reading right now - what with my hectic life, and also with menopausal-depressions I have to cope with. It's not a regular thing - thank God! - but still, it comes now and then.

Actually I have been doing quite well with the readalong so far - I have even managed to post weekly updates, and was generally having fun with the other participants. But entering chapter 26 or 27, I began to lose interest - I don't know why; I believe it has nothing to do with the book - it's just me. And I was thinking that we are approaching the end of year, which is usually the busiest days at work. Then I realized that I wouldn't have the energy to cope with it. I have choices, of course, I can just have a light reading through it. But I have done that years ago (this was my second read). If it doesn't give me joy anymore, why should I continue? 

I feel sorry to Brona - I have been waiting for this for a long time, and even half encouraged her to do it, perhaps, but now I must put it down. I am disappointed too, but... yeah, I have no choice. Another thing, I have mentioned earlier that I'm planning to have an ambitious project of reading Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle in 4-5 years, starting next year. Right now I'm very excited! I have prepared the materials, and can hardly wait till January. I might begin earlier with my Cambridge Companion to Zola, just to get the outline of what I must focus on next year!

Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy my readings as much as I can - no ambitious task for the moment. Good luck with your readalongs, events, or spins! :)

Monday, September 2, 2019

Moby Dick Ch. 20-22: Aboard at Last!

Ch. 20: All Astir

= Aunt Charity, Bildad's sister, is the very opposite of her beloved brother. She is the embodiment of pure Christianity! - attended to all crews' needs with loving care. You gotta love her!

= I have just realised on this chapter, why Captain Bildad's name was quite familiar. Why, it's one of Job's friends from the Bible (Book of Job)! Bildad is the one who accuses Job of having done something bad to deserve God's wrath. An appropriate name for Bildad the Captain, whose main job description seems to be christening the savages, or his own crews.

Ch. 21: Going Aboard

= The mysterious Elijah: prophetic or lunatic?

= What was it that he'd wanted to warn Ishmael & Queequeg? Captain Ahab, or the dangerous voyage ahead?

= Were the shadows of some sailors, which Ishmael saw but not Queequeg, real or hallucinatory?

= Elijah, as is the Bible's Prophet Elijah, prophesied doom. Is his function in the story merely to portray the dangerous voyage of whaling (in the 19th century's superstitious style), or something else?

= Colonial mentality. I might have gone too far here, from the book's theme, but the comical scene where Queequeg innocently sat on a sleeping sailor on board Pequod has nevertheless prompted me to think about inferior mentality caused by colonialism. [From Wikipedia] "A colonial mentality is the internalized attitude of ethnic or cultural inferiority felt by people as a result of colonization, i.e. them being colonized by another group. It corresponds with the belief that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one's own." Remember how Queequeg told Ishmael that "in his land, owing to the absence of settees and sofas of all sorts, the king, chiefs, and great people generally, were in custom of fattening some of the lower orders for ottomans." They'd buy "eight or ten lazy fellows" for that purpose. How, do you think, can these lower orders give themselves to be degraded like this? I think it's because they believe they were inferior to their kings or chiefs. Yes, it's not colonialism in this case, but the idea popped up in my head, because Indonesia have inherited the same mentality from our centuries of colonialism, and it affects us, sadly, even today.

= Another train of thoughts of mine on this subject: Queequeg, whose mind is noble in almost every other subjects, felt nothing is wrong with the degraded practice of his natives. It proves that one cannot fairly judge other's behavior as ethically or morally right or wrong, without first perceiving his or her background. In John Grisham's The Chamber, for example, the main character is a prominent KKK member who bombed a building and killed some innocent Jewish kids. He insisted he was not guilty at first, because it was what his family always taught him from childhood. Later on, after contemplating his action while in jail, he realized that what he's done was wrong. I won't open argument of whether it's possible or not here; my point is that, quoting the valuable advice of Nick Carraway's father (The Great Gatsby): "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." In that light, Queequeg’s queer humor is quite acceptable.

Ch. 22: Merry Christmas

We were introduced to Pequod's chief mate, one of my favorite characters: Starbuck. You know, it never struck me, on my first reading, that his name was similar to that of the worldwide coffee chain: Starbucks! Later on I searched its history, and found that it's actually half-named after Starbuck the chief mate. Pequod has also been suggested, but they finally picked Starbuck, but ending it with an 's'. Interesting, right? The more you dig, the more Moby-Dickish bits you'd find!

I will end this weekend's update with another interesting finding: a superb 34 minutes video of whaling around the world:

The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage 'Round the World by New Bedford Whaling Museum

It also mentions the one whaling voyage which a decade later has inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. In 1820, a whaling boat from Nantucket called Essex was rammed by a huge whale, and sank in Pacific oceans. From 20 crews, 8 survived, after resorted to cannibalism. The story was later told, in 1821, by its first mate, Owen Chases.

I have wanted to write three more chapters for this post, but I have wasted the last valuable 34 minutes I could spare yesterday by watching above video... so... it's all I could squeeze at the moment. Next weekend I'll be travelling, so no update is possible till the week after. See ye again, shipmates!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Moby Dick Ch. 12-19: On Religions and Some Cultural Backgrounds

Ch. 12: Biographical

How relatable is this passage about Queequeg's origin to our present world. Son of a High Priest on his native island, he was rejected, bullied, and distrusted when entering the "so-called-Christians" land. Christians, who regard themselves as superior towards other races, but often behave lower and more savage than they whom they called "savages". Only Queequeg, so far (yes, not even Ishmael - see ch. 17!), who regards fellow human being as brothers/sisters - all race and nation is just the same - that's what I call humanity at its best. "It's a wicked world in all meridians; I'll die a pagan."

Ch. 13: Wheelbarrow

= A hint of cultural diversity, the hilarious story from Queequeg. And it's good that Queequeg throws the shade over Ishmael's laughing at him about the wheelbarrow incident. And actually it's not the first time - Ishmael will do similar thing at ch. 17. Those arrogant "boobies and bumpkins" also had their fair shares by bullying Queegueg!

= Another hint of sin and slavery (related to ch. 1 - the passage about "the two orchard thieves [Adam and Eve]) in "the intorelableness of all earthly effort" and "how I spurned that turnpike earth- that common highway all over dented with the marks of slavish heals and hoofs."

= Again, another hint of water as deliverance against dust/land (as in ch. 1), and as key to freedom.

= I admired Queequeg's humbleness; he was unconscious of his heroic action, which was exemplary to all (particularly to Christians) - "It's a mutual, joinstock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christian's." Bravo, Queequeg!

Ch. 14: Nantucket

I have found an interesting fact while researching about Nantucket. Remember Peter Coffin, the owner of Spouter Inn, whose name has thrown dark gloom over Ishmael? Did you know that the real Peter Coffin was one of the owners of Nantucket back in 17th-18th century? A Hussey – as in the Husseys, owner of Try Pots inn [ch. 15] was also the name of one of the owners.

[From Wikipedia] :
“In October 1641, William, Earl of Stirling, deeded the island to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts Bay. In 1659 Mayhew sold an interest in the island to nine other purchasers, reserving 1/10th of an interest for himself, "for the sum of thirty pounds ... and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife." [In] 1659, when Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to a group of investors, led by Tristram Coffin. The "nine original purchasers" were Tristram Coffin, Peter Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swain, Thomas Barnard, Stephen Greenleaf, John Swain and William Pike. These men are considered the founding fathers of Nantucket, and many islanders are related to these families.”

Interesting, eh? I imagined how Melville might have been amused while finding this name (Coffin), which really fitted the dark gloom he wanted to cast around chapter 3!

By the way, I loved the poetic description of Nantucketer: "....with the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales."

Ch. 15: Chowder

Another interesting fact: the chowder (but tell me first, can you read this chapter without salivating all over? LOL). Anyway, I always assume that chowder is a creamy soup. Is it the same in your place? But, again, researching about 19th century chowder, I realized that then, chowder was a layered casserole. I found this information in a post by a food blogger called The American Table.

“Traditionally, chowders are more like soupy casseroles, and that ‘chowdering’ referred to the process of layering ingredients. One of the first recipes for a chowder, for example, was published as a poem in the Boston Evening Post on September 23, 1751”:

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.

The original chowder, I guess, would have looked similar to this:
[credit: Book Phantom]

Ch. 16: The Ship

First meeting with the owners of Pequod: Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad. I noticed first of two inconsistencies regarding religion and its practices.

= On Bildad: despite of "Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years...", Bildad treated his crews cruelly. And I loved how Melville picked the verse of Matthew 6:19-21 ["lay not up for yourselves treasure upon earth...] to be particularly cited by Bildad when he decided to "swindle this young man" by giving him "long lay". Tipping my hat to you, Mr. Melville, that's just brilliant!

Ch. 17: The Ramadan

Inconsistency #2 was shown by Ishmael, when he criticized Queequeg's extreme practice of Ramadan. While keep saying that he (Ishmael) "cherish the greatest respect towards everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical...", he was obliged, nevertheless, to scold Queequeg "rather digressively" by bullying or making fool of his beliefs, or faith, or whatever you call it: "Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsia nurtured by Ramadans." I personally was quite surprised by this speech - I thought Melville (through Ishmael - or is he not entirely Melville's voice?) made a point of condemning Christian's superiority towards other religions/beliefs. Not believing in other religions (or religions in general) is one thing (and tolerable), but making fool of them publicly is disrespectful. By doing that, Ishmael acted just like the Christians he criticized. We might regard other religious practices are ridiculous, but we must pay respect to them all the same - each to his own belief!

Ch. 18: His Mark

Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, each has his opposite view of religion.
- Bildad: studied diligently the Scriptures, but practiced none.
- Peleg: ignored the Scriptures, but practiced it.

Browsing Brona's post, I have found out that Melville was assumed to be Agnostic. I shrugged off this idea at that time (last week), since so far, Melville has diligently quoted Bible verses, telling stories from Bible, and named his characters from Old Testament - not mentioning the powerful my-so-far-favorite chapter: The Sermon. But then, I began to notice few inconsistencies in the previous chapter; and now, this Peleg's argument with Bildad. So, maybe the Agnostic idea was not entirely ungrounded, after all. I begin to feel that Melville, perhaps disappointed with his fellows Christians, began to dream of (or "converted" to) a religion beyond existing religions, which was based on humanity and nature (which explains Ishmael's feeling of freedom, related to sea). Well, let's see!

Chapter 19: The Prophet

For an Agnostic (if Melville was really one), he really borrowed Biblical aspect so abundantly for his book! :) Now he brings us the Book of Kings - Elijah the prophet and King Ahab. I'm excited to see where he'd bring us to with this line.

And so, it’s all for now. ‘Till next week!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Moby Dick Ch. 8-11: Still about Sin, Repentance, Prejudice, and more on Christianity

A quick update on #MobyDickReadalong – my thoughts of ch. 8 to 11. I am now actually on ch. 15, but just don’t have enough time and energy to work on my journal more than ch. 11. *sigh*

Chapter 8: The Pulpit

My own interpretation on the symbolic meanings of Father Mapple's ship-like pulpit:

The act of withdrawing the ladder (man-ropes) after Father Mapple reached the pulpit:
It symbolizes spiritual withdrawal, or withdrawal from our own will, letting God's will prevail upon us --> in accordance with Father Mapple's sermon in ch. 9.

The pulpit as a "lofty Ehrenbreitstein with a perennial well of water within the walls":
My random research from Wikipedia revealed that Ehrenbreitstein is a fortress built by the Germans on the east bank of Rhine to protect them from France's invasion. However, there's no information about a well ever found within. So I assumed the perennial water symbolizes God's word, which is also "meat and wine of the word". During the War of Coalition in 1798 the France besieged Ehrenbreitstein fortress and brought starvation to its inhabitants, which led it to be handed over to France in 1799. So, when one takes protection within God's word, one would never be hungry or thirsty, because of the "perennial well of waters".

The painting above the pulpit:

It symbolizes relationship between man and God. He never abandons us in the midst of our struggles and dark hours ("a gallant ship beating against a terrible storm..."). All we have to do is to look up, as "there floated a little isle of sunlight, from which beamed forth an angel's face."

Chapter 9: The Sermon

= The powerful sermon by Father Mapple - Simon Callow read it so convincingly at Big Read Podcast, you'd feel like you're listening to the live version!
= Loved the hymn, which is about God's deliverance.
= Jonah's story has never been told so lively and full of emotion like that in this sermon. His sin of disobedience is in accordance with Adam & Eve's original sin (ch. 1).

Favorite quotes:

"And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves. It is in the disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists."
==maybe we, too, need a "withdrawal" (ch. 8) to make it lighter for obeying God.

"In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers."
== again, prejudices! – judging others by outward appearances only.

On Jonah's repentance:
"And here, shipmate, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment."
==humility is the key to complete repentance. With humility, God will "with speed He flew to (the sinner's) relief".

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

Ishmael was drawn to Queequeg because of his simplicity and honesty. There's no trace of falseness or hypocrisy ==> "Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy." It reminded me of the sailors who gathered around breakfast table at The Spouter Inn (ch. 2); there's a hint of hollow courtesy or falseness there. Queequeg is the only human being we have met so far, who was sincere, honest, and trustful, despite of his being a savage. Others (Christians) were mostly greedy (Jonah's Captain), prejudiced (Jonah's crew), and insincere (sailors in the Spouter Inn).

What is worship?
I only half agree with Melville (Ishmael) on this passage about worshipping.
= Is God jealous of "an insignificant bit of black wood"?
   *Yes, if one treats (worship) the wood in place of God.
   * No, if it is a mere symbol.

= Worshipping is not only doing the will of God, but also "love the Lord thy God with all they heart, mind, and soul".

I agree with Ishmael's action of uniting with Queequeg's worship, if it's only meant to be polite, not by heart.

Chapter 11: Nightgown

Grateful vs Comfort
= to enjoy the blissful of warmth, one should be surrounded in cold ==> you can't be perfectly grateful of something, if the thing is abundant - you'd take it for granted (in accordance with ch. 2 - poor Lazarus & the rich man).

Prejudice vs Love
="No man can ever feel his own identity alright except his eyes be closed." ==> again, "do not judge by outward appearances".
When we shut out our senses, we "see" more honestly and truer by heart ==> "See how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them." ==> by "closing his eyes", Ishmael consulted his heart, and love conquered his previous prejudices (seeing with eyes).

Monday, August 12, 2019

Moby-Dick Ch. 1-7: Early Clues of Sin/Redemption & Prejudices Theme

I might not be posting regularly for #MobyDickReadalong, but I'll try to squeeze some chapters every now and then into my tight schedule. Here’s my thoughts for the first seven chapters.

Chapter 1: Loomings

I was surprised at the abundant curious and interesting bits in this chapter alone - and it's only the beginning!

First, of course, one of the most famous opening lines in literature: "Call me Ishmael!" I have dutifully (following Brona's suggestion) listened to Whale Whale Whale podcast, which suggests that Ishmael is not just a person's name, but has a deeper meaning. Ishmael is taken from Abraham's son, who was a wanderer, an outcast. The narrator's condition: broke and depressed.
I've decided not to continue with Whale Whale Whale podcast, as it is full with bantering, like listening to a talkshow, and I have not the patience nor the time to listen to it! 

Water is liberating
Water, to most people, is mysterious – “the ungraspable phantom of life” – enchanting, and liberating ("...landsmen [who] on week days pent up in lath and plaster - tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks"). For Ishmael in particular, being a sailor is also liberating, despite of the obligation to serve and obey his bosses.

Sin and the burden of duty
I was struck by this passage: "The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves (Adam and Eve) entailed upon us." I began to think about sin - or the burden caused by original sin.

Interesting, eh? Sin and water in one chapter; is it me, or does it remind you to baptism? Hmm... maybe I've gone too far, but, who knows?... But wait, there's more in the next chapter...

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

Ishmael stumbled upon "an ash-box in the porch" when entering a building he thought was an inn. And his reaction was: "Are these ashes from the destroyed city, Gomorrah?" Again, the allusion of sin. When he entered the building, and found that it’s a negro church, his reaction was: "It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet (=hell)... and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit." What do you make of it? It's still a mystery to me, but I still can't shake off the allusion of 'sin' in this passage also.

Then there is the theme of rich and poor – poor Lazarus and the rich man. That the rich is often belittling the poor's sorrow (Euroclydon/tempestuous wind for the poor is a gentle breeze for the rich) because the rich "look out from glass window where the frost is all on the outside".

Chapter 3: The Spouter Inn

Here a new theme is presented: prejudice. The first case is when Ishmael pondering over a curious painting. At first he accused the painter of "in the time of the New England hags, [the painter] had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched." But finally he realized that it was a whale painting. Case number two is the hilarious scene when Ishmael and Queequeg first met. Each looked upon the other with suspicion. When meeting someone unfamiliar for the first time, we tend to imagine the worst.

Favorite quotes:
Ignorance is the parent of fear.
Better sleep with a sober criminal than a drunken Christian.

Chapter 4: Counterpane

Picking up prejudice theme from chapter 3, Melville highlighted how outside appearance is nothing compared to what it content inside. [Another] hilarious scene of Ishmael waking up with Queequeg's "blithed" arm hugged him in an affectionate manner. And despite of being savage and uncivilized, Ishmael was surprised to find Queequeg very polite and had "neat delicacies".

Another mystery to me presented itself in this chapter. His awkward situation with Queequeg reminded Ishmael of his childhood experience with his stepmother and the "supernatural hand placed in him" in his sleep. Whose hand it was, do you think? Was it really supernatural? Or perhaps it's his step mother's whom he thought wicked, but actually cared about him? Again... is it prejudice?

Chapter 5: Breakfast

There’s the memorable scene where Queequeg stab his steak with harpoon at breakfast!

Interesting quote:
And the man that has anything bountiful laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

Chapter 6: The Street

Ishmael mocked New Bedford's "bumpkin dandies" who go whaling. They do it out of greed, to enrich themselves – which was reflected from their beautiful houses.

Chapter 7: The Chapel

A gloomy reflection entered Ishmael's mind while he was sitting in the chapel, looking at marble tablets dedicated for the dead sailors. He pondered about the true meaning of life and death, and why man is so afraid of death. Life is but a momentary existence, while death is the truest. With that in mind, Ishmael is spiritually prepared for the dangerous whaling journey.

Favorite quote:
"What they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. In looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air."

That is all for the moment. I have actually read chapter eight (and today began ch. 9), but I think it requires a dedicated post (maybe coupled with chapter nine), as there are a lot of thoughts I might want to jot down.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden is the first of six novels in Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Mr. Septimus Harding is the warden of Hiram's hospital, founded by a John Hiram four centuries ago. In his will, Mr. Hiram left his estate to the Church, intending it to be an almshouse providing decent life for twelve bedesmen. After four centuries, the estate's income has much increased, and so, besides for the bedesmen, it also provides a comfortable life for its warden. At this point everyone (bedesmen and warden) has been living peacefully, and happily have they been accepting the arrangement. The warden, Mr. Harding, even generously sets aside a small portion of his personal income to provide additional gift for the bedesmen.

Then, a zealous young man, John Bold, who call himself a reformer, put it into his mind to propose a reformation to the arrangement. He thinks that the surplus money, instead of being paid to the warden, ought to be given to the bedesmen. Bold chose journalistic path to fight his cause, and soon enough, the newspapers started attacking the meek Mr. Harding's character, drawing an image that he is a greedy and selfish robber. On the other hand, the old bedesmen were also swept by the conflict, as they began to cherish hopes of getting rich. It is they who are eventually getting greedy and selfish.

I always have suspicion on anyone calls himself a reformer, as if it's a profession. Instead of reforming that which really needs to be changed, the person always finds some causes which he could reform, under pretenses of serving public interests; while in fact it's only his own ambition that he serves. That is, I think, the case with John Bold. Does he really think the bedesmen suffer from any injustice? I think he focuses only on the lawful aspects of the inheritance. But charity is charity. When the poor is provided with decent life and is happy, that is the aim of charity. Why must anyone make a fuss on the will, while it was probably what the late Mr. Hiram has exactly wished? If in the end everybody is unhappy; is it truly a public service?

The Warden is the first novel of Trollope I've ever read. Last year I read one or two of his Christmas short stories, and was captivated by his wittiness, and his sharp, straight away style of storytelling. But I must confess that The Warden has quite bored me. Some said it gets better with his next novels, so let's just see. Also, I'm not amused by his parodying Charles Dickens as Mr. Popular Sentiment and Thomas Carlyle as Dr. Pessimist Anticant. I realize that writers criticize one another of their contemporary all the time, but I think Trollope's parody is rather too harsh.

Judging all that, I think 3/5 is not unfair for this book. I do hope the next one really gets better!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This was my third read of Agatha Christie #7: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I think deserves to be labeled her masterpiece, and I tell you, I loved it even more than my precious two reads! But before I tell you more, I must warn you that this post contains HIGH LEVEL SPOILER! Do not continue reading if you haven't read it before – the spoiler might even start in the next paragraph! – as even tiny spoiler would ruin your reading forever; it will never be the same, trust me! So I have warned you!

I have not placed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd on top of my Agatha Christie favorites for no reason. To me, it's not a mere detective 'whodunit' story. There's something much deeper than that - a thorough analysis of human nature, and a great case of psychology. 

As I have been familiar with the plot and all surprises on the first and second reads, this time I dedicated my reading solely focusing on Dr. Sheppard's feeling and mental conditions - or you can call it the murderer-psychological-mapping. I have been wondering how an ordinary person could turn into a murderer. What the process looks like, at which point he decides to commit the murder, and what triggers him. And more importantly perhaps, what quality he possesses (or lacks of) which prompts him to it.

But I would like to say first, that this third reading made me realize that Christie has in fact sprinkled bits of clues all throughout the story from the very beginning - yes, even from the opening of chapter one. But, and here's where her genius lays, how are we supposed to have suspicion right in the beginning, through the words of the narrator? And, as it was only the beginning, we would just swallow everything as we still don't know for sure what's going on. Clever! Then, it gets even clearer when Doctor Sheppard got his "first foreboding": the tete-à-tete of Ralph Paton and Mrs. Ferrars. But then, we might assume that he has his concerns for Ralph – again who would suspect that a narrator would be the antagonist?

More about Doctor Sheppard; Caroline (his sister) once scowled James of being weak – and I remember he wondered why she said that. That line has particularly struck me. There lays the answer to my question: James – as are Ralph and Flora (see Poirot's speech) – is morally weak. These three lack the courage to do the right thing when under pressure. They tend to choose the easiest way, despite of everything. In James' case, I think Caroline's strong character and sharp tongue 'helps' turning his weakness into worse. The only way out he could see is money. Money can buy him freedom to go as far away as possible from Caroline (Argentine is his choice). And when Mr. Ferrar died, he saw the possibility only too clearly. Now, we all have been presented with temptation, on certain degree in our lives. What has made us choose the right way, though the others looks much better? I believe it's character strength – the courage to strive in bad condition in order to obey our conscience. James' worst choice is when Ackroyd summoned him. He should have confessed to Ackroyd about the bribery. Ackroyd trusts James, and I think the worst possibility is Ackroyd would scold him, won't trust him anymore, but in any case won't tell the police. But James perhaps couldn't take it that, of all person, Caroline – and maybe Ackroyd too – would have seen him as a crooked all his life. So, Ackroyd must be muted. There's no other way.

As I have said, this book is a great study of human nature. Sometimes, unconsciously, we help a man turned into bad. Sometimes it's the society, but it is also possible that we invented these murderers from our own small community, or even, our family. Crime and murder can be gory and scary. But I believe the scariest thing is the fact that anyone of us can become a murderer. We need only to make the choice.

What a rereading this has been for me! And I think I will keep reading this book in future, no matter how familiar I am with the plot. Just to remind myself of always taking the right choice in difficult times, not the easiest!

5 / 5

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Secret of Chimneys and Camino Island [Mini Reviews]

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

It is almost impossible to write a proper summary for this 6th novel of Agatha Christie. It's a very fast-paced crime story with abundant characters; contains of a balanced dose of murder, stolen document, treasure hunt, and international political-economical scheme of a Balkan state: Herzoslovakia (restoring monarchy vs oil concession - which, naturally, involves British government and oil syndicates). In short, it's a confusing thriller from the start!

Superintendent Battle is supposed to be the detective from Scotland Yard - this is our first introduction, he will appear in several future books - but the main male character is in fact an attractive-dark-skinned adventurer with shady past called Anthony Cade. We would be led to suspicion whether he was the good or the bad guy. It applies also to the main female character Virginia Revel (it involves some romance too, ahem!) We were also introduced to an elusive jewelry thief "King Victor" (reminded you of Mr. Brown and ..., eh?) and his female accomplice, who later becomes the queen of Herzoslovakia. Confused already? Add that with a lot of false identities, and you'll get a high crime thriller which is good when you're reading it straight, but right after you finish and want to look back, you'll forget the whole plot.

Chimneys feels really like a blend of The Man in the Brown Suite and Murder on the Links. Again, not of my favorites, but a highly entertaining novel to be read when you are feeling lazy or still in hangover after an intense read, or are in holiday mood - just like me! And that's why I rated this book:

3,5 / 5

Camino Island by John Grisham

I normally don't review popular fiction in this blog, however, this Grisham's particular novel talks a lot about books - especially 20th century classics novels and authors - as well as bookstores, and writers, that I decided to publish the review here.

Five original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald (This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Dammed, Tender is the Night, The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon) were stolen from Princeton University Library on a heist plotted by five ex convicts. It should have been a perfect crime, if one of the thefts hasn't scratched his wrist and left his blood stain to be found and traced by the FBI. Two of them were immediately captured, so the others quickly brought the manuscripts away and threw them to black market, with the intention to retrieve them after the case cools off.

Bruce Cable is a self-made independent bookstore owner in Camino Island, after he inherited large sum of money AND found some rare books from his father's book shelf. He loves books, and collects a lot of rare first editions of twentieth century books. He possesses a vault in his basement, and is good in handling and preserving old books. Not only that, he also loves to support new aspiring writers. He arranges book tours for them, mobilizes his writers circle and friends to attend their book signings, inviting them to dinners, connecting them to other literary people, in short being a friend and mentor to them. However, Bruce has his dark side too. His love of rare books plunges him to the black market and all its shady businesses, though he admits he always reports the income and pays the taxes. It's quite interesting to follow his career.

The insurance company, whose client is Princeton, suspected that Bruce might have gotten the manuscripts, so they hired a struggling writer: Mercer Hann to spy on him, infiltrate his bookstore, and if possible, enter his vault. Mercer is another interesting character to follow; broken home, choked by student loan debt, and her books failed. She found peace, affectionate friends, and consolation in Camino Island, staying in the cabin who belonged to her deceased grandmother, apparently the only person in the world who has really loved her.

So, Camino Island is one of Grisham's where the line between good and bad is blurred. I know that making money over stolen goods is wrong, but still I loathed the FBI gangs and hoped that Bruce succeeded. Well...

4 / 5 for this entertaining piece!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

After East of Eden last year, I didn't think I'd get to another masterpiece from Steinbeck so soon. Yet Cannery Row has got me stunned! It was really a diamond; short but full of hidden meaning, straightforward yet poetic, quiet and warm.

What is Cannery Row anyway? Steinbeck wrapped it up beautifully in his opening line:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, s quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, and chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardines canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouse. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing. “

So Cannery Row is about a few blocks of fish canneries in the harbour city of Monterey, California, drawn from Steinbeck's memories when he stayed there. This is a tale about its remarkable inhabitants. Who are they? Mostly, a bunch of good-for-nothings. There's Mack and the boys, a gang of unemployed losers, whose only ambition was contentment without working. They occupy an empty building owned by a Chinese grocery store owner - whose 'wealth' mainly consists in the piles of tit bits in his shop, and in the debts of his customers - called Lee Chong. Mack and the boys named their 'house' the Palace Flophouse. Then there were Dora Flood who runs a bar and whorehouse called The Bear Flag. All these people were expelled from their families, works, and even society.

The Cannery Row nowadays

Then we meet our main protagonist: Doc, a marine biologist, whose character was borrowed from Steinbeck's real friend Ed Ricketts. Doc is a loner, collecting sea creatures from the coast to be sold to universities, museums, or laboratories. He preserves them in his laboratory. Doc is the smartest and the most kindhearted man in Cannery Row. People love him because, in contrast with the world's cold acceptance towards these people, Doc willingly bears with them, listens to them, treats them with dignity, never criticizes, but instead, imparts small wisdom to them. In short Doc accepts them as they are, for which, these people indebted to him, and always feel that they 'must do something for Doc'.

Mac and the boys got an idea, they’d throw a surprise party for Doc. But as Doc was coming home very late that day, they got drunk and eventually crashed his property while waiting for him. So instead of making him happy, they broke all his belongings, and made him miserable. I was literally crying when they were breaking Doc's treasured phonographs! I imagined Doc, after a day of serious working, the classical music is all he has to cheer him up, something to warm his lonely life, the way family does a man. And this only luxury he can afford was crashed by the guests! That punches Doc gave Mack are well deserved.

Ed Rickett's laboratory which is depicted as Doc's

Actually Cannery Row does not have much of a plot. It evolves around the Flophouse boys' efforts to give a nice present to Doc. After the first failure, they intended to do a better one. And along with it, Steinbeck unrolled the lives and struggles of each character, and some seemingly unrelated ones.

The most interesting of the later is Frankie, the 'unseen' boy - nobody seems to realize his quiet existence, and he is literally 'useless' - in Doc's phrase: "There wasn't a thing in the world he could do". When he single mindedly 'decided' to get a beautiful antique clock for Doc's birthday - by stealing it - and got caught, and when Doc asked him why he did it, Frankie looked a long time at him, and his earnest answer was: "I love you" which really broke my heart! Oh that boy... what would become of him when he's grown up? He might be good for nothing, but he is capable of loving... and abundantly too! And the only thing he needs in return is to be loved! Oh, if only we are not too much into ourselves, we will be able to realize of this gem of humanity!

Another sweet and sad story is of Mary Talbot, a loony - or I prefer to call her a 'dreamer'. She likes to throw parties, but instead, as her husband doesn't earn much, she encourages others to give parties, of which she can manage. Sometimes she even gives parties to cats, yes, cats! And she takes the business seriously. Let me show you one of the scenes:

“Kitty Randolph was sunning herself by the front fence. Mary said, “Miss Randolph – I’m having a few friends in to tea if you would care to come.” Kitty Randolph rolled over languorously on her back and stretched in the warm sun. “Don’t be later than four o’clock,” said Mary. “My husband and I are going to the Bloomer League Centennial Reception at the Hotel.”

I really thought at first that Mary was talking to another woman, but then at “Kitty Randolph rolled over languorously on her back and stretched in the warm sun” I realized it was cats she has talked to - LOL!  Some of the many funny bits you'd find in Cannery Row. Isn’t it sweet? And her husband is so sweet to go into her scenes.

On the whole, there's a quality of vagueness, dreamy, unreal in the existence of Cannery Row, but in fact it might be the truest of humanity. The most curious bit of it is the old Chinese man who is often seen flip-flapping on the street in the evening “just at dusk between sunset and the lighting of the street light” - Steinbeck called it the ‘small grey period’. I feel that it represents something which is floating over human existence, something which never changes, always there, a continuity. It’s on the other side of the society – it seems desolate, lonely, poor. But in fact, it is the truest, the fullest, the richest of humanity – it is where love and affection rules, instead of money and fame. It is where everyone is treated equally as a dignified human being. It is Cannery Row.

What a treasure! What a beautiful book! The most beautiful of the three I’ve read so far: this, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden. Now I can’t wait to delve into the sequel: Sweet Thursday – is it going to be as sweet as Cannery Row? We’ll see!

Score: 5 / 5

Thursday, May 23, 2019

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret Hale has been living happy and peacefully in a Southern small village: Helstone, when suddenly her father - a parishioner - announced that he has decided to leave the Church due to his "miserable doubts". As it was disgraceful in 19th century, he must leave Helstone, and consequently with the whole family, to live in a Northern industrial (cotton manufacturing) city called Milton.

Like the two poles of earth, the North is completely different from the South. It's noisy, busy, harsh, ugly. But live there they must. Margaret was then introduced to the never ending conflicts between masters and workers. And to a handsome mill-owner, self-made entrepreneur called John Thornton.

This was my first Gaskell, and I'm slightly surprised to find that her writing was straightforward and bold, very unlike the flowery Dickens - who was her mentor when she first became author. Frankly speaking I personally didn't find Gaskell's writing very distinguishable, but her topic is very engaging - and bold for her time.

For 25 years I have been working as a business assistant in two different trading companies selling industrial parts to factories. So I am quite familiar with Gaskell's industrial topic: masters vs workers. In my opinion, the never ending conflicts will always be there, and will never end. What about Gaskell's ideal relationship of Mr. Thornton and Higgins, then? Wouldn't it possible to apply such mutual understanding atmosphere in real factories? My answer is: it's just a dream! I don't know how it goes in other countries, what I offer here is my personal insight from my own experience in Indonesia. There might be some factory owners like Thornton, who really care for their workers, and not merely about profit; who see the workers as assets, not machines. But seriously, if I were a master myself, and must continually be annoyed by strikes demanding unreasonable higher wages, I would do what Thornton or others did in this novel: punish the perpetrators and replace them with better ones. Or, just move the factory away.

But how about the workers' perpetual poverty? Don't the masters have consciences? More often than not (again, from what I see), it's the workers’ own foolishness. They keep demanding high wages, but work lazily. They spend more than their income, so they apply for credit to the masters. If the masters refused (because by and by they'll take it for granted), they'll say that the masters are bad, they don't care for them, and so on. Mr. Thornton makes a good example by approaching the workers and treating them kindly (eating lunch with them, for example). The reality is, no sooner than the masters allow himself to be placed almost equal with the workers, why, the workers won't pay any respect to them. They will get lazier and more demanding. No, I don't buy Gaskell's suggestion in this novel. Clearly she didn't understand industrial business. I understand that she wrote this to promote humanity, but then, the mill owners were businessmen, they just do what others do: to make a living. If the workers cannot cooperate, the company could not running well for both sides.

Apart from the industrial controversy, North and South is also about the struggle of its characters to face what life has in store for them. There's a bit of a Darwinian touch in it. Of the Hales, only Margaret was able to adapt to her new life, to make peace with the past (mistakes), and to welcome the future. And that's why she eventually meets a brighter one. Her mother is the opposite; she could never accept reality, kept going to the golden days of her past. The bitterness finally eroded her life. The same happened to Mr. Hale.

Speaking of Mr. Hale, I still don't get what his "miserable doubt" really was. Does it mean that he did sermons and other services for years, then one day did not really believe on what he's been preaching? He said it isn't religion, but then what? Of all characters, I hate him most, for being weak (vague), coward, and selfish.

Second of all, I hate Mrs. Hale too for being whiny, self-centered, irresponsible. How could she demand Frederick - the fugitive son - to come home while the risk was that big for the family? Being dying doesn't mean you can ask anything without thinking about the safety of others! And that was a foolish decision too from Margaret to grant it - unfortunately not the last either! She seems to always say or do things she shouldn't, and never do what she should.

John Thornton is my most favorite. He reminded me of my own boss - a self-made businessman, tough, fair, no nonsense, respectable, kind hearted but not sentimental. If his worker went to do riot against him like Boucher did in this novel, I'll gladly recommend him to be sacked!

All in all, I loved North and South. It offers a different but relevant and interesting topic compared to general Victorian novels. Not one of my most favorites perhaps, but it's been heart-warming and delicious. I'd certainly read more from Mrs. Gaskell!

Score: 4 / 5