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

Friday, May 10, 2019

Post Zoladdiction, and Some Future Reads

I may still be in a hangover from Zoladdiction - I just can’t take my brain off Zola! No, not reading more of his books – I think two books in a row is my limit – but I keep getting thirsty of Zola-ish things. The other day I spent my morning at work browsing Zola’s traces in modern France. Did you know that at least four cities in France have named their public squares or streets with Zola? One day I must go back there (I visited Paris in 2000, when I haven’t “found” Zola), and will certainly include Zola’s house in Médan (now it becomes Dreyfus Museum) on my itinerary!

But, back to earth… here’s some reading updates:

Books read January – April: 11 / 25

What’s next?

I am reading North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell right now for #elizabethgaskell2019 readalong on Instagram, hosted by Helena @reading.the.classics. From February to August we read different books, and Helena hosted an Instagram group discussion at the end of each month. I only participate for May’s, because North and South is the only Gaskell on my TBR. I love it so far, it’s a perfect read after Zoladdiction! And I would certainly read more of her – maybe Mary Barton next!

Next week I will finally delve into my #ccspin book: Cannery Row -John Steinbeck. Some say it’s hilarious and funny, let’s prove it! Actually these two were my most anticipated from my Classics Club list, so May would be a fun-filled month for me, reading-wise!

I haven’t got any fixed plan yet, but, since I have only been tackling five books for Classics Club in 2019 by May, and as in August I will take a ‘journey to the sea’ (ehem…), I MUST slip 1-2 more books from list into these two months to catch up.

Also, I have Dante’s Purgatorio on my radar. Adam will be hosting a readalong (or something like it) by summer, but haven’t fixed on the date/month. Before that, I’m planning to read Vita Nuova, of which, the translator of my The Divine Comedy copy – John Ciardi – recommends to read before Purgatorio. And since I have read Purgatorio long ago – and have, alas, failed miserably! – I determined to do whatever it takes to succeed this second time. If Ciardi asks me to read Vita Nuova first, read it I will!

Brona has not posted it publicly, but yes… I am going to join her Moby Dick readalong in August! And knowing her, I suspect we’ll have a lot of fun during August. Very excited!

Didn’t I say I’m still having a hangover from Zola? Actually I still have one unread book of the Rougon-Macquart: The Dream. I might read it after a train of readalongs. Then next year I’m going to start an ambitious project: reading all twenty novels in Rougon-Macquart cycle in chronological order – rereading all from the start!

And I might add another classic for Classics Club.

It’s time to read some spooky books! So I picked two of my Classics Club list: Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier and We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson. And if there’s enough time, I might be in for John Grisham’s Camino Island. It’s the first bookishly thriller from Mr. Grisham – about a lost manuscript of F. Scott Fitzgerald – and I think I’m about to love it!

This would be my last chance of completing my target of reading 12 books for Classics Club in 2019. Two last books from the list to close the year would be perfect.

Time for some Christmas readings! I will read mostly from Christmas stories by Enid Blyton, Anthony Trollope, and, of course, Charles Dickens. Beyond that, I’ll read any book I’d fancy when the time comes!

And that will be my future reading life. What’s yours?

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Black Count and The Man in the Brown Suit [Mini Reviews]

Black Count by Tom Reiss

The subtitle of this biography of General Dumas (Alexandre Dumas's father): Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, tells you exactly what this book, written by Tom Reiss, is about.

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was a son of a renegade nobleman: Marquis de la Pailletarie and his slave: Marie-Cessete Dumas. He was born in 1762 in French sugar colony: Saint Domingue. Sold by his own father as slave when he was 14 y.o., he was educated as aristocrat after later being bought back by his father.

Alex Dumas was extraordinary because he was the first man of color with highest rank in Europe. His bright career from soldier, officer, to General-in-chief in a short time, along with his heroic bravery actions and his passionate love for his country, should have placed him a special account in French history. Instead, but from this biography, his traces seemed to be vanished from history and memories. Why? Blame it on Napoleon Bonaparte! Don't believe any novel about Napoleon, however sweet he was pictured in it; the real one was ten times more evil and disgusting! I seriously hated him with all my heart throughout this book! Have you read Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo? Of how Edmond Dantes was unjustly imprisoned? It's inspired - not loosely - by the real event where Napoleon set up General Dumas for criticizing his (cruel, racist) policy.

On the whole, it was not an enjoyable read. But if you like French history, this book will interest you. But most of all, this book will be interesting for those who love Alexandre Dumas’ novels, as now we know the origin of those heroic passages in most of his famous novels, especially The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. I loved especially the deep love and admiration Dumas showed to his father in everything he later wrote (diary and novels). I’d feel the same too if I have had a father like the honorable General Dumas!

Score: 4,5 / 5

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

This fourth novel of Agatha Christie introduces us to Colonel Race, though his involvement in the crime is very vague, at one point, I even suspected him as the villain. Instead, this story, again, was dominated by a woman. Anne Beddingfield is a restless young woman longing for adventure, and...bam! An adventure met her on the next corner. She coincidentally witnessed an accident, which turned out to be a murder, and the next instant found a piece of paper a man has unconsciously dropped. Then she entered a house where another murder has been committed, and when casually rummaging inside a closet, coincidentally found a canister of undeveloped film, which, of course, turned out to be another clue.

There are too many coincidences in this story to my taste, it often felt "staged". I could not relate with Anne, the amateur detective, and certainly was not impressed by her "romance with a mysterious guy on a deserted island". It was really the most un-Christie-ish I've read so far. Perhaps it's because at that stage, Christie was still searching for the best style she wanted to adopt for her future books.

The most positive from this one is the hilarious Sir Eustace Peddler, from whose witty and sarcastic diary accounts, along with Anne's account, we were told of this story.

It's clearly not my favorite, perhaps my least favorite of Christie's four early novels. 

Score: 3 / 5

Monday, May 6, 2019

#Zoladdiction2019 Wrap Up

April has gone, and so has Zoladdiction 2019. For me, especially, it has been a thoroughly fun and inspiring. I dare say that #Zoladdiction2019 was the best I've ever hosted. Thirteen participants (the biggest number since I hosted it in 2011 for the first time) have decided to join in. We have talked about Zola's works, shared our posts as well as our reads. We have made new friends with some Zola’s fans, and even got a new Zoladdict! J One participant in Instagram even chatted with me (via Instachat) about our favorite Zolas, and he recommended some Zola movies I’m eager to watch. And I have also treated myself with two new Zolas: The Dream (which I plan to read this year), and OWC's edition of La Débâcle

In short, I've had a huge fun last month! How's yours?

Nevertheless, it must stop now. I only hope that you all have had as much fun as I did. And I do hope you will continue reading and loving Zola. Don't worry, next year Zoladdiction will be back!

Meanwhile, don't forget to link up your posts/reviews in the linky (if you haven't). It will be up until 15th May. Zoladdiction is over, but you can still post anything still left over your reads.

Lastly, thousands of thanks to you all, it has been awesome! Until next year!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Understanding Émile Zola’s “La Joie de Vivre” in Van Gogh’s “Still Life with Bible” Painting

Have you ever had any idea that Vincent Van Gogh – the famous Dutch post-impressionist painter – was a Zola’s fan? In his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh often quoted some excerpts from Zola’s books, and he was thoroughly influenced by Zola’s ideas. Van Gogh was born into a religious family; his father was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. Before plunging headlong into painting, Van Gogh was a fervent evangelist in one of coal-minings in Belgium. In fact, his two years stay with the coal miners left deep impression in the village, that Émile Zola later depicted his Abbé Ranvier character in Germinal from Van Gogh’s image, when Zola stayed there in doing researches for his masterpiece-to-be.

One of Van Gogh’s “Still Life” paintings (a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural or man-made - wikipedia) is: Still Life with Bible, which he painted in 1885.

It is a gloomy painting of an open bible on the table against dark background, with a candlestick beside it. In front of the bible, with a faint yellow light, sit a battered copy of Zola’s La Joie de Vivre. The painting’s caption on Van Gogh museum’s website read: “This hefty Bible had belonged to Van Gogh's father, a Protestant minister. Van Gogh painted it just after his father's death. He placed his own copy of Émile Zola's La joie de vivre next to it. That book was a kind of 'bible' for modern life. The books symbolize the different worldviews of Van Gogh and his father.” While in his letter to his brother Theo – with whom he often had a lengthy discussions of his painting progress – Van Gogh described this painting as 'a still life of an open, hence an off-white Bible, bound in leather, against a black background with a yellow-brown foreground, with an additional note of lemon yellow.'

Normally I won’t be interested in this painting – it’s too gloomy, and poor of color – but for Zola’s book in it. Now, I have just read The Bright Side of Life (English title for La Joie de Vivre published by Oxford World Classics), and while searching for some background texts, I accidentally stumbled upon an article about this interesting fact. And so, I began to scan the painting thoroughly, and tried to unfold its meaning.

What struck me immediately while scrutinizing it for the first time, is the lighting. You can see that the background is totally dark. Yet, there is the yellow light on the foreground; and from the way the shadow projecting from the book, the light could not come from the foreground. Then, where does it come from? There is a candlestick beside the bible; it even has a candle on it, but unlighted. I’m not a painter, and perhaps I’m not quite qualified to discuss paintings, but in my opinion, normally Van Gogh won’t have seen the objects in that way of lighting. So, was it intentionally, then – to emphasize an idea, perhaps?

Before trying to solve the “mystery of the lighting”, let’s discuss first about the bible and the book. We know that the bible belonged to Van Gogh’s father, the Protestant minister, who, I imagined, had planted Christian doctrines into his son’s head eversince Van Gogh's childhood. The bible is open, and we can see the blur prints on it – out of curiosity, I zoomed in the painting several times, trying to catch the title or a word or two to define to which part of the book it opened – I failed. Either my file is in low pixel (but I couldn’t find a better one), or it’s my eyes that are too weak! Anyway, I googled through, and finally found a text that says that the bible actually open to a certain passage from Isaiah 53:

“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (King James edition)

Most coincidentally, I am a Lector at my local church, and for these months I have been reading this particular passage so many times I almost remember them, as I was preparing to read it on Holy Friday mass. So, technically, I have read Zola’s La Joie de Vivre along with Isaiah 53 – both pictured in this painting – during April, amazing, eh? That’s why I could relate very much to this subject.

Texts from Google which I have consulted were mostly convinced that Van Gogh saw La Joie de Vivre as a “new bible”, as Van Gogh was in a process to synthesize (if not replaced – as believed by a Cliff Edwards) religion with modernity. But, in that case, why is the bible opened, while the book shut? If he had wanted to replace religion with modernity, will it not make more sense to do the opposite? Some also argues about the different sizes of bible vs book – the book is way too small in comparison with the bible. But I don’t buy it; it’s mentioned in the museum website that the bible was “leather bound - hefty”, so it is only possible that it’s measured four times of the book (mass-market size?) Anyway, I’m more inclined to analyze the context, than the sizes of the object.

Isaiah 53 speaks about God’s man – a selfless man – who, though purely innocent, was chastised and must endure pain, solely for the salvation of others. Isn’t that directly correlated with La Joie de Vivre’s heroine, Pauline Quenu, who chose to endure the betrayal and robbery of the family only for their sake/happiness? Thus, in my opinion, the bible needed to be opened to show its precise passage, to be studied in parallel with the main theme of La Joie de Vivre. Do you think it’s possible?

Then how to explain the curious lighting angle (which many regard as symbolically shutting off his father’s rigid religion and shifting to a new-modern one)? In my opinion, still in conjunction with Isaiah 53, the dark background and unlighted candle reflected death (of God’s man or Christ, as well as his father’s perhaps), while the yellow light reflected the joy of life. Because, isn't it true that both Isaiah 53 and La Joie de Vivre speak of death and pain which in the end bring glory and joy? We could interprete the "wrong" angle of the lighting as symbolically alluding that the dark of death has been replaced with a simmering light of life. Does it mean modernity has become Van Gogh's "new religion", as he left his father’s religion? It is more likely that La Joie de Vivre has let Van Gogh adjusted his old view (influenced by his father and his almost puritan mother) on death and sorrow, to be brighter and more optimistic than before.

What do you think?

Zola's influence proved to be quite deep in Van Gogh, as besides this painting, Van Gogh also painted La Joie de Vivre in his "Still Life with Oleanders". The poor miner family in Germinal was also depicted in Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters".

Still Life with Oleanders - 1888
The Potato Eaters, 1885