Monday, August 10, 2020

The Belly of Paris Ch. 1: Les Halles and What It Represents

I am currently reading The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris) as part of my The Rougon-Macquart Project. It's a reread, actually, but I guess I didn't quite captured the book essence on first read, and so is quite astonished to find so many interesting things in only first chapter. So, I might do these chapter posts throughout this book, or maybe it's on this chapter only, who knows? Anyway, here's my random thoughts on chapter one.

= The recurrent themes

The opening line struck me that apparently Zola liked to open his narrative with two themes:

First, the contrast between procession and unmoved inhuman things. As was with The Kill (with congestion of carriages leaving Bois de Boulogne), The Belly of Paris, too, is opened with carts of fruits and vegetables heading to Les Halles (the central food market) in slow procession: "Through the deep silence of the deserted avenue, the carts made their way towards Paris, the rhythmic jolting of the wheels echoing against the fronts of the sleeping houses on both sides of the road, behind the dim shapes of elm." It seems to point out how the corrupt society is dragging the nation towards destruction.

Second, a stranger coming into and then installed onto an existing community (Étienne Lantier to the mine pit in Germinal, Octave Mouret to the department store in The Ladies Paradise, and now Florent to Les Halles).

= Two histories

Les Halles is a symbol of modernism (and the consequences) the Second Empire has brought to Paris in 19th century. Les Halles was a vast structure of twelve pavilions made with iron and glass in the avant-garde architecture, built by Victor Baltard in 1850s. Each pavilion housed different market of foods: fish and poultry, fruit, herbs, and vegetables, flower, meat, butter and cheese, tripe, game, etc. It was located in the district of Le Cimetière des Innocents (Holy Innocents Cemetery), which was decommissioned, and the bones was transferred to the Catacombes, before being replaced by the herbs and vegetables market in 1787.

There were two groups of markets at Les Halles. The stall holders sell their products within the pavilions, while smaller vendors installed their pitches on the pavement around the pavilions, paying lower tax than the stall holders. It was finally demolished in 1971, and nowadays becomes Forum Des Halles, an underground shopping center connected with an underground lines and metro transit.

Following the lead of The Fortune of the Rougons, Florent Quenu, the protagonist, is a Republican who was deported to Cayenne (Devil's Island) after the Louis-Napoleon coup d'état (December 1851). After his escape from Cayenne, he went to Dutch Guiana for several years, before plucking enough courage to return to Paris.

= Cathedral and forest

Brian Nelson, a prominent Zola expert and translator of the Oxford World Classic edition I'm reading, wrote in the explanatory notes, that Zola has suggested that Les Halles are the cathedral of modern life: "He aimed explicitly to play on Victor Hugo's famous novel Notre-Dame de Paris."

What the cathedral represents, then? Is it the hugeness, unreachable, overwhelming (or even oppressive) of the modernization of Paris, that engulfed the working classes? "...the gigantic size of Les Halles, whose heavy breathing - the result of the excesses of the day before."

Zola even made one of the characters (which has not appeared yet on chapter one) as the Quasimodo of Les Halles. Interesting, eh? Nelson also suggested that Zola associated the image of forest with that of a cathedral. "The shadows, in the hollows of the roof, seemed to make the forest of pillars even bigger, and multiply to infinity the delicate ribs, fretted galleries, and transparent shutters. [..] there appeared to be a mass of luxuriant vegetation, a monstrous jungle of metal, with spindle-shaped stems and knotted branches, covering the vast expanse as with the delicate foliage of some ancient forest." That threw new lights on the forest in The Sin of Abbe Mouret... but that's of another book.

= Florent and the excess of food

The character of Florent provided Zola with an unmistakable irony of a thin, haggard, starving man who is entrapped in the midst of overflowing foods in Les Halles. Combining it with his fear that the government will find and catch him, made him the perfect embodiment of the excessive luxury and pleasure of the bourgeoisie, while the working class are struggling with poverty, slum, and injustices.

Claude Lantier made his first appearance in this book, before appearing in as main protagonist in The Masterpiece. He is reflecting Cezanne (physically), and Zola in his enthusiasm and views towards Les Halles. With his painter's eyes, Claude sees Les Halles as a beautiful landscape subject with beautiful colors, however with his heart, he condemns how the nature is abused to serve the uncontrollable appetite of the bourgeoisie: "Those bourgeois bastard eat it all."

That's all I've got from chapter one. I am now in the middle of chapter two, which was picturing the busy, noisy life of Les Halles. Let's see where it would bring us...

Friday, August 7, 2020

Top 5 Agatha Christie Novels (So Far)

You should have known by now that Agatha Christie is one of my favorite writers and my most read. I remember vividly the day I found my first Agatha Christie novel. It was in elementary or junior high school. I was about 12-13 years old, and by that time have been reading many adventure and detective stories (mainly Alfred Hitchcock's, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew), but none about real murder.

One day I walked into the school library, hoping to find some adventure books I haven't read before, and stumbled upon this title: After the Funeral. I was hooked instantly by the synopsis, and checked out the book instantly. Later at home I showed the book to my dad (still unsure whether I would want to read about murder), but he encouraged me to, saying that he used to love Agatha Christie too; hers are great detective novels, and seldom contain violent or bloody scenes, which hitherto I've been afraid to find. So I read it, and... LOVED it! After that, monthly bookstore visits became my most exciting moments during high school, because I'd get to pick one or two new Agatha Christie's to bring home. Well, they only lasted several days, and so I'd spend the next weeks in expectant to the next visits!

Now I have read, roughly, about 70 books (mostly during night school and college), and right now I'm in the middle of rereading (or reading if I've missed it before) all Christie's crime novels (omitting the short stories collections) in publication chronological order in the Agatha Christie Perpetual Reading Challenge.
From these rereading I found out that, but few memorable favorites, I've forgotten most of them. However I was lately intrigued by a few bloggers who inquired my opinion on which Christie's to start with. And several days ago I came to realize how many "top ten lists" of Agatha Christie's out there, and thought I might as well publish mine. Not that I'm an expert or something, no! I've forgotten most of them, and am still in the middle of the rereading process anyway. So I will narrow it down to TOP FIVE of my favorites, and most probably I'd change my mind every now and then, but for now, here it is...


FIVE: Towards Zero

This is one unique crime story, the one without murder at the start, or you might call it a murder in the making. Yes, it is! If the murder is the zero point, here's a story of the broilings of many seemingly unrelated events, happening to different people, and the thought of it inside the mind of the murderer-to-be. It provides you with the unique study of a criminal mind.

FOUR: Crooked House

This is one of Christie's "close intimate murder" stories - you know, a crime which happens in a small intimate surrounding, involving close relatives. It's usually the best Poirot's works, but this one is different. First of all, there's no detective. Then there's also the eccentricity of the family, and the feeling that there's always something dark lurking there behind you that sent a chill down your spine throughout the reading. It's one of my most memorable Christie, and you'd ponder a lot about human mind after reading this!

THREE: And Then There Were None

The most thrilling story Christie's
ever written. Ten people are invited to spend holiday in an isolated Island, then, one by one, they are murdered. And as the title's hinted, they were all eventually dead. No survivor and no possibility of outsider, who's the murderer then?? A gripping story, a kind of modern gothic. No wonder it becomes one of the famous ones from Christie.

TWO: Curtain

If you are new reader, please remember NOT to read this first. It's Hercule Poirot's final case, and served as a farewell. It's Poirot's in his ultimate understanding of criminal mind, that without him, no one could have thought that a murderer is in action. For me personally, it's the most memorable and emotional, but it's also the most exquisite murder case. So, read it after you've read all Poirot's other cases (and they are numerous!)

When I narrowed down the list to five, I didn't realize that there're more than that (and damn, it's so hard to pick just, isn't it?) So may I present you with one honorable mention?


Murder case investigation is usually started with murder, right? This one is different. Poirot investigates some murder attempts directed towards a girl, disguised as accidents. This is another interesting study of crime psychology, with an unusual plot twist!

ONE: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

I think this is one of the biggest plot twists ever in detective novels, and probably the most eloquently written by Christie (especially the last chapter!) You'd find it in all the top lists out there, and it's one of Christie's most famous. It's Hercule Poirot's case, and one of the best psychological studies from Christie. I remember thinking after my first reading (I've read it 3 times), that to murder is foremostly the decision. Everyone can do it when provided with motive and opportunity - one decision will make huge differences. How dangerous human free will is!

Well, there are at least six novels you can consider from, if you want to start reading, or read further, of Agatha Christie. You can get more in my Agatha Christie Perpetual Reading Challege list. But there are so many, your head must be spinning. Let me just help you...


1. Reading order

They are not in chronological order, and each book tells a standalone story. However, to get intimate with the two recurring detectives: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, you would want to read their first books before the other, and finally end with their finales. The Mysterious Affair in Styles is where you'd learn Poirot's little history and background, while The Murder at the Vicarage is the first appearance of Miss Marple. They'd be your good starting point. The Mysterious Affair in Styles, in particular, is Christie's first crime book, so by starting it, you'd see how she begins, and how she'd improve in the next ones.

2. Detectives

What a crime novel without detective, right? However, with Christie, you'd find some stories are indeed without detective. The most famous in this category are And Then There Were None. There are also several with amateur-turns-detective, such as Crooked House. But in most cases you'll meet some recurring detectives. The most famous one is Hercule Poirot - the only fictional character who ever received a real obituary in a newspaper. There's also Miss Marple, Inspector Battle, and the jolly couple: Tommy and Tuppence.

3. Themes

My favorite Christie's are the close intimate murders like Crooked House or Dumb Witness, but some might prefer more dramatic ones like Lord Edgware Dies or Three Act Tragedy. If you love witty espionage thriller, The Secret Adversary or The Secret of Chimneys would be great for you.

If you're picking Agatha Christie for teenager, I'd say And Then There Were None would be a good starting point. You might not want to give them something brutal such as Murder on the Orient Express, but I think the rest are good enough.

So, which Christie's have you read, and which you'd read next?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

How I Read Book Tag

I saw this tag at The Once Lost Wanderer, and thought it'd be fun to do my own.

Do you have a certain place at home for reading?
I love reading in my bedroom, as it is the quietest place in my apartment. Plus the view is quite nice!

Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/a certain number of pages?
Oh I can stop reading anywhere I need to. You see, I don't have luxury to spend certain time for reading, thus I read whenever I have spare time: during lunch break at work, on the way to and from work, before sleep, etc. It means that I must stop when it's time to do something else, and I can go back to where I've left it very easily.

Bookmark or random piece of paper?
Bookmark. I always have several bookmarks (thanks to Book Depository!) in my bag, on my desk at work, and on my night table at home. Whenever I lost one (happens quite often) I can always find another.

Multitasking: music or TV while reading?
Neither. When I'm reading, it's a collaborated work of my brain, heart, and senses. I don't need any kind of distraction. And the music would be playing in vain anyway, since I would not be able to enjoy it. Better to play it when I can focus on the music while having something trifle to do.

Do you eat or drink while reading?
Not as a habit. I'd just eat or drink because I'm hungry/thirsty, or if I'm reading during the lunch break :)

Reading at home or everywhere?
Everywhere. Most often on the way to and from office. I take a grab car, so I have the luxury of sitting and reading (mostly) without interruptions for 15 to 20 minutes.

One book at a time or several at once?
Usually one at a time, if the book is engaging enough, but sometimes I'd need another for a change. Agatha Christie's are always perfect for this!

Reading out loud or silently in your head?
Silently, though sometimes I read some passages out loud just to know how it sounds.

Do you read ahead or even skip pages?
With crimes or thrillers, I never read ahead, but with slow paced books such as Dickens, yeah.. sometimes when the story is dragging on, I read ahead some pages, just to know where it will lead me, or whether it relates to the main plot or not. There's nothing harmful in that; on the contrary it could encourage me to read on (or the skip it).

Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?
I don't really bother with the book's looks. Its value is in the passages it contains, and I keep it to read again in the future, not mainly for display. While I always keep my books as neatly as possible, I don't deliberately "keep it like new".

Do you write in your books?
Of course! Write, underline, dog-ear; though not in every book.

Whom do you tag?
Are you interested in doing this? Then consider yourself tagged!

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl is a novella about a poor Mexican-Indian pearl fisherman called Kino. He lives a happy, simple, peaceful life with his family: Juana, the wife, and Coyotito, the baby, in a bush house (hut) in a rural village of La Paz, California. The story (parable is more fitting) begins with an image of a humble but fulfilling live of the family, which is symbolized by The Song of the Family that Kino hears inside his head, while Juana sings softly:

"Juana sang softly an ancient song that had only three notes and yet endless variety of interval. And this was part of the family song too. It was all part. Sometimes it rose to an aching cord that caught the throat, saying this is safety, this is warmth, this is the Whole."

Then, in the midst of this peaceful image, comes a scorpion, hangs on the rope of Coyotito's bed, and stings the baby. The scorpion is like a stone that is plunged into a calm water, sending ripplings of trouble - an evil entity that sends trouble to a happy life: "The Song of Evil, the music of the enemy, of any foe of the family, a savage, secret, dangerous melody, and underneath, the Song of the Family cried plaintively."

Juana sucks the poison, but the wound keeps swelling, so Kino and Juana brings the baby to the doctor. Now the doctor is another "evil", a white man with greedy nature: "This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten and starved and robbed and despised Kino's race." The doctor, seeing that Kino is poor, rejects attending to the baby without payment.

The next day Kino dives into the water hoping to get pearls to pay the doctor. And being in the best of luck, he finds the hugest and finest pearl he - or even the neighborhood - has ever seen, that he dubs as The Pearl of the World. Kino sees inside the Pearl the things he had wanted for a long time, but had forgotten because of the impossibility. Now it all comes back to him: a marriage in the church for his wife, nice clothes and good education for Coyotito, and a rifle for himself. And as usual with the finding of a treasure, greediness begins to float on the surface of its surroundings. The neighbors, the doctor, the priest, the pearl dealers - the greediness touches them all. And as greediness is the root of all evils, with it, comes envy, stealing, cheating, and even murder.

That night a thief comes to steal the pearl, but Kino throws him away. The next morning he goes to the town to sell his pearl to the dealers. For years the pearl fishermen have been deceived by the dealers, who are actually owned by one owner, but act as if they compete with each other, so that they can control the low price. Kino is offered a thousand pesos, for a pearl he believes amounted at least fifty thousands. He rejects it and will sell to the capital instead. However, more thieves come to Kino's bush house, and he is forced to kill one man. At this point, Juana tries to warn Kino that the pearl brings evil, but Kino, already grows ambitious and greedy himself, refuses to let it go. The last night before their departure, a group of unknown men vandalize Kino's canoe and burn his house. There's no coming back now, the pearl becomes their life or death. Along the dangerous journey, the Song of the Evil keeps its melody, becomes stronger every moment, drowning the Song of the Family.

So The Pearl reflects upon the cycle of human life. There's peace for several years, but then comes "the enemy", one critical moment that shakes the peacefulness. But the novella's center point is the perpetual battle of good and evil. The Song of the Family and The Song of Evil, which are playing alternately in Kino's head, symbolizes the good vs evil in us. The evil might be sleeping for years of peaceful living, but one critical incident might awaken it from its slumber, and, who knows what path it will lead us to.

This story also shows the complexity involved in the battle of good vs evil. Kino's poverty in the first place, came from hundred years of oppression of the other race (the whites) against his. There's always this hatred and suspicion against the whites in his heart, planted by his ancestors. The scorpion sting is only the trigger. Without it, Kino, Juana, and Coyotito might have lulled by their contented life, despite of their poverty. But the scorpion sting awakens the ancient hatred and suspicion. The pearl triggeres his greediness to take everything that has been robbed by his enemies. He could have accepted the thousand pesos offered by the dealer at the town, but the long suspicion and hatred burns his greediness and hatred further to the utmost.

And lastly, The Pearl reminds us that good and evil are always existed, they live side by side since the beginning of world, to its end. We can't avoid them; it's a perpetual struggle, and that the best thing to do is always try to do good (listen to our Song of the Family), and avoid evil (ignore the Song of Evil). That's all we can do.

I think I have found a new favorite: The Pearl. It's so beautiful in writing and poignant in capturing the essence of life.

Rating: 5 / 5

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

This book has appeared in many lists of Agatha Christie's top novels - from The Guardian's "The Top 10 Agatha Christie Mysteries" in 2009, Entertainment Weekly's "The Nine Great Christie" in 2014, to Barnes and Noble's 10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Novels on 2017. It's also one of the most famous Christie's books-made-into-movies. But for me, this is the most hideous, brutal case, and one of my least favorites of all.

Hercule Poirot is in Istanbul after solving a case in the Middle East, when he is summoned back immediately to England. By the help of M. Bouc, fellow Belgian who is the director of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Poirot obtains a second class berth in the elegant Orient Express. He actually intended to have a first class one, but it's apparently unavailable - which is unusual during the winter seasons. On board the train are also thirteen other passengers from multi-dimensional backgrounds. One of them, an unpleasant, harsh man named Mr. Ratchett, tries to hire Poirot because his life is in danger. But Poirot, disliking him, rejects the proposal. On the first night the train is unexpectedly stopped, stuck in a snowbank. In the morning, Mr. Ratchett is found dead, with twelve random stab wounds. A charred piece of paper with "Armstrong" written in it is found in his cabin, gives Poirot the valuable key to solve the mystery.

Armstrong refers to Daisy Armstrong, a 3 year old child who was kidnapped and murdered by a man called Cassetti - a tragedy that triggered some further tragedy in the family. Poirot concludes that Ratchett is actually Casetti, and that the motive of his murder is vengeance. So, the strong point of this story is more on the method, rather than motive. Without the presence of the police, it leaves to Poirot, M. Bouc, and Doctor Constantine (why a doctor should almost always present near the murder cases?...) to find from the passengers, one or more people who are connected to the Armstrongs, as the murderer.

This is one of the "easy" cases, the "I-should-have-noticed-it-from-the-first-but-it-seemed-impossible" ones. I can't explain more, as it would spoil the whole mystery. It's sufficient to say that if you do the math, you'd probably guess the murderer. This is also one of the greatest deduction works of Poirot, using his thorough methodical grey cells to seek the truth from the labyrinth of cross alibis and clues.

What makes me dislike this novel, is the baseness of the murder, and immorality of the conclusion. As I didn't find any other way of explaining my points without scattering clues, I must warn you at this point to...

**Spoiler alert - Please skip this paragraph if you haven't read the book.**
1st point: hideous crime. There's too much blood for my taste. I much prefer the more subtle ones - murder with poison, for example. If it must include stabbing, at least done by cold headed murderer, not vengeful random stabs - and twelve times too... ugh!! With the motive as the strong point, at least we'd have also the psychological aspect through the investigation (the humane side). This one is mainly clues, alibi, methods, and eventually, the animal passion. No, I can't imagine how a governess, for example, who, despite loving the child so much, could stab a knife into a man's body just like that. I mean, I understand how she might have hated that man, cursed him a lot, wished him to be dead in horrible ways. But to do a journey to stab him... at least, didn't she waver a little at the critical moment? And what about the other eleven/twelve people, were they just driven by the same animal instinct to kill the prey? That's what I see in this book, a group of animal hunting a prey.
2nd point : unbelieveable conclusion. I was truly disgusted at how those criminals were let free by "the judges". I know Rachett is a rascal, and the Armstrongs' history is so tragic, but letting them do a brutal crime just like that? Not even a single punishment? If I had a book I wish Agatha Christie has never written, this is the one.

It could have been an interesting case, but like I said, it's too hideous and disgusting crime for me.

Rating: 2,5 / 5

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Classic Character: The Loyal Gabriel Betteredge of The Moonstone

Gabriel Betteredge is my only favorite character in The Moonstone. He first worked for the Verinders as bailiff, but as he's getting older and less vigorous, Lady Verinder makes him the house steward (a combination of butler and housekeeper). Betteredge loves Defoe's Robinson Crusoe so much, it becomes a kind of Bible to him - not only comforting and calming him when he's distressed, he also consults it when confused. He will open his battered copy to a random page, and somehow, certain passage would justify his conviction, or assure his idea.

I wonder if he is a true classics literature (besides Robinson Crusoe) reader, because he seems to be quite an open-minded Victorian man. True, he still holds common Victorian prejudices on women, races, and social background - he's grown up with those values anyway, however, when he knows the qualities of certain person, he doesn't hesitate to respect and acknowledge his/her true values. We can see the proofs in Betteredge's acknowledgment of (Lady) Julia and Rachel Verinder, his daughter Penelope, and also Rosanna Spearman, whom he regards as different from common women. It's more difficult, though, for Betteredge to deal with Ezra Jennings because of his appearances and social background. Betteredge complies with him at first only in obedience to his master, but little by little he begins to grow respectful towards Jennings.

Besides being funny, smart, witty, loving person, and a good writer (his narrative is my most favorite), I love Betteredge also for always being so kind to Rosanna Spearman, in spite of her background. When he gets to know her shady personal qualities, he learns to trust her, that when the the Moonstone is missing, and Sergeant Cuff suspects her, Betteredge keeps defending her.

But perhaps I admire Betteredge mostly for the way he serves the family with loyalty, respect, and dignity. Though just a servant, Betteredge is proud of his profession, and proud to serve such an honorable family. Now that is a quality you rarely find these days - perhaps one of few aspects I admire from Victorian era. People nowadays tend to underestimate the dignity of serving; they criticize people who are satisfied of being employee for the rest of their lives without having slightest ambition to "upgrade" themselves to the employer level. They even call us employees as "corporate slave". We are no more slaves than our bosses, really!

A friend of mine has repeatedly told me that I possess capability of being an entrepreneur, why didn't I use it to start my own company, rather than serving my boss? Well, so what if I retire as an employee, if I've done my job well? I'm not worse than they who become entrepreneurs. I believe that we were born with different background and qualities (nowadays they call it privileges, but it's the same really). Some are born rich, some poor; some with management skill, some administrative, and so on. 

The Verinders, Franklin Blake are born upper classes; Betteredge working class. But without Betteredge, the Verinders won't be able to maintain their households, as Betteredge won't be able to feed his family without the Verinders. There is the codependency built upon their employment.

So, I admire Betteredge for being proud of his job - which he'd done respectably and professionally, that in the end the Verinders become also respectful towards him, as they couldn't do without him. He's also proud of being employed by the Verinders; he takes the family as his own, that he'd feel insulted when others insult the family. In the end, loyalty towards one's employer - when given in a mutual respectable relationship - is not a sign of weakness, or even slavery. On the contrary, it's an honorable and fulfilled life of one's profesional career. If I have lived in Victorian era, I would have chosen to be in Betteredge's position (having pride of my skill) than to be a lady (with vain idleness). And I also regard present my position as employee with steady income and growing skill, is much fulfilling than to be an entrepreneur with all the risks and headaches!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Classics Club Meme 2.0: The Most Read Authors

It's been a long time since I last did The Classics Club meme. This year they reboot the questions, and this one is one of my favorites - plus I happen to have more time to spare than last month! So here we go...

Which classic author have you read more than one, but not all, of their books and which of their other books would you want to read in the future?

These are my top three authors that I've read most:


That's a rough amount, because I read Christie's from high school and sometimes I forget which title I've actually read. It's safe to say that I have read most of hers, but not all.

Starting 2019 I have been doing the Agatha Christie Perpetual Reading Challenge, planning to read/reread her crime books in chronological order (but omitting the short stories collection because I'm no great fan of short stories). I'm also in for Six Shooter Mystery Reading Challenge this year, planning to read six books each year. One particular title which I am sure I haven't read is Why didn't they ask Evans? And it's the next and last book from both challenges' list I'll be reading this year, so that's the one I'm most looking forward to!

ÉMILE ZOLA (22 books)

From the 20 books of Rougon-Macquart cycle, only one book I haven't read; it's the last one: Doctor Pascal. And beyond the cycle, I've also read two novels and one non fiction.

As I am in the middle of The Rougon-Macquart Project, the next two I'm gonna reread this year are The Belly of Paris and The Conquest of Plassans. I'm actually excited about Doctor Pascal, but it has to wait until I have finished the other 19.... :(


There's no year goes by without at least a Dickens or two to read. Tell me, which one should I read next? Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby?

Other than these three, I'm also working on reading from several other authors in my Author Challenge. Who knows, I might add one or more authors along the way?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is considered the first detective novel that established the ground rules of modern detective novels. Though I agree with this statement, I think Agatha Christie is still the reigning queen of the genre.

Published in 1868, it is an epistolary novel about the missing of a yellow diamond called Moonstone, which was originally placed on the forehead of the Hindu god of the moon statue, located at a Hindu temple in India. The diamond protected by three hereditary guardians from Brahmin caste, who do not hesitate to perform crime, even murder if needed, in order to save it. One day a British army officer - a rogue named Colonel Herncastle - stole it from the temple in a looting during the Siege of Seringapatam, and brought it to England. His life has never been in peace ever since.

Colonel Herncastle's sister is a Lady Verinder, who disliked her notorious brother. Furious with his sister's rudeness and humiliation, he took an unusual way of revenge, by bequeathing the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, when she turns eighteen. Several days before the birthday party, three Indian jugglers come to the town, and even ask permission to perform at the Verinders' on the night of the birthday party. They get to see Rachel, who, excited by the inheritance, pins the Moonstone on her blouse. That night Rachel keeps the diamond in an Indian cabinet in her parlour. The next day they finds the cabinet empty, the diamond is missing. They hire the best detective to investigate the case, but, despite of the progresses Sergeant Cuff has made, Lady Verinder stops the investigation altogether, as it has somewhat bothered Rachel. And so the mystery is left unsolved.

Two years from the unfortunate event, Franklin Blake - Rachel's cousin - who was tasked of bringing the Moonstone to Rachel at her birthday night, takes initiative to keep a neat record of everything that had happened from the moment they got the Moonstone, to the moment when the mystery is eventually solved. He compiles narrative of persons involved, reports, letters, and diary, to create a complete and true history of the Moonstone mystery. And so, that is what we read as this novel.

I was in love with the novel from the first chapter, which is Gabriel Betteredge's narrative. Betteredge is the Verinders' chief steward (butler and housekeeper), a pleasant, humorous, warm hearted old man who loves Defoe's Robinson Crusoe so much, that the book becomes his 'bible' and sole consolation in life. He is the sole reason why I kept reading this book. I loved his narrative, it shows his wittiness, loving nature, and loyalty towards the Verinders. How I've wished that he'd keep the pen to himself for the rest of the book, and I might have automatically granted it five stars, no matter how the story unfolds. However, Collins didn't agree with me. He chose, instead, to trust the next narration to a hypocrite girl (a Pharisee of modern world) who I despised! After that, several other persons alternately took over the pen, and that, I think, was when I took first of the five stars I've stored for the book. I love continuity in a book. Two narration is still okay, but NOT more than that, please!!

The other half star I reluctantly took away is from the opium experiment. I don't know much about the side effect of opium, but I think the opium plot involving Franklin Blake is quite lame and absurd.

Apart from those two objections of mine, The Moonstone promised to be an enjoyable Victorian story, with the oriental superstition, the mysterious swamp, the social injustice leading to tragedy, the romance - though it would be better if the heroine isn't that spoilt, selfish, insensible as Rachel. But yeah... Collins isn't Dickens.

All in all, I must say that I'm quite disappointed. It started very nicely, but ended disappointingly. I don't know how it supposed to "establish the ground rules of modern detective novels" if the detective was shunned before he could do his job, and the amateur who took over is head over heels in love, which means he's not clearheaded, and thus, unfit for the task. It is a good Victorian novel, but not as a detective novel. Trust that to Agatha Christie only!

Final rating: 3,5 / 5

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Author Birthday [July] : Iris Murdoch

#AuthorBirthday is a monthly feature, in which I highlight one author each month, mostly the ones I have not yet read. Part of the aim is to get familiar with the author and (hopefully) encourage me to start reading his/her work.

For July, please welcome:


Dame Jean Iris Murdoch is an Irish-British novelist and philosopher. She was famous for her psychological novels with philosophical and comic contents.

Born in Dublin as an only child, Iris had a great education path before she published her first novel: Under the Net in 1954. In 1938 she went to Sommerville College, studying combined course of classics, ancient history, and philosophy. Then she studied philosophy in Oxford, before the war broke, which brought her to work as assistant principal in Her Majesty's Treasury in London; followed by a three years career as administrative officer under United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in England, Belfium, and Austria.

After the war, Iris studied philosophy post-graduate in Oxford, then she was offered a fellowship in St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy for fifteen years. During that period, Iris met and fell in love with a literary critic, novelist, and professor at the Oxford University. They became husband and wife in 1956, and had what one calls an "unconventional marriage" that lasted for forty years. By unconventional, I meant Iris' various affairs with men (and women) during their marriage, apparently in Bayley's knowledge (and I guess approval). Iris has had this overlapping love affairs with several men since before her marriage.

Before writing Under the Net, Iris has also published several essays on philosophy, and in 1953 she wrote a monograph about Jean-Paul Sartre: "Sartre: Romantic Rationalist". Iris was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and was made Dame Commander in 1987. That's not her only award; she had many during her career. One of then is the Booker Prize which she'd won for The Sea, the Sea.

Iris published more than twenty five novels in her lifetime. The last one: Jackson's Dilemma was published only two years before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease - the illness which finally ended her life in 8 February 1999, in Oxford. Critics wrote that Jackson's Dilemma was "different" from her other novels, but according to Bayley, it's because Iris has been under Alzheimer's disease when she's writing it.

John Bayley later chronicled her struggle with Alzheimer's in his memoir: Elegy for Iris (1999), which was later adapted in the movie: Iris (2001), starring Kate Winslet and Judi Dench, as young and older Iris. In her obituary, The Guardian named Iris Murdoch as "one of the best and most influential writers of the 20th century". A bench in the grounds of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she was often found walking, has been dedicated to her.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are in London, attending the show of an American Impressionist: Carlotta Adams. One of her sketches that night is impersonating a famous actress: Jane Wilkinson, who also attends the show, and is apparently quite amused by Adams' performances. After the show, Poirot and Hastings have supper at the Savoy, and there they see Jane Wilkinson and her theater peers in the next table, while Carlotta Adams is in another.

Jane Wilkinson has married Lord Edgware, a tyranical, strict man, a wealthy English Baron. Being herself a terribly egotistical and amoral woman, it's no wonder that the marriage fails, and now Lady Edgware hires Poirot to plea a divorce from her husband, because she is "in love" with the Duke of Merton. She has tried few times before to speak about it herself, but the Baron refused to release her. Poirot agrees to help her, but on meeting the Baron, is astonished to hear from him that he HAS actually sent Lady Edgware a letter confirming his consent, which Lady Edgware claims she never receives.

Then the incident which inspires the title takes place; Lord Edgware dies, having been stabbed in his neck. On the same night, Carlotta Adams is being poisoned with Veronal, and dies in her sleep. Before the murder, a woman is seen to enter Lord Edgware's study by two witnesses: the butler, who later mysteriously disappeared, and the secretary, who despised Lady Edgware. Both acknowledge the woman as Lady Edgware. Chief Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard takes charge of the investigation, "assisted" of course, by the inimitable Hercule Poirot.

Jane Wilkinson is, of course, the main suspect. She has the undeniable motif: to marry Duke of Merton - a Catholic man who would never marry a lawful wife of another man. But Jane has also an undisputable alibi; she spent the evening in a party, which the other guests confirm. Second suspect is Ronald Marsh, Lord Edgware's nephew, whose allowances has been cut off by his uncle few months since, and happens to be in the scene of crime in a suspicious manner. So, who's dunn it?

The moment Jane Wilkinson takes interest in Carlotta Adam's imitation of her and takes her aside during the dinner, I immediately smell something fishy. This gotta be related to Lord Edgware's future murder (because it's clear from the beginning that he will be the murdered victim, right?) So, when Ronald Marsh is put under scrutiny, I said to myself: nah, he's not the murderer. It's either Carlotta (throwing the blame to Jane) or Jane herself (making Carlotta her alibi).

I was glad that it's another of Christie's "simple" cases. The question is whether the murderer is the obvious suspect with genius touch or the most unsuspected person with simple explanation. That's what I love most in crime/detective stories. And in that quarter, Lord Edgware Dies is very satisfying.

Rating: 4 / 5

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Jazz Age June Wrap Up

I'm glad Laurie and I have decided to host #JazzAgeJune. I've had a lot of fun for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic. And this event has become the quiet readalong we've been planning from the first. Here's a wrap up of my activities during #JazzAgeJune:


This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This book is like a compilation of incoherent snatches of the protagonist's daily life in his journey to adulthood. It's a semi-biographical story of Fitzgerald himself. The style is jumping from prose to poems, to dramatically dialogue, to letters. The reading effect is... confusing, but at the same time, strangely enough, amusing and entertaining. This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald first novel, published on 1920, and it's a pleasure to have read it in its 100th anniversary!

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

This is a tale of a stuffed rabbit toy with velvet skin a boy has got as Christmas present. It's a sweet story about love and sacrifice, which was published in 1922.


My original plan was to rewatch at least three movies, but ended with only one:

Midnight in Paris

I think Midnight in Paris would be one movie that I'd rewatch every year without ever feeling bored. It has everything I love: Paris, the Jazz age, and (a glimpse of) the Belle Epoque. Is there any other film where you can meet the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Dali, Josephine Baker - all the prominent figures of the Jazz Age - and at the same time: Gauguin, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec - the Impressionists of the Belle Epoque - in one place? It's a shame though that we see no Zola, Cezanne, or Manet! I would have watched it every month!

I actually own a DVD of Chicago, and have intended to rewatch it, but instead, I've been having a father-daughter quality time by binge-watching Harry Potter movies (another pleasant moments, though not of Jazz Age theme!)


I've bookmarked some 1920s jazz musics on my youtube, and listening to it while reading This Side of Paradise added the joy of the reading. I also loved nearly all OST of Midnight on Paris. The Chareston, in particular, is a perfect music to listen to whenever I get my depression.

Well, I've had so much fun last month, that I'm thinking about doing another #JazzAgeJune next year, how do you think Laurie? :) And now I must close this post with a bunch of thanks to my co-host: Laurie, for letting me work with her in this refreshing event!

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

I first came to know this children classic from a TV show: F.R.I.E.N.D.S; it's the one when Chandler, knowing that it's her favorite book, buys his lover the first edition of The Velveteen Rabbit as birthday present. I loved the title, and I thought that if an adult could get so excited to receive a children book as birthday gift, then it must be wonderful.

So, when finding that @reading.the.classics will be hosting 2020 Summer Classics Challenge on Instagram, and one of the prompt is children book, I instantly thought that this is the perfect moment to read The Velveteen Rabbit. This book can also be counted for #JazzAgeJune, as it was published in 1922.

This is a tale of a stuffed rabbit toy, with velvet skin. A boy gets it as Christmas present, but what with all the Christmas excitement and with so many toys the boy possesses in the nursery, the rabbit is quite forgotten for some time. This, and the snubs the rabbit receives from the mechanical toys, quite saddens him. However, an old toy - the oldest and wisest in the nursery - the Skin Horse, changes the rabbit's mind when he talks about being REAL - something that mechanical toys would never be. When being asked what he means by Real, here's the Skin Horse's answer - and it's the best and most important part of the book:

“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

The Rabbit is full of hope now. And very lucky of him, one day Nana is looking for a new toy to replace the boy's old one, and the velveteen rabbit is chosen. The boy loves it from the first. He hugs and kisses the rabbit, and he brings it every where he goes - to bed, as well as to the forest to play with him. Those moments are the happiest moments of the rabbit. He doesn't mind that his velvet going shabbier with time, because the boy showers him with love. Now he knows what the Skin Horses meant by being Real. He feels that he is real. And the boy himself says that he's REAL.

However, one day when the boy brings him to the forest, two real rabbits mock him for being stiff and not real because he doesn't have hind legs to jump. It saddens the rabbit.

The boy gets scarlet fever, and the doctor's advice is to bring the boy to seaside, and to burn every toy he's been touching when he's sick. Of course, it includes the old velveteen rabbit. He is tossed into a sack, then left in the backyard, ready to be burnt the next day. That night the velveteen rabbit cries and sheds a real tear. To his astonishment, the tear changes into a lovely flower, and from the flower steps out a fairy who calls herself the nursery magic Fairy. She turns the velveteen rabbit into a real rabbit, so that he can now jump and play with other rabbits in the forest.

Later on when the boy returns home, he is walking in the forest, and sees a rabbit, which he thinks looks very similar to his dear rabbit toy before it's burnt. Of course, that rabbit is the velveteen rabbit, who comes to that spot to see again the boy who has loved him.

A very sweet story, isn't it? And now I know why it became a classic. It talks about love - unconditional love. It is when you love unconditionally that you have a fulfilled life (Real). To love means to sacrifice. But the reward can be much bigger than the sacrifice itself: every moment you share with someone you love is a treasure. And it won't be left unnoticed by God himself, the highest Love.

It's a blessing to read this book, and it instantly become my most favorite children book!

Rating: 5 / 5

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

If there's one good thing about year 2020 so far, it's perhaps the bicentennial of Fitzgerald's first published novel: This Side Of Paradise. Some people might regard the novel immature, or even babbling, but for me it's the epitome of the Jazz Age era. But, as there're always two different sides of everything, so, too, the 1920s - at the other side of the bling-bling of the flappers and the liberating of the Charleston dance, there's also the hollowness, confusion, disillusionment of the Lost Generation. And these two aspects are magnificently captured in these sketches collection which Fitzgerald has weaved into a beautiful novel.

People regard this novel as immature not without reason. It's a semi-biographical account of Fitzgerald himself, following the self discovery journey of an upper-middle class Midwestern young man called Amory Blaine. What an appropriate name for the era! It sounds sentimental, but the person is way from it. Amory is a spoiled kid, shaped and idolised by his eccentric mother: Beatrice, who seems to have raised him for her "delightful companion".

The story starts with one of Beatrice's nervous breakdowns, which forced Amory to live with his aunt and uncle in Minneapolis. He's thirteen, and soon found himself "unconventional" compared to his peers. Here, and throughout the book, the sense of being out of place always haunts Amory. He proposes to take a prep school in St. Regis - previously having been privately tutored by Beatrice and a tutor along their nomadic lives - in order to shake off Beatrice's influence. There he finds himself superior, but his friends thinks him conceited, his teachers, he's lazy and undisciplined.

Next, college life. He goes to Princeton, believing himself would be liked and praised by his friends - he's intelligent and feels himself capable of doing some great things, anyway. But, again, setbacks. He joins the football club (for popular gain, not for sport), but an injury cut his short career. Next, literary field; he joins The Daily Princeronian - the college newspaper, then resigns as he still isn't belonged to the elites. At Princeton it is where he starts learning about social classifications, and struggles to fit himself to anyone of the classes - a theme later on matured in Fitzgerald's masterpiece: The Great Gatsby.

If academics doesn't seem to educate Amory, even a bit, it's because he is, instead, shaped by his friends and lovers. Amory is like a blank canvas who doesn't have any idea what kind of painting he would become, or even, he would like to be. He needs different painters to paint on him. He seems to be satisfied with the first painter, but comes the second, painting differently on him, then he would be like: Yeah, I might like it better. Until the third painter paints on him, and so on. He keeps drifting on..

Two most influential relationships Amory has attached himself with, are with Monsignor Darcy, a Catholic bishop, who was an ex lover of Beatrice, and becomes a friend and spiritual counselor to Amory. Second is Amory's true love: Rosalind, a New York debutante whom Amory met after he served in the WWI as bayonet instructor. In spite of her love for Amory, and in spite of Amory's efforts to work as copy writer for an advertising agency to steal her heart, Rosalind chose to marry another wealthy young man (out of love) because she can't live with poverty. In real life, Zelda Sayre (rich debutante herself) only agreed to marry young Fitzgerald after he successfully published his first novel - THIS novel (ironical, eh?)

And so, this book is like a compilation of incoherent snatches of Amory's daily life in his journey to adulthood. The style is jumping from prose to poems, to dramatically dialogue, to letters. The reading effect is... confusing, but at the same time, strangely enough, amusing and entertaining. If Amory's journey is in quest of his self, Fitzgerald's is of his unique writing style.

There's many themes here which you'd also find in The Great Gatsby. The longing for social recognition is one, then there's the car's accident, money vs honors, and wealth vs morality. But I have my personal favorite points. First is the "devil" that Amory sees when he and his friends goes to a girl's place for.. uh.. a little "party". Nobody else sees it but Amory. I wonder if it's not a scrap of his conscience to not taking part in the debauchery? Nevertheless, he has been brought up as Catholic, and a bishop is one of his important friends. I just think that, it's not his money or social background, which would make him unconventional; it is his moral principle and unique personality, which he doesn't realize he possesses. Fitzgerald later used this little conscience theme in The Great Gatsby.

Another favorite of mine is the last paragraph. The scene of Amory's nostalgic walk to Princeton, and his famous closing line: "I know myself... but that is all." while "stretching out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky". Isn't it a symbol of reconnecting with the past, so that you could learn from your flaws and errors, to really identify yourself - good and bad - and then, only then, that you could strive in life?

This Side of Paradise is the true depiction of the lost generation. Young men who lost their youths at war; who, when the war was coming, regarded it as heroic battles they've read in history, but instead, they witnessed brutality and terrifying deaths. It's being the first war which used modern weapons added to the horrible experience they must have dealt with. And so, they lost their faith to life, love, and the purpose of life. They were disilusioned and confused of what or who they were, and what to do next. The Lost Generation.

Rating: 4,5 / 5

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Song of The Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of The Lark is the second book of Cather's Prairies trilogy (preceded by O Pioneers! and succeeded by My Antonia). Its the third Cather's I've read so far, and to be honest, the most disappointing.

The story is centered on Thea Kronborg - a teenage girl, daughter of a Swedish Methodist priest who lives in Moonstone, a small town along the rail line of Colorado in the 1890s. Thea is a talented teenager with extraordinary character: intelligent, independent, reserved, strong-willed, passionate, hard working. This book is a bildungsroman, telling the making of an artist from zero.

Thea knows that she's different - more superior - from her peers. Only Doctor Howard Archie (a young town physician with unhappy marriage) and Ray Kennedy (a 30 years old railroad conductor who dreams of marrying Thea when she's grown up) who fully understand and support her. There are also Thea's mother, Aunt Tillie, and Spannish Johnny from the Mexican settlement, who can see - though not fully understand - Thea's exceptional talent, and support her, though silently.

It's Herr Wunsch, an old drunkard German music teacher, who first teaches Thea to play piano. However, after one drunken frenzy, Wunsch leaves town, and Thea takes over his pupils - starting a professional career at age fifteen. Then an accident takes Ray Kennedy's life, and he leaves Thea six hundred dollars to study music in Chicago. And so, at seventeen, Thea Kronborg leaves Moonstone to study music under Andor Harsanyi, who, accidentally finds out that Thea's real talent is not music, but singing. So he let's Thea go.

(The Song of the Lark is a painting by Jules Breton, 1884, in which Thea Kronborg identifies herself with the girl - and from which Cather titled this book)

Returning to Moonstone, Thea finds her family (excepting her mother) are weighing her ambition down with their narrow-mindedness and mediocrity, and so she makes a tough decision to leave her town and family for good - cutting off a useless relationship.

Back to Chicago, she's diligently studying to become an opera singer. That's how she meets a rich, handsome son of a brewer who takes interest in opera singer: Fred Ottenburg. I honestly feel that Fred - though supportive - has changed Thea's personality... to worse. I know that Thea is reclusive from teenager, but she's also affectionate to ones she cares about. Her intimate relationship with Fred changes her to be more into herself and selfish. I hate Fred, he's an egoist man who flirts with Thea while still married. He knows that Thea is vulnerable and innocent, yet, excusing himself of raising Thea's career, lies and lets Thea falling in love with him. What a jerk!

Thea then goes to Germany for further preparing her professional career as opera singer, by borrowing money from Doctor Archie - who has grown rich from silver mines investment, and so after his wife died, leaves Moonstone and lives in the city. He is my most favorite character in this book. I've had a vague hope that he would fall in love with Thea in the end, because, apart from Fred Ottenburg, Howard Archie is the only man who can understand Thea. He's mature, kind, calm, and supportive. He would have been a perfect husband for a raising star (who came from humble and simple town) such as Thea. I imagine Doctor Archie, smiling and beaming, accompanying Thea during all the hustle bustle of showbiz from theater to theater. Smiling proudly from his seat during performances, calming the singer on the way back home when she's depressed because she has missed one high note, and nervously anticipating what the critics would say the next day. He would be Thea's counterbalance to live a quiet and meaningful life at their happy home, amidst the glittering world of operas. But... Cather thought differently; she made Archie's a fatherly (or brotherly) love, and picked instead the scoundrel Fred, who only brings bad influences, to be Thea's love interest. Bah!

(Olive Fremstad is an opera diva, by whom Thea Kronborg's story was inspired)

And perhaps, because of that, Thea has grown up as an egotist, arrogant woman, who chose an important performance rather than her dying mother. I have discussed before how Thea's unwise judgement would inevitably influence her future life. I don't know whether it's the best path for making a great artist, but if it's so, I'm truly grateful for not possessing such talent and ambition. Yes, in the end Thea might made many people happy (represented by Spanish Johnny and Aunt Tillie), but damn it, you should have put your mother's feeling on top of others, Thea Kronborg!!

I've had a lot of expectations before reading this book. I thought it would be a soothing book like Death Comes to the Archbishop or O, Pioneers! and indeed, I have been savoring every chapter from the first and second part. But starting part III, the book tone changes, along with Thea's personality. The title of part III is "Stupid Faces", which gave me foreboding of how Thea would change to be arrogant and full of suppressed anger. Afterward, it's kind of a disturbing read. Hopefully the next one, My Antonia, would make compensation for this disappointment.

Final rating: 3,5 / 5

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Author Birthday [June] : Frances Burney

#AuthorBirthday is a monthly feature, in which I highlight one author each month, mostly the ones I have not yet read. Part of the aim is to get familiar with the author and (hopefully) encourage me to start reading his/her work.

For June, please welcome:


Frances or Fanny Burney, born in 13th June 1752, was an English satirical novelist, diarist, and playwright - a prominent female figure in 18th century literary world, whose satirical caricature of English social circle would later influence some famous authors, including Jane Austen. Born from a musician Dr. Charles Burney, and Esther Burney, Frances was believed to suffer from dyslexia until 8 years of age. However, as soon as she's learned alfabets, she quickly educated herself by reading copious books from family library, that she began to scribble stuffs from age 10: small letters and stories, even plays - helped by his brothers and sisters. One of the most influential supporters of her writing is one Samuel 'Daddy' Crisp, who encouraged her writing after reading her journals and stories of life events and observations on family life and London's social circle.

However, five years after her mother's death (when she's only 10 y.o.), his father married a temperamental woman whom his children disliked. Frances, who felt increasing pressure to abandon her writing as it's regarded unappropriate for ladies, burnt her first manuscript: The History of Caroline Evelyn, but which she later used as the foundation of her first novel: Evelina - by making the heroine as the daughter of Caroline Evelyn.

In 1778 Frances published Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World anonymously. She took effort in copying the manuscript in disguised hand, less the publisher recognized her handwriting; while her brother James posed as the author. The book acclaimed success, and her father eventually supported Frances' writing career, only after witnessing favorable reactions towards Evelina - but partly because he thought owning a successful writer in his household would increase his social value... (old story, huh?) In 1779 Frances wrote a comedic play titled The Whitlings, but her family thought publishing comedic plays is unladylike, so it's never get performed.

After publishing her second novel Cecilia in 1782, Frances took a post at the court, offered by Queen Charlotte, as "Keeper of of the Robes". She knew that she wouldn't have enough free time to write, but considering she's still unmarried in age 34, she reluctantly took the post. However, Frances' health deteriorated under stress of court life and intrigues, that she left her post after 5 years of services, which brought her a warm relationship with the Queen and princesses, even long after her service ended.

During French Revolution, a group of French émigrés stayed in the neighborhood of Frances' sister, where she was staying. She became acquainted with one Alexandre d'Arblay, former aide de camper to the marquis de La Fayete. Frances and d'Arblay married in 1793, but her father - who objected the marriage - didn't attend the wedding. They led a happy marriage, though.

Frances' next novel was Camilla, which she published by subscription in 1796; the profits of which enabled the new couple built their own house, which they called "Camilla Cottege". The d'Arblays then moved to France in 1802 during French Revolution, where Frances wrote what would become her last novel: The Wanderer. It was then published after their return to England in 1814. It is also during her stay on France that Frances chronicled in her letter to her sister, the mastectomy without anaesthesia she'd had after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Dr. Charles Burney died on 1814, followed by d'Arblay in 1818. After these events, Frances stopped writing fiction, and only focused her life to publish the Memoirs of Doctor Burney, and editing her own papers, which was later published posthumously as the Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay after Frances' death in London, 1840, at the age of 87.

Frances Burney is now still regarded as the mother of fiction. Throughout her career as writer, Frances' witty style has been admired by literary figures of her time, such as Dotor Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale, and David Garrick. And when she published Camilla, a Miss J. Austen was one of the subscribers. The same miss Austen even borrowed from Frances' final passage of Cecilia to title her own famous novel: Pride and Prejudice.

Have you read one of Frances Burney's works? What is your favorite?

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Top Five Classics About Free Will

Do you ever have any favorite topic which you can best relate to in any books? The one that's always fascinate you? Mine is free will (and conscience). Books with these topics will most likely be among my favorites. Why, particularly? Because I regard free will as the greatest gift mankind has ever received from its Creator. Without it, we are just a more intelligent species than other creations, nothing more. I have been fascinated to the 'good vs evil' topic from teenager. More about this, you can read in this post. Right now, let's just get to my top five classics, which, either partly or entirely, discuss about free will. Mind you, that I rank them based on their significance on the topic, not on my preference.

5. La Bete Humaine

You might wonder why a Zola's made it's way to this list, while he supported determinism (the opposite of free will)? Well, it is the lack of free will that I want to discuss here.

Jacques Lantier is an engine driver in the French railway station. He's an educated, and skillful worker, but when sexually aroused, a murderous desire to kill would control him - the beast within. One day he met his cousin Flore, who seduced him. The desire to stab her aroused in him, but just in time he could control it, and rushed away from the scene.

And here is some excerpts from my review, about animal passion and free will:

"On several occasions, his education and conscience prevented Jacques from doing such low moral deed, and that's why he could not kill the man he ought to."

"[Jacques] knew perfectly well why and when the "beast" would show up in him, i.e. when he was sexually aroused by a woman. Jacques was intelligent enough to know that the only thing he must do to prevent it is to stop making up with women and focus his passion solely to his works. It would need a huge effort, but again, we always have the choices and free will to choose one."

4. The Brothers Karamazov

In this masterpiece of his, Dostoyevsky argued about free will and conscience - if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. From my review, I quote here my thoughts about one of the most eloquent and important chapters in literature: The Grand Inquisitor - a poem by Ivan Karamazov, questioning the free will God has imposed upon mankind:

"[Ivan] believed that free will is impossible burden for mankind, because we will always have to answer to our consciences; that we will never be happy whichever path of life we choose, good or evil. If it was the cause, then why wasting your energy doing good?"

Ivan questions the essence of free will, that does not make man free anyway. One chapter that makes you work on many reflections and thinking, maybe, without any clear conclusion at the end. Well, we are not to debate, right? Just make the choice.. It's like when I receive a gift from a friend, it would be impertinent and terribly rude to ask 'why did you give me this? It will be a burden for me..' No, I will accept it without questioning his reason or consideration (and just think of his/her intention to be kind to me), and if I don't like it, I'll just throw it away.

3. Harry Potter

There are so many themes being worked on in Harry Potter series, one of these is free will. In the second installment: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry wondered about the Sorting Hat's decision of placing him in Gryffindor while he possesses qualities for being in Slytherin - is it because HE asked it? Dumbledore's answer is inspiring:

"It's not our ability that shows what we truly are; it's our choices."

Accordingly, in the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallow, when Albus Severus Potter (what a heavy name for a child!) was afraid he might get sorted to Slytherin, Harry also calmed him down, asserting that "your own choice is also taken into account".

What a relief it must have been for Albus Severus to have a freedom of choice - free will!

2. Lord of the Flies

In terms of free will topic, Lord of the Flies is slightly similar to The Brothers Karamazov. Of the teenager boys who were stranded on an isolated island (without adults), Jack and the gang chose to be totally free from any rules or consequences by turning into savages (free will is a burden). Ralph, on the other hand, chose the opposite, despite of being alone and threatened to be murdered by others.

Here's an excerpt from my review:

"William Golding has made me realize how difficult it is to keep our pure conscience in the world where morality has been degraded to a terrifying point; when religion is just accessory. Why must we keep being on the right side with all its limitation, while the bad side offers so much freedom?
Ralph's answer when he, too, in a very crucial moment, was forced to choose: "Cos I had some sense."

Ralph has become one of my favorite heroes in literature, because he strives to do good until the end - a mere teenager amidst the horror of his savage friends. He exercises his free will triumphantly!

1. East of Eden

The greatest book about free will that I have ever read. I have written what I want to discuss here in my old post: On Timshel [East of Eden] | The Freedom of Choice. I won't quote anything here, because it would be copying almost the entire post here. Besides, it's the only way to persuade you to read it (if you haven't two years ago, LOL!) Suffice to say that East of Eden argues about God's words to Cain (in the book of Genesis), in which hidden the suggestion that there is still possibility for him (Cain) to do good (thou mayest instead of shalt thou) - the freedom of choice.

Just imagine, if I can have tea with Émile Zola and Lee (a character from East of Eden) to discuss about free will vs determinism, that would be a discussion I will never forget! ;)

There, we have got a winner.

Do you know any other classics about free will that you think I might love?

Monday, June 1, 2020

Classic Character: The Ambitious Thea Kronborg from The Song of the Lark

Thea Kronborg is one of the most complex characters I have ever analysed for #ClassicCharacter. A daughter of a Swedish Methodist minister in a small village called Moonstone, she is a strong-willed, reclusive, serious, uncommonly intelligent girl. Since childhood she possesses an unleashed desire - of what exactly, she didn't know herself at first. But people around her - at least some of them (her mother, Doctor Archie, Ray Kennedy, Spanish Johnny, Aunt Tillie, Herr Wunsch) - could feel the extraordinary and great talent hidden in her frail body. Though for common people, she is just a queer, selfish, self important girl. Thea Kronborg was loosely based on a real life Opera singer: Olive Fremstad.

I thought at first that she was just an introverted girl, of whom I can relate very well, as our most satisfying moments are those spent on our own. That's me! - cried I silently. But when the story was unfolding, I realized that it is a story of the making of an artist - an opera artist.

Though I'm no artist, we have both few similarities, one of it is perfectionist. We always try to do our utmost best, and would be disappointed when we don't perform as best (or hard) as we ought to (to our own standard). We also enraged or even disgusted when others less talented boasted of their imperfect performance: "how could they??" The other one is uninterestedness where common people's envy and hostility are concerned - the let-them-say-what-they-will, we-don't-care attitude. But our similarities stop there.

Driven by ambition (or is it passion?), Thea left her home for good, to study music and singing. Focus is one thing to pursue one's career, and I endorsed her decision to leave Moonstone for good, for there are a lot of obstacles from even her family, which will weigh her down from reaching up the stars. However I didn't agree with her when she prioritized her job over her dying mother. I told myself, that Thea would be tortured by remorse for the rest of her life. And I'm not completely wrong. During her career Thea is always torn between two natures. She is driven by ambition, but also crushed by uprootness from her origin. She tries to leave the past behind, but at the same time always return to the embrace of the past when in trouble. In short, Thea is UNHAPPY. Yes, she is beaming after a triumphant performance, but then becomes sad and dejected after. And when she begged Doctor Archie to come at her hotel because "there's a lot she wanted to talk about", I began to understand how lonely a great artist can be.

In the end I asked myself, whether Thea Kronborg is purely selfish or merely ambitious? From her relationship with Spanish Johnny and the Mexicans, I know that she's an affectionate girl. But her ambition forced her to sacrifice many things dear to her. Does it really necessary? Can't she care for both - affection and career? When her mother was dying, for instance, couldn't she afford to let go of that one performance and spent time with her mother, even only several hours, after all that Mrs. Kronborg had done for her dear little girl? True that she might not get another chance of the performance for a long time. But one'll never know, there's always another chance, while one's mother only dies once! No, I strongly believe that however big one's ambition is, one's true fulfillment comes from honest consciousness of having performed love and kindness (especially) to one's parents. That consciousness would then clear one's path to whatever achievement one might seek for the rest of one's life. So, to answer my question, Thea Kronborg is ambitious AND unhappy. Maybe that's the only way of making great artists? I don't know. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Author Birthday [May] : Dashiell Hammett

#AuthorBirthday is a monthly feature, in which I highlight one author each month, mostly the ones I have not yet read. Part of the aim is to get familiar with the author and (hopefully) encourage me to start reading his/her work.

For May, please welcome:


Samuel Dashiell Hammett is an American author, screenwriter, and political activist, who was born on May 27, 1894. He is largely known as the founder of hardboiled detective fiction genre. His father (Richard Thomas Hammett) was an alcoholic, womanizer, and an unsuccessful business man; while his mother - Anne Bond Dashiell (original name in French: de Chiel) suffered from tuberculosis, and held a conviction that 'men were a no-good lot'. So, it's no wonder that little Hammett must leave school in the age of thirteen, to help his father's failing business, and did some menial jobs before he decided to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1815, where he served for eight years, and which would change his life forever.

Hammett served in Motor Ambulance Corps during World War I, where he was infected from Spanish flu and tuberculosis. While being hospitalized, he fell in love with nurse Josephine Dolan, whom he married in July 7, 1921. It's a pity, though, that the marriage should fall apart five years later after Hammett was forced to live apart from his wife and their two daughters due to his tuberculosis - an illness, from which, he would never fully recover. Nevertheless, Hammett kept supported Josephine and the children financially.

In 1922 Hammett first published his short detective stories - introducing a private investigator The Continental Op, the first hard-boiled detective in literature - in pulp magazine called Black Mask. One of these short stories, The Glass Keys (1930) was dedicated to Nell Martin, Hammett's lover, who was a short stories and novel author herself. But this relationship didn't last long, for in 1931 he had another romantic relationship with a playwright called Lillian Hellman - a relationship which would last for thirty years.

A few notable novels from Dashiell Hammett are Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930), where Sam Spade - one of the most famous crime detectives in literature - made his one and only appearance in a novel (he further appeared in some short stories). The Thin Man (1934) was Hammett's final novel - though he still sporadically wrote some works after that. Hellman later said that Hammett stopped writing since he wanted to do something new. Indeed, he became anti-fascist from 1930 and joined the Communist Party in 1937. He also joined the League of American Writers - whose members were mostly member of Communist Party, or at least supporting the idea ("fellow travellers") - and became its President in 1941.

When World War II broke, Hammett listed again in the US Army. After the war, he returned to politics, and in 1946 became President of Civil Rights Congress (CRC). Later, US government classified CRC as communist front group. Hammett testified at court in 1951 but refused to provide information about CRC trustee, so that he was put into prison for six months, where he worked as toilet cleaner. In his eulogy, Hellman wrote that "he submitted to prison rather than reveal the names of the contributors to the fund because he had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word."

Alcohol, smoking, and jail life has made Hammett more and continuously ill. In 1950 he lived alone and became very sick. He attempted to write a novel titled "Tulip" but left it unfinished. Couldn't live alone, he finally moved in to stay with Hellman. After all the hard drinking and lavish Hollywood parties, Dashiell Hammett died in January 10, 1961 from a lung cancer, and since he was a veteran of two World Wars, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Since 1991, the International Association of Crime Writers, North American Branch (IACW/NA) has been awarding the Hammett Prize to Canadian or US citizen for a book in English in the field of crime writing every year. Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled detective stories continue to inspire many writers until today (and for many years to come, I believe).