Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

James Harthouse & the Whelp!

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

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

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


Monday, February 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5 to 5

Monday, February 10, 2020

Treasure Island Books: A Bookish Game

Pete from Classics Reader invented a fun bookish game called Treasure Island Books. It looks fun, so..let's play!

You are stuck on a ‘Treasure Island’ for 1 year, which you landed on due to a complication during a parasailing event. You walk through the island and find a treasure trove. Contained in the treasure are the books you will spend the next year with. They can be books to gain knowledge, information, understanding, spirituality or just to entertain, it’s completely up to you.

8 books you have read of your choice.
Any 8 books you wish to spend the next year with. Pick wisely, you’ll be spending a lot of time with them. In principle, the books you love the most or want to spend more time with.

My choice:
I could have easily picked 8 books from my Personal Canon, but I think I might as well consider what will happen if I were stuck (not deliberately) in an island for a year. I will be depressed for  being alone in a foreign place. So I guess, my choice of book will be a bit different from my Personal Canon.

The Book of Psalm
Instead of the entire Bible (which I would not have read in a year anyway), I'd pick Book of Psalm, because it's soothing, and offers a lot of consolations for my poor mental condition while being stuck in the island.

Because I just have to! It's my all time favorite book.

When I feel weak and scared in the island, I will take courage from the strong Helen Graham, a woman who can bear all the burden in the world, and still stay positive and affectionate.

This is one of my comfort books. It's warm and sweet - a perfect book to read when I get so forlorn and depressed.

Since I would be celebrating Christmas alone in an Island, what would cheer me better than A Christmas Carol? I just need a good fire, and my imagination, and I'll be doing okay!

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
I will need a hilarious book to make me laugh all the time. And would be better than Dickens' witty comical stories of The Pickwick Papers? A good laugh will lift up my spirit in a minute!

In times of homesick, I could read Rebecca, just to remind me to my mother (you need to read my review to know why).

The best book to transport you to another world, so as forgetting your own troubles, is definitely Alexandre Dumas' ! The intrigues and the full actions of The Count of Monte Cristo would be my best friend during my stay in the island!

1 book which you have never read before.
You know, all those books on your book shelf, that have been there for years? You get to take one. Which one do you want to read the most?

My choice:

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
Cather's soothing and tranquil writing would fit perfectly with my mental condition during my isolation in the island, don't you think?

1 ‘the complete works of’.
Now, this can add some volume to your treasure trove. Yes, pick 1 author who you get to take the complete works of with you. You don’t have to have read everything at this moment by the author, but enough to make you want to read everything they have over the next year.

My choice:

You would think I'd pick Zola, eh? But Zola's is not for a troubled mind (like mine if I'd got to be stuck in an island), but Agatha Christie's offers the best pastime. And her books are numerous - about 90s - which guarantee a never ending supply for the whole year of doing almost nothing but reading.

There it is! You want to play too? Just do your own list, and don't forget to mention/link to Pete's post, and pay his blog a visit! :)

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Poirot reunites with Hastings after their last adventure The Big Four (review to be following). They are enjoying a peaceful holiday in a Cornish resort (or so they thought), and Poirot is (again) on a sabbatical phase - declaring that his latest case would be his last, and to rouse his interest would be impossible (he acted this in a couple of times in the past, and this one isn't the last!) When mocked by Hastings, he then admitted that if a bullet should struck the wall near them, then it would be difficult to say no, as he's still a human being after all. Curiously, just then a pebble struck the terrace where they are sitting.

Nick Buckley, a young girl who lives in a house nearby, called End House, walked in and joined them, and found that there's a hole in her hat. You would, no doubt, guess what has really occurred - that the pebble is in fact a bullet, and that someone has shot Nick, but missed only an inch of her head. And so, this case was opened, quite unusually, without a corpse.

Nick's life is clearly in danger. But surprisingly, the missing shot was not the only attempt made against her. She has escaped three accidents before, each of which would have killed her. This news alerted Poirot, and he acted immediately to save Mademoiselle and to solve the case. His first instruction is that Nick (who lives alone in the house, being an orphan) should invite her cousin Maggie to stay with her. Poirot then runs his usual investigating method - talking with all the suspects (Nick's friends, cousin, neighbors, and household), checking on alibis. But from the beginning one thing is missing: the motive! There seems no apparent motive of killing Nick. Poirot employed his grey cells to produce a list of all "participant" involved in the case, but there's always a missing link.

In the meantime, another attempt was made, and this time one life has been sacrificed - Maggie's, not Nick's! Poirot bitterly cursed and blamed himself of his impotence to avoid death, and still... he failed to complete the puzzle. He evacuated Nick to a hospital, and cut off communication from anyone, and yet, Nick got poisoned from eating a chocolate. So, Poirot took an unprecedented step. He falsely pronounced that Nick is dead. Now that the murderer thinks he/she has achieved his/her goal, something is bound to come up to light, which would reveal something about the murderer.

And, yes! The X factor finally became clear - but not before a dramatic "play" produced by Poirot (a stan which he would use in latter cases), a deception, and one of the best plot twists from Agatha Christie, after the one in The Murder of Roger of Ackroyd.

Compared to many of Christie's works, Peril at End House is unique in some ways. It begins without a murder, only an attempt. Thus the detective could interview not only the suspects, but also the "victim". People involved in the case are not of a family, but mostly young people of Nick's circle, and Nick's cousin. So there's a youthful freshness about the scenes that reminds you that it happens in the jazz age. And it often made Poirot and Hastings felt old! :) Lastly, there is only one murder, yet five attempts have been made to one person without avail. Five!

This was certainly a reread for me, because I vaguely remember about the hole in the hat thing, however I was surprised that this has not been one of my favorite from Agatha Christie! The plot is interesting, yes, and if you are clever enough, you might have suspected something fishy from my last sentence on previous paragraph! However what interested me more is the psychological aspect. Poirot observed that since the crime has been committed very boldly, the motives must be unobvious. This is a conclusion from someone who understands much of crime psychology. It would be very interesting to analyze how the murderer must have thought and felt - before making the decision and on executing it.

In short, it's a unique story from Christie, and I loved it!

Rating: 5 to 5

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

I must say, this was one of the most difficult reads I have ever tackled. As a mystery enthusiast, I thought it would delight me, as The Mysteries of Udolpho has been praised as inspiration for many mystery writers in the centuries after. At first it looked like it. I loved to find that St. Aubert, Emily, and even Valancourt, were nature enthusiasts. I enjoyed reading the beautiful sceneries during their journey around the Alpines. But then, after the death of Mr. Saint-Aubert, and Emily must (according to Saint-Aubert's last wish) live with her aunt, things began to alternate from bad to worse, to bad, to even much worse; especially during her stay in the Castle of Udolpho - the home of the wicked Montoni, to whom Emily's aunt married not long after Emily's stay with her.

Misfortunes came flooding with every change, and everytime you think this one is the worst of all previous, something more wicked would come. At first, you could relate very much with Emily's misfortunes, but after a while you would feel dullness in both the heart and mind. Like something that terrified you so badly at first, but after some repetition, well... it's not so terrifying anymore in the end, you’d feel numbed.

It's doubly torturing because Emily, the heroine, is a calm and loving creature. That she must endure the selfishness, coldness, and shallowness of others, the disgust over Montoni's wickedness, her complete helpfulness to protect her own life and honor, not mentioning her superstitions (which was not unusual at that era), the gloomy atmosphere of a Castle Udolpho, and her fear lest her lover has betrayed her or even dead (which one is worse, anyway?) - why, I was almost surprised that any human being could get through all that safely!

Have you felt depressed already from reading my review? Well, beware that you don't read this book during your gloomiest mood!

It would have been a perfect Halloween read, if only Ann Ratcliffe hadn't thrown every ingredient of horror and evil at a single human being that it seems almost impossible to bear. Well, tired is what I felt after finishing the story. Ann is a great Gothic writer, but never again would I read The Mysteries of Udolpho!

Note: I have read this last year (in October), but just couldn’t spare enough time to write a proper review till now.

Final rating: 3 to 5