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?