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:

AGATHA CHRISTIE (70 books)

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.... :(

CHARLES DICKENS (18 books)

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:

IRIS MURDOCH

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:

BOOKS

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.


MOVIE

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!)


MUSIC

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!