Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Conquest of Plassans by Émile Zola (second read)

Since this is my second read, I won't write much on what the story is about - this you can read in my first review of The Conquest of Plassans from 2017. To be honest, I forgot how powerful this books is; I only vaguely remember the petty little town politics. So now I will discuss more about the political background and how it awakened the hereditary madness of the characters, which would otherwise have been tamed in its slumbers.

Abbe Faujas came from Bésançon with mysterious background. The mystery is never clearly revealed throughout the book, and that just emphasizes the faux of the priest (see how Zola named him Faujas on purpose?) He was sent specifically to Plassans by "Paris" to conquer the little town. Why Plassans? Who is this "Paris" actually meant? And why did he stay particularly ar the Mourets?

We know from The Fortune of the Rougons that Pierre and Felicité Rougons have conquered Plassans with the aid of their son Eugène, who was an important person in the Louis Phillipe's government of the Second Empire of France. Though the resurrection has been successfully uprooted from the town, the Emperor wants to have a clean sheet, especially from the Legitimists. It's nearly the election time, and it's crucial that whoever elected would be a Bonapartist supporter. By appointing Abbè Faujas as the conqueror, Zola wanted also to criticize clerical hypocrisy and involvement in the French politics at that time.

Who is Faujas' "master" from Paris? It's not clear at first; Faujas' arrival seems very innocent as a priest in a religious little town like Plassans. But it's soon clear that Felicité Rougon has been appointed by "Paris" to aid the abbé to perform his task. So, we can safely conclude that "a friend from Paris" which Felicitè alluded is most probably his son Eugène!

Plassans here served as a miniature of the Second Empire's political life in France. The petit bourgeois, the retired businessmen like François Mouret, have the most vague loyalty in their political views. They use politics rather to serve their own personal interest than to support any leader or ideology. They can easily switch from one party to another if it's more profitable for them.

But why an Abbé, in the first place? Here, Eugène (or Felicité? Or both?) has clearly done their homework. They know how difficult it would be to sway the bourgeois political views, so why not send a charismatic priest to impress the religious wives first? They would, in turn, influence their husbands to trust the abbé much more easily. First woman to be conquered? Marthe Mouret! - a not very religious woman, and wife of a retired oil businessman with neutral political view: François Mouret - whose house is situated in the middle of two important figure of Plassans with opposite views. Excellent!

Speaking about hereditary illness, Marthe is Pierre Rougons' daughter who was married by François Mouret - the son of Ursule Macquart and Mouret the hatter. François was Pierre's clerk - a quiet, sensible, diligent chap - who helped him in the oil and wine business, but then married the boss's daughter and built his own business. Born from the Rougon side, and having an intelligent and strong woman like Felicité as a mother, you would think Marthe will hardly catch the hereditary illness. François is more likely to catch it as he's half Macquart - though he's more of a Mouret with his love of works. But, here, Zola showed that you can't really avoid it. It's there inside you, even if you don't really realize it. Marthe would have been alright had she continues living harmoniously, peacefully, surrounded by her family, like in the opening chapter:

"There was an absorbed silence, warm with an unspoken tenderness in the pleasant golden glow of the sun that, little by little, was fading from the terrace. Marthe cast a loving look over all her three children n the calm of the evening, and plied her needle with long, regular strokes."

There's the air of satisfying existence - enjoying the deserved retirement after long hardworking. Had the Mourets maintain this stability in the house, they would very likely have retired happily. However, one bad decision of renting their second floor to a priest, had plunged them to "the fall of the house of Mouret"!

I was disgusted when I realized that it's Felicité who has brought ruin to her own daughter by placing Abbé Faujas at her house. It might be unintentional at first, but when she saw Marthe's passionate, feverish religious devotion, how could she not see something wrong? Or maybe she thought it's actually directed to Faujas, and it's better than her son-in-law? Whichever it may be, it only proves that Marthe did inherit the family illness - the insatiable desire, and it gets from bad to worse once it is provoked. While in François' case... well, that's an unimaginable crime to put... oh I can't even say it - it's too horrible. I'm half glad that Macquart did what he did in the end.

Should we even talk about the ending?? What was Zola implying by it? Devil clothed in cassock? What an ending, indeed!

Rating: 5/5

Friday, January 15, 2021

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

Poirot is travelling alone, again, when a murder committed. This time he travels from Paris, back to London, by plane. There are twelve passengers in that flight, and what a group of people they are! - a mystery writer, two archeologists, a dentist, a hairdresser, a doctor, a Countess, a moneylender woman, a businessman, and of course... a famous detective!

When the plane is about to land, the steward found one passenger - Madame Giselle, the famous moneylender - is dead, apparently by a sting in her neck. Several passengers remember of seeing a wasp flying around while the last meal is served. Then Poirot found a poisonous dart - the one used by primitive savages - under the victim's seat. Later on an empty blow pipe, from which the dart has been blown, was found.... under Poirot's seat!

It is perhaps one of the boldest murders ever performed in Christie's books. Imagine! In a confined space of an aircraft, where everyone could have noticed someone blowing a dart, not mentioning the trained eyes of Hercule Poirot- oh wait...! The irony is, Poirot was asleep during most of the flight due to his blasted airsickness! The murderer even had the audacity to place the blow pipe under HIS seat. It must have been a mockery to the famous detective.

The first thing acted on is, of course, to search the passenger's baggages. Of this, Poirot has found some intriguing objects, from which he begins to build his hypothesis - which, as usual, he kept to himself. Poirot was assisted by Chief Inspector Japp and Jane Grey, the hairdresser, in this investigation.

The tone of this case is the boldness of the murderer - and the person is very lucky that the greatest detective who would normally have had him under suspicion, must fall asleep while the murderer performed it. There is a plot twist in the end, and once again, Poirot acted as a matchmaker for two of the passengers.

Once again, a very entertaining crime story from our beloved Dame.

Rating: 4 / 5

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin: #CCSpin25

Novel in verse has never been my favorite. I prefer the flowing narration in prose which is more soothing to the mind. Reading, anyway, is (for me) more of therapy than challenge. Therefore, I have started Eugene Onegin with much trepidation - I wasn't sure I'm gonna like it, but I'm curious all the same. #CCSpin25 helped me to finally plunged into it. The result? Still didn't enjoy the novel, but I admired the beautiful rhymes Pushkin had woven to narrate a simple yet deep and meaningful tale.

When I said Eugene Onegin is a simple story, I really meant it. The plot is very simple, and there are only four main characters: Eugene Onegin, Tatyana Larina, Vladimir Lensky, and the Narrator - which is the embodiment of Pushkin himself. The simple plot allowed Pushkin to explore the personality if each character. From the opening scene (the dying bed of Onegin's uncle), for example, we know instantly what kind of man Eugene Onegin is:

But God, how deadly dull to sample
sick room attendance night and day
and never stir a foot away!
And the sly baseness, fit to throttle,
of entertaining the half-dead:
one smoothest the pillow down in bed,
and glumly serves the medicine bottle,
and sighs, and asks oneself all through:
"When will the devil come for you?"

I don't think I've ever hated a character as early as in the first page, as I did Onegin! Cold hearted, egotistical, selfish - a young man without any compassion at all! And to think that he inherited his uncle's property in the country after that, enraged me more.

So, the cold hearted Onegin started his "career" as St. Petersburg's dandy; flirting, dancing, partying, until he gets bored. After moving to the country, he gets to know a young romantic but naive poet: Vladimir Lensky. It was Lensky who first brought Onegin to the Larins' - Olga Larina is Lensky's fiancee. Olga's sister, Tatyana - an introverted young girl who loves to read - fell in love with Onegin. She wrote a letter expressing her passionate love to him, but, not only coldly rejected her because he thought marriage is boring, Onegin even scold her for daring to express her feeling to a man.

"You'll love again, but you must teach
your heart some self-restraint; for each
and every man won't understand it
as I have... learn from my belief
that inexperience leads to grief."

Lensky took an initiative to persuade Onegin to attend Tatyana's name ceremony at the Larins, where he lived that it's just a family event. Angry with Lensky after knowing the truth that it's a rural social event, and that the guests rumored about him and Tatyana, Onegin avenged Lensky by dancing and flirting with Olga. The wounded Lensky challenged Onegin to duel. Out of convention, and despite finding the truth that it's all just a misunderstanding, Onegin and Lensky fought the duel nevertheless. There are more proofs of Onegin's egotistical which you'd find throughout the story, and which will ruin many people's lives (and himself at the end).

As I said, it's a simple story with clear message, but told beautifully by Pushkin. I admired how he highlighted each individual's personality through the stanzas, which limited dialogues.

In the end, novel in verse is still not my cup of tea, but I'm glad to have finally read it. It was so beautiful, but at the same time it was quite a struggle for me. I understood, perhaps, only 80% of the verses, and, but for the simple plot, would have abandoned it halfway through!

Rating: 3,5 / 5

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Announcing: Nicholas Nickleby Readalong 2021

February is the birth month of Charles Dickens, so I usually celebrate it by reading Dickens in February. This year it will be for Nicholas Nickleby, and I invite you all to join me in:

(February 1 ~ March 13)

My original plan is to read it in February, but after breaking down the chapters (and there are 70 of them!), I decided to stretch it through the 2nd week of March, making it a six weeks event. This way, I believe, we can read quite leisurely, without pressure.

I will try to post one update each weekend, summarizing the chapters we have read, and maybe with one or two topics to discuss, but I don't make any promises, as it will depend on how busy I will be; but at least I'll try! 😊

Without further ado, here is our time frame:

in six weeks

1st week (February 1~February 6): Ch. 1-11
2nd week (February 7~February 13): Ch. 12-21
3rd week (February 14~February 20): Ch. 22-31
4th week (February 21~February27): Ch. 32-41
5th week (February 28~March 6): Ch. 42-51
6th week (March 7~March 13): Ch. 52-70
March 14~March 20: REVIEW/WRAP UP

I will be reading from Wordsworth Classics edition, and my copy has 769 pages, meaning I will have to read about 130-ish pages each week 😱. I really doubt I can catch up with that pace, but let's see! Having buddies to read with helps a lot, I hope!

How to join?

  • Please comment below if you'd like to participate. Or you can mention me on Twitter using hashtag: #NicholasNickleby2021.
  • You are welcomed to post about this readalong in your blog/social media, but it's okay if you don't feel like it.
  • I will publish a kick-off post on February 1st with a linky, where you can put links of your blog posts during the readalong.
  • You may post as often as possible (updates, thoughts, quotations, review, wrap-up, etc) either on blog or Twitter. For Twitter, please use #NicholasNickleby2021 hashtag.
  • Last but not least: READ (or Reread) and ENJOY!


Saturday, January 2, 2021

Beginning A New Era on Classics Reading

It's my first post in 2021, Happy New Year!! 2021 is a special year to me, because I will be turning 50 in less than two months. It's the end of an era, but at the same time, the beginning of another. Reading-wise, I realized last year, how many great books out there that I won't be able to read in this life. And that's when I started thinking of building an extensive list of great books I would love reading in the next 20-30 years. If I can't read all the books in the world, at least I read the greatest! In that spirit, since last year, I have begun to construct an extensive list of...

300 Books to Read in 20 Years (or more)

🔹️Just click the link to bring you to my list.

🔹️It mostly contains books which I'd love to read, either by my favorite authors, or even new authors I'd like to explore.

🔹️It isn't a challenge, so I won't put books suggested by many as "classics you must read..." or "the best classics..." blablabla. I don't have all the time in the world, so from now on I read only for comfort, not for pride.

🔹️Some of the titles are for rereading - books that I'd love to revisit in the future.

🔹️Of course, the list can (and will 🤭) keep changing along the way, because my preference might differ in the next 5 or 10 years. And if I read a new author but don't like it, I would delete his/her other books altogether. Or the other way round, I might add more from a new found favorite author.

🔹️It only contains of 200-ish titles at present, but I keep adding books I'd love to read along the way. You are warmly welcomed to suggest titles you think I might love in the comment below the list! 😊

🔹️I put the original list in google sheet (you are welcomed to take a peek by clicking the link). This will be my way of tracking and managing my reading and book shopping. I've added columns for new author, books I own, and books I've ordered but still on the way. Everytime there's promo on my favorite online bookstores, or I just want to buy books😎, I can check from the list, which books I need to buy (or not to buy). That way, I won't waste my money for books I probably will never read.

🔹️And so, here we come to my new approach to The Classics Club challenge I have mentioned before. With 300 books to read in 20 years, my plan is to read about 15 classics each year - but again, it's not a challenge, so no pressure at all. I might occasionally read non classics too, and I'm still doing (leisurely) the Agatha Christie Perpetual Reading Challenge. There's also the Rougon-Macquart Project which will be going on in the next 3 or 4 years. Anyway, the 15 classics I'm going to read every year would be the base of my The Classics Club lists. It means that, instead of having a fixed list of 60 books to read in 5 years, I will add the titles as I read them, so it will be a sort of an ever growing list for five years. It eliminates the pressure, and I will have the freedom to pick any books from my original list every year. Is it cheating? I don't think so, because the challenge is to READ classics, not to read from a fixed list.

Now I can't wait to begin with this new list (I'm actually in the middle of my #CCSpin book: Eugene Onegin). This is going to be an exciting lifetime journey, don't you think?