Saturday, May 29, 2021

One of Ours by Willa Cather

Claude Wheeler is a proud, restless, insecure young man who grew up in Lovely Creek, Nebraska - the son of a successful farmer. He acutely feels unfulfilled and purposeless in a passionless life dictated by his parents: the hardworking insensitive father Nat Wheeler and the pious mother Evangeline Wheeler. His mother has made Claude study at the Temple University against his will. But he then enrolled at the State University, and befriended the Elrichs, which are warm and charming - the opposite of his own family. That is the first time he felt at home, belonged to a family.

I was so devastated when Claude was forced to drop out school to manage the family farm. He had been a great student, and he seems to be happy doing it. Hate it when parents keep deciding their children's future without even listening to what they'd actually like to do.

Marrying the loveless and prudish, fanatic Enid Royce was a big mistake for Claude; he didn't even love her, I guess. It might be something that he felt he should do as a farmer... or he thought marriage will give him happier life, I don't know. His hope for happiness was smashed when Enid left him to China as a missionary. I always hate people like Enid, whose idea of doing a good deed is abandoning their own family to look after strangers in another continent. That is pure nonsense!

When we think Claude isn't about to be happy, the World War I erupted, and Claude enlisted in the US Army. For other young people, it might be the ideology of serving one's country, that encouraged them to enlist. But I think Claude saw it as a gate to freedom and purposeful life he had been dreaming of. It's nothing heroic; for the first time he felt he was needed, belonged to, and doing things that really mattered - a truly fulfilling life. And I'm happy for it. There's nothing more important for human being, than leading a fulfilled life. It's no matter what kind of life one's leading - as long as one has freedom and is at peace with one's self.

One of Ours has quite a different style from Cather's previous novels. It's not as quiet as Death Comes for the Archbishop or O Pioneers, though it still talks about life in the Prairie. However, it's also not as gruesome as usual war stories. Actually, it feels more like the war is just a background to write about Claude's feelings, maturing views about the world, and his journey to reach happiness.

Scattered bits that I've found interesting:

* The historical passage about Edith Cavell, the British nurse who saved soldiers' lives and helped some of Allied soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium, of which she was later arrested and shot by German firing squad. I have never heard about this until I read this book.

* I suspect, Claude represented Cather's love for her land. It's not the farmer life that he disliked. It's rather that modernity and prosperity (that comes with modernity) killed the old sentiment about the land as part of nature and human's life. Modern people tend to regard land as a mean of prosperity, not a harmonious companion or partner in creating better lives (for both parties). This quote reflects that sentiment:

"With prosperity came a kind of callousness; everybody wanted to destroy the old things they used to take pride in. The orchards, which had been nursed and tended so carefully twenty years ago, were now left to die if neglect. It was less trouble to run into town in an automobile and buy fruit that it was to raise it."

* Beautiful quote about LOVE, came apparently from the man who had just been broken-hearted:

"Human love was a wonderful thing, and it was most wonderful where it had least to gain."

* Another oh-so-true quote when Claude closed his house for the last time - the house that he's built and furnished with love. After the broken heart, it became mere building without any value:

"How inherently mournful and ugly such objects were, when the feeling that had made them precious no longer existed."

One of Ours is a deeply moving novel. Though it was written a bit romantically, it's full of philosophy that brought you to ponder more about your own purpose in life. For me, it's a gentle, down to earth story that gives one a little side view about the war impact of World War I. For some, it's evil and unnecessary, but for few others, it's like the freshness of a new spring - all depends on where do you see it from.

I must say... very inspiring, Ms. Cather! The Pulitzer Prize in 1923 is very well earned.

Rating: 5 / 5 (a new prospect for most favorite read of 2021!)

Saturday, May 22, 2021

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

This third book of the Prairie Trilogy of Willa Cather is set around the turn of the century (19th to 20th). Narrated by the adult Jimmy Burden, it tells his memories and feelings about the pioneers life in Black Hawk, Virginia.

Jim arrived in Black Hawk as a ten year old orphan who would stay with his grandparents. He got acquainted with their new neighbor: the Shimerda family, immigrants from Bohemia, who were poor and unskilled in farming, but believed that their lives would get better in America. Little Jim soon befriended Ántonia Shimerda, the older daughter, who was a few years older than him. It's so pleasant to follow their adventures - Jim killed a huge rattlesnake! And through their innocent eyes, we see the real lives of these pioneers, as if we  live and struggle with them, feel the loneliness of immigrants who were uprooted from their friends, family, and everything dear to them in their old country, and must build a new life in a new and strange place. I was so sad for the death of Mr. Shimerda. I could imagine his blissful moment when celebrating Christmas with the Burdens, and how it must hit him so hard when realizing his own sad predicament. The contrast could have made anyone wants to die of broken heart. I felt your pain, Mr. Shimerda!

After Mr. Shimerda's death, Ántonia worked hard in the field, doing man's works to help her brother Ambrosch. Meanwhile, Jim's grandparents moved to the town. He went to school, and continued on to the state university in Lincoln. Mrs. Burden, who took pity to Ántonia, got her a job as housekeeper to the Burdens' new neighbor: the Harlings. She had a good time and good wages there, even learned much about fine housekeeping.

Fast forward to twenty years later, when Jim has become a lawyer after studying at Harvard. During those years, Jim hasn't visited Ántonia, who had returned to hard life in the field, dumped by a young man whom she loved, and then marry a Bohemian called Cuzak. Jim finally went to Black Hawk and visited the Cuzaks. Ántonia has become a stout woman, after the hard life and having ten children, but Jim was amazed to see the vigor of life is still in her. She had become for him, the true spirit and soul of the prairie. She, who loved and was proud of their land, and was happy with her life as a farmer's wife, with all the hard working.

My Ántonia is like a plate of nice comfort food. It's delicious, not too rich, but also not too light, where every ingredient compliments each other, creating a perfect combination. The blissful moment is when you're savouring it in your mouth; you don't want it to end, enjoying every chew. A moment before you're about to swallow it, you realize how amazing the taste is. Then after swallowing, you let out a satisfactory sigh. That's My Ántonia for me. It might not be a masterpiece, but it's so satisfying. And I know I'd want to reread it (often) in the future.

I realized that there are more in My Ántonia than a "delicious" story. The discrimination and prejudices against Bohemians or foreign people, for example. But for now, I would just enjoy the novel as it is; I might read more critically in the next reread.

Rating: 4,5 / 5

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie

I don't think I've said this enough: crime stories are the toughest books to write a review of. Why, you can't reveal too much of the story, lest you throw a spoiler. And when you want to analyze the case, you must do it cautiously, or with elusive sentences to avoid revealing just a tiny fact that will lead your readers to spot a spoiler! Hence, the biggest irony of my reading life - Agatha Christie is the writer whose works I read the most, but her books are the ones I'm most reluctant to write the reviews. Everytime I read Christie's, I'm always: "Do I really need to write a review? Can't I just read on?" But you know me... in the end I'll just do it. Just like this one: The A.B.C. Murders. Since I found it almost impossible to say anything about this book without revealing clues to the murderer, I must warn you to stop reading right here right now, if you can't stand any spoiler.

Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and Chief Inspector with-dry-humour Japp are reunited to solve a new case. It all begins when Poirot received an anonymous letter signed by A.B.C., challenging him to prevent a murder which he/she is about to commit in Andover at certain date. The murder did take place in the exact time and place. The victim was an old woman who keeps a tobacco shop. Near her body was found an opened ABC Rail Guide. This would be the first of a serial murder which will take place in random cities which names are in alphabetical order, and so are the victims'.

Unlike the usual Poirot-Hastings duets, which are always narrated by Hastings, this one came with first and third POV alternately (the first being Hastings, of course). And this is where it gets very interesting. Everytime the pen was picked by the invisible narrator, it's always to tell about a nervous war veteran who became a travelling salesman. The man is epileptic, and often had a memory blackout. He's the kind of man whom people never care for - a nobody - but had been named after two of the greatest generals: Alexander Bonaparte Cust - ABC!

At first I thought this is where Christie took a variation from her usual most-unpredicted-murderer, or the most-predicted-but-with-double-plot-twist ~ you know what I mean?... I thought she'd let us acquainted with the murderer from the first, you know... to learn how it is working with a murderer psychology? Then she'd probably bring us to connect him with the real scenes. However, through the story I had a sense of going alternately between two realms, the real one (narrated by Hastings), and another so far away from the real scenes. This ABC guy, whoever he is, though he seems to do the crimes, doesn't seem fit with the personalities of the murderer. I didn't buy it, "Christie must have prepared a surprise here", thought I. And then near the end, I even had even a suspect, who at the end is proved to be the real murder.

So to me, while The A.B.C. Murders is an interesting piece in psychology, it isn't a masterpiece in terms of crime story. I liked the story of ABC as the war veteran and all, and I loved the two narrations thing, but when you can guess the real murderer when you're quite far from the end... well, it's not that great!

Final rating: 3,5 / 5

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Reading Update [January - April]

You might think it's funny, but I always feel that the first four months of my reading year is the most important one. If I screw up, the entire year would be a failure. But, if I somehow manage to strive, I'd be relieved, because I know it's going to be okay. That's why, I usually post my first (if not only!) reading updates in early May (or sometimes I call it 'post Zoladdiction'.) Now let's see how I've managed so far...


Original plan:
1. Eugene Onegin ~ Pushkin - for #CCSpin25 (⭐⭐⭐1/2) ✔
2. The Conquest of Plassans [reread] ~ Zola (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐) ✔


3. Death in the Clouds ~ Christie (⭐⭐⭐⭐) ➕


Original Plan:
4. Nicholas Nickleby ~ Dickens - for #NicholasNicklebyReadalong2021 (⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2) ✔



Original Plan:
5. Things Fall Apart ~ Achebe (⭐⭐⭐1/2) ✔
6. The Tale of Genji ~ Shikibu ❌ - My copy is curiously missing from the bookcase!!?
- replaced by ➡️ Murder in Mesopotamia ~ Christie (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐) ✔

7. The ABC Murders ~ Christie (⭐⭐⭐1/2) ➕


Original Plan:
8. The Sin of Abbé Mouret [reread] ~ Zola - for #Zoladdiction2021 (⭐⭐⭐1/2) ✔
9. A Biography of Émile Zola ~ Zola ~ Alan Schom - for #Zoladdiction2021 (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐) ✔



Books read = 9 of 8
Challenge/readalong accomplished = 2
Most favorite = A Biography of Émile Zola



My Ántonia ~ Cather
One of Ours ~ Cather - for #CCSpin26
❌ Originally: Return of the Native ~ Hardy


The Beautiful and Damned ~ Fitzgerald - originally for #JazzAgeJune2021, but unfortunately Laurie and I are not able to host, so I'm going to do this 'quietly'.
The Hunchback of Notredame ~ Hugo - for #hunchbackreadalong (Nick's Chapter-a-Day-Read-Along)


✳ (continuing) The Hunchback of Notredame ~ Hugo - for #hunchbackreadalong
❌ Originally: His Excellency Eugene Rougon [reread] ~ Zola - my least favorite of Rougon Macquart, can't stand it, so.. SKIP!
✳ (non classic/non fiction) Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. ~ Jeremy Mercer


✳ (continuing) The Hunchback of Notredame ~ Hugo - for #hunchbackreadalong
Pilgrim's Progress ~ Bunyan
Return of the Native ~ Hardy

Wish me luck for the next four months! I had a feeling it would be awesome.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Zoladdiction 2021 Wrap Up

April has gone, and Zoladdiction 2021 has quietly ended last week. I was a little bummed out of not making this event more lively, or giving it more effort. I didn't even remember Zola's birthday in April 2nd! But life's like that, often unpredictable, and things happen when you least expect it.

You might have noticed that I've been less and less blogging lately. My posts are mostly reviews, and I didn't either reply to most of your comments (which I'm truly sorry!), nor comment to your posts. It's because lately daily work and family matter have been consuming more of my time, that when weekends come, I feel a bit numbed, and need more time to get relaxed. And how can one think of a book and produce a good post, unless one's relaxed and in a good mood?

Back to Zoladdiction, I had barely time to read and post my reviews, but nothing else. I thank all of you who have participated on this event, but I'm also sorry not to manage it more properly. I did read your posts, but didn't have time to leave comments. Here are some of our posts for Zoladdiction 2021:

📕 The Sin of Abbé Mouret | Émile Zola #FRAclassic (Brona)
📕 The Sin of Abbé Mouret by Émile Zola [Second Read] (Fanda)
📕 Zoladdiction 2021: La Debacle by Emile Zola (Karen)
📕 A Biography of Émile Zola by Alan Schom (Fanda)

For you who have read for Zoladdiction, but haven't had time to post your thoughts before it ended, or I haven't add your posts - don't worry... you can come back here and leave the link in the comment section anytime - I will add it here.

Again, I thank you all for celebrating (albeit quietly) Zoladdiction 2021 with me. I only hope I can make it more fun next year!

Sunday, May 2, 2021

A Biography of Émile Zola by Alan Schom

This is the second Zola's biography I've ever read - the first being F.W.J. Hemmings's The Life and Times of Émile Zola - and I'm glad I had picked it. I found it more comprehensive, that, after finishing the book, I felt like I knew Zola more intimately than I've ever had. While quite familiar with his history (his genius civil engineer father's death when Zola was 7 y.o., the family's poverty and struggle in Paris, Zola's failure in Baccalaureate test, etc) from Hemmings', and his involvement (and even exile) in the Dreyfus Affair from Michael Rosen's The Disappeaance of Émile Zola, I've never been intimately "acquainted" with him, in terms of his personal character, his views, or love life, which this book amply provides. Here are some interesting bits I've gathered along the reading:

✔ François Zola (Zola's father) has been involved in "temporary disappearance of 1500 francs of regimental funds" while serving with the Foreign Legion in Algeria. The incident was later brought by Zola's enemies in Dreyfus Affair, in order to defame him. However, Schom argued that it is more likely that the money fraud was caused by François Zola's careless bookkeeping, instead of intentionally. Nonetheless, it's one of the many causes of Zola's depressions during the Affair.

✔ The 19 year Zola dreamed of finding a true love with a "good angel" - tender, kind, loving woman - and worried that he'd never find one. However, his first and only marriage with Alexandrine (neé Gabrielle) was loveless, and only out of convenience. Zola needed a practical woman to support him as writer, while Alexandrine needed security and honorable position. Only in his later life, did Zola meet his true love and his dream woman in Jeanne Rozerot, who gave him two children and the comfort of family life to the middle agwd and lonesome Zola.

✔ Zola was a hardworking man. Though he was forced to take a clerical job for a living in his early 20s, he still managed to write. Then, a small inheritance from a deceased grandfather helped him to choose journalism as his main job, paving his way to financial freedom to pursue his dream of writing fiction. And after he became a successful writer, Zola still worked hard, often working on more than one task at a time, that he sometimes must engage his friends to do researches for him, so that Zola later could use their notes as his writing material.

✔ Do you know that Zola was quite a successful librettist? His earlier career as playwright might be quite disastrous, but later on his L'Assommoir has been staged as a successful play. But his best achievement in theater was perhaps his collaboration with Alfret Bruneau, the French composer. Zola provided some of his works for Bruneau's operas, and he even acted as librettist for at least two operas: Messidor (1897) and L'Ouragan (1901).

✔ I'm familiar with the fact that L'Assommoir was Zola's first successful book, that launched his career as a respected writer in France. But La Debacle was in fact his most successful and best selling book. Even Nana has surpassed L'Assommoir in sales number!

✔ As a human being, Zola is actually a sensitif, patient, loyal, persistent, and generous man. He strongly held on his principles (truth and justice), never hesitate to sacrifice his comfort to fight injustice. But he could also be indecisive, especially when it comes to his marriage. Schom criticized Zola for never divorcing Alexandrine and marrying Jeanne, as the triangle love later proved to bring sorrow for all parties. But I think Zola was too kind and loyal to leave Alexandrine, who has supported him through their ups and downs, though he could hardly stand Alexandrine's emotional temper and headstrong. He also proved to be loyal to his whiny and parasitic friend: Henry Céard. But only in Alfred Bruneau, I guess, that Zola found a true friend with mutual affection and respect.

✔ From Zola's portrayal of the Jews in L'Argent (Money), Schom concluded that Zola was anti-semitic, though later he would change his views while defending Alfred Dreyfus (why, though? This isn't in accordance with his consistency). I personally didn't see Zola as particularly anti-semitic. His portrayal is only describing characteristic of Jews as he might have seen or known, just like in his portrayal of priests in The Sin of Abbé Mouret. Did he hate priests or Jews in particular? Not necessarily, he's just presenting the facts - whether he liked it or not.

There are still a lot of small bits about Zola which I could not write all here. You simply must read the book to understand more about Zola as a person. Had I lived in 19th century France, I would have honoured to be one of his friends, or better still, his protegés (for he's so generous towards them, always encourage them to be successful). All in all, Émile Zola is an amiable human being, when he's not depressed or indecisive. And I'm so grateful to Alan Schom to have written this biography in so intimate and personal way.

As a bonus, here's from Denise's memory (Zola's daughter) - the last time Jeanne and the children were to see Zola alive - and it's so heartbreaking!

"On 27 September, he [Zola] came to Verneuil to kiss us goodbye, and we were all to return [separately] to Paris the following day. I no longer remember why, but we did not accompany him, as we usually did, to within a few hundred feet of his house, going via the village streets where, so often during the [Dreyfus] Affair, women would throw their dirty dish water over us as we were passing. Now, instead, we stood at the front door, watching him walk away, turning to look at us once more, and then continuing, finally disappearing round the corner."

Rating: 5 / 5