1984 – George Orwell

1984

I might be one of the last people on earth that had not read 1984. I ony read Animal Farm a few years back. Absolutely loved it. Since then I’ve been reading a few of his essays here and there. I’m a huge fan of Orwell. I know he’s not a terribly literary type of writer, and some people may disagree with his style of writing with a political purpose, but I’m inclined more to his side rather than the other extreme of “art for art’s sake”.

In his essay Why I Write (1946) – which I read a while back, but it really made an impression on me even though it’s only a few pages long – he mentions 4 great motives for writing prose for any author. The last point is political purpose – “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

From the get go I roughly knew what 1984 was about. A dystopian novel was my impression. And it is. But it is bolder and even more political than what I imagined – almost like a political essay dressed in a novel. The scary thing is, it’s still as relevant today than it was when it’s first published in 1949. North Korea definitely came to mind. In fact, just the weekend after I finished the book, I met someone from Angola who told many stories about how she and her family went through the communist regime – which lasts to this day. A lot of what she described was very similar with what is described in 1984.

From pop culture point of view, I’m glad to have read the origin of things like Big Brother, Room 101, and doublespeak. It’s amazing how the book has penetrated many aspects of society and culture, and not just Western society, as I remember an occasion when an author from a communist regime at a literary event told the story of how 1984 was the book that everyone was smuggling between revolutionaries. It’s like a secret code. A shorthand for the worst society humanity could possibly become. But it’s not a mere distant possibility, not just a cautionary tale. Some elements are too familiar. They make you realise how easy it is for humanity to slip into this kind of regime – and in fact it does exist in some parts of the world, at different times perhaps, but it never totally goes away. We are still part of the 1984 world! The book is important in many ways, and there is still no other book like it.

Another quote to close this, again from Why I Write, at the very end: “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” 

I feel like he allows me to have a political purpose in my own writing. Thank you Orwell.

Mee’s Rating: 5/5

Fairy Tale Themed Writing Class

Last week I was invited to a writing class sponsored by Universal Pictures with Naomi Wood as tutor at Faber Academy. Couldn’t believe my luck, as fairy tale is right up my alley, as with writing. And I’ve got Naomi Wood’s book Mrs. Hemingway on my Kindle for a while (just haven’t got around to reading it).

The class was small and felt private, unlike the usual publication tie-in events with several dozens of people in a room. There were only five of us from various blogs, with one PR person and another girl from Universal – that made seven of us sitting at the big table.

The Huntsman class

This workshop was in conjunction with the home entertainment release of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, which is based on Snow White tale. It’s sort of a prequel/sequel of Snow White and the Huntsman (released in 2012). I haven’t watched the first movie (nor had I the second at the time), but we all know Snow White story. I received the press DVD after the class, and watched The Huntsman since then. I’d say you really don’t need to watch the first film to watch the second one, as Snow White was not even in The Huntsman, only referred to once or twice.

Naomi Wood is a writing teacher apart from an author, and it shows. She’s done this a lot! We went through the materials (with slides!), alternating with clips from The Huntsman, text reading of fairy tales (excerpts from Snow White, Rapunzel, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) and some actual writing.

We discussed what constitutes fairy tales, the typical fairy tale characters, and the traditional fairy tale story structure; and expanding on those, what we could or would do to give those elements a fresh perspective, a new twist or angle for modern audience. Naomi Wood herself has done something along the line with her book Mrs Hemingway, in which she tells the perspectives of Hemingway’s four wives.

During the class we had a few sessions to write down our ideas then discussed them with the class (i.e. how would you make the villain different, the antagonist, the setting). After the class and watching The Huntsman, I think I have a whole new appreciation of fairy tale retellings. It is not easy to come up with wholly fresh ideas of an old work but still cater to mainstream audience.

In The Huntsman, some elements are modern (no more damsel in distress with kick-ass Jessica Chastain), while some elements are still stuck in the past (single lonely women are evil, woman is miserable without baby). The fairy-tale setting however does forgive many “rules of the old world”, as we play with the imagined once upon a time. It’s exciting to think how much more we can do to break the boundaries and expand the fairy tale box. I love retellings and hope to see more movies and TV series on that (yep, I absolutely love Once Upon a Time). If you’re interested in fairy tale and its retelling, the movie is great, for consumption and for study. It also features fabulous costume galore, funny scenes with the dwarves, and plenty of beautiful stars :)

Thanks Juliana and Universal for inviting me to this interesting workshop!

The Huntsman class
We also got The Huntsman mug :P

 

Runaway Horses – Yukio Mishima

runaway horses

Runaway Horses is the second book in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. You do have to read the books in order, so there will be spoilers for the first book below (My review of Spring Snow).

The book starts with Honda – Kiyoaki’s friend in the first book, who is now a middle age judge. He meets a young man named Isao, who he finds out later to be Iinuma’s son. Iinuma was Kiyoaki’s tutor, who after his dismissal went to marry the lover from the same Matsugae house. So some old faces from Spring Snow, which I was quite glad about. The prince that Satoko was supposed to be engaged with also makes appearances and plays quite an important role, albeit from the sideline, just like his role in Kiyo and Satoko’s story.

It should be well known from those following or intending to follow the series that the main character dies and is believed to reincarnate in each book, with Honda as the persistent character witnessing the existence and life of his friend and the subsequent lives he was born into. In Runaway Horses, Honda believes that Isao was Kiyoaki reincarnate.

Isao is a patriotic 18-year-old who has problem with the direction Japan goes (the story is set around 1930s). The governmental body is gaining power, reducing the power of the Emperor and the imperial family. There’s reformation of samurai class, which bans the carrying of swords in public. There are many references to real life events – so wiki became my friend (or our friend, since I read this together with my GR Japanese Lit bookclub). I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the many layers of Japan political situation in this period at the end, but I did learn a great deal more since I started. Lots of history to digest.

But don’t worry too much if you don’t know this period well, as I think it doesn’t hinder you from enjoying the story. An idealistic young man wants to do something radical (and illegal) that he thinks is good for the country. That’s something that everyone can recognise, right? But just because this is Japan, there’s a heightened perception of suicide and taking one’s life to preserve one’s honour and purity.

If you know a little bit about Mishima, you’d know that he committed suicide not long after he finished writing this tetralogy. In a way it’s hard to read Isao without having Mishima at the back of your mind. I’m thinking among the 4 characters in the 4 books, Isao is probably the closest to Mishima himself in terms of ideals and personality. The subsequent characters in the series will be younger and younger, as the timeline is bound by Honda’s age, so I’m very interested to know Mishima’s take on them.

Similar to my experience with Spring Snow, I found the beginning to be slow. There’s a whole chapter early in the book, that is sort of a book within a book – a propaganda pamphlet that Isao gets his idealistic inspiration from. In a way it was a bit boring to read, but it really set the stage of what is to come. And just like Spring Snow, I found Runaway Horses to be a satisfactory and worthwhile reading at the end. I definitely intend to continue to read the third and forth book.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

the vegetarian - han kang
First published in 2007, in English in 2015, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. Winner of Man Booker International Prize 2016.

I found this book at my library and couldn’t believe that it was free to borrow and nobody had reserved it. At the time Man Booker International Prize 2016 was still ongoing, and The Vegetarian was one of the shortlist. I knew that unlike what I do usually with other books (renew them again and again), I had to read it within the allotted time period. Sure enough it won the prize, and I couldn’t renew it as it was reserved by someone, so I decided to read it quickly. By my standard, quickly means a few days, but it was 181 pages of big font, so even for me it was a short read.

The book started the way I liked it. Our main character Yeong-hye is an average Korean wife, when out of the blue she had a dream that turned her into vegetarian overnight. Her family, most of all her father, reacted violently.

I really liked the beginning. It is a subject that I wonder why someone hadn’t written about earlier. Vegetarianism by choice is something that only got really popular in the recent decade or two. In Western world, surely many years after the war. I can’t speak about Korea, but in many parts of Asia, not eating meat is often associated with religious reasons. Refusing to eat meat just because, is still an odd thing.

As I grew up in a country where meat is a luxury and fish a daily staple, I always equate vegetarianism with fussiness. Honestly you can only be so selective when there is food in such abundance. Tons of people in many parts of the world would be happy to just be able to eat. I can understand not liking meat, or not wanting to eat too much meat for ethical and environmental reasons, but I don’t understand the need to declare “I’m a vegetarian” and openly refuse and reject meat, no matter what the circumstances, for example when people have cooked for you. This is probably one point that readers from certain culture would be hard pressed to understand, as in most Asian culture, it is quite rude to refuse food offered to you. It’s like saying “Your food isn’t good enough so I won’t have it”.

Another point is wastage. I’ve seen vegan friend putting egg aside on his plate in a restaurant, not because he doesn’t like egg or allergic to it, but because he was a vegan. It’s outrageous. The egg was already broken and cooked, and you threw it away just to make a point? To who? To the waiter? To me?

Yeong-hye’s family reactions, her father’s in particular were slightly exaggerated, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched. I could only imagine if I go back to my big family reunion, and openly tell everyone I don’t eat meat anymore, by choice. All hell would break loose, and I’d have to explain myself to no end. Even if I were a vegetarian, I’d just quietly eat a little, and save all the drama. I just don’t get the need to make a declaration, to insist on your point in expense of people’s feelings, and the waste of food. I don’t think I ever will.

So The Vegetarian started nicely. However it becomes very strange as it goes. The book is divided into 3 sections, all revolving Yeong-hye. The first section is the perspective of her husband, the second is her sister’s husband, and the third is the sister. There are plenty dream scenes, flower images, and trees. Seems Yeong-hye wants to become a plant. It is strange, but somehow the strangeness felt familiar in a way. This is the first time I read a book by Korean author, but it reminded me of Chinese and Japanese literature – somewhere halfway in between.

At the end I’m not too sure what to make of the book. My rating is for its readability and being different. The “world literature” aspect of it is also a plus. But I can’t say I totally understand the book.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Han Kang
Han Kang

 

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

palace walkPalace Walk is the first novel in the Cairo Trilogy by the winner of 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, from Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz.

First published in 1956, the novel started in 1917 in the midst of WWI. Egypt was occupied by the British, and after the war was over, talks of independence were rampant.

We see Egypt through the viewpoint of a single family: the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his submissive wife Amina, and their five children: 3 boys and 2 girls. Yasin is the oldest son of Ahmad from his first, divorced wife, while the other 4 children are Ahmad and Amina’s. Fahmy the second son, is a studious and thoughtful high school student. The two daughters are Khadija and Aisha. The older Khadija is plump and sharp-tongue as a defense to her lack of beauty and jealousy of Aisha who is the more beautiful of the two, and therefore more marriageable. The youngest of them all is Kamal, around 10 years old, and is often the only character who is free to roam around, bridging the men and the women.

The book is nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like one. It was a nice surprise to find that it was very readable. I read it in just a little over 2 weeks. The prose is quite verbose, so the book could be shorter, but the translation probably just follows the original quite closely. Lots of the sentences that the characters say for example are probably not long when said in Arabic, but becoming very verbose when translated into English.

I like how we follow a rather ordinary Egyptian family. Yes Ahmad is a hypocrite and quite oppressive towards his family, and in turn Amina’s obedience and passivity is hard to take for modern eyes. But I felt the drama isn’t sensationalized. There’s no domestic violence, no rape and no polygamy, which seem like ripe topics for books set in Middle Eastern or Islamic culture. I like that the oppression shown is more subtle. I would actually believe that this is what average family in Egypt at the turn of 20th century was like. Some variations of it is shown by the neighbors and friends of the family, for example Amina isn’t allowed to go out at all by her husband, while the neighbor’s wife is free to go out shopping by herself.

Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is probably the character that readers would have most problem with. While he demands all his family members to be straight, obedient, and all around good Muslims, and has the same strict and faithful front himself, unbeknownst to his family he spends every night drinking, partying, and visiting women of pleasures. Despicable in a glance, and there is no excuse for it, but I feel like the double life he’s living isn’t so far away from our modern time. Who isn’t familiar with the story of a straight looking person who has a big crack behind the facade?

I think it’s a bit unfair to simply judge the flaws of the culture because it doesn’t conform to our modern sensibilities. Keep in mind that this is set a century ago, and to think that around the same time women in Britain over the age of 30 have just won the right to vote (1918).

I think Palace Walk is exactly the kind of fiction that you’d read to learn about another culture and another way of thinking. I found the banter between the characters to be one of the most interesting aspects. Possibly the flirting in particular. You probably wonder how a society that is so divided between male and female, so rigid in the meaning of honor and shame, would mingle at all. Mahfouz exposes this skilfully in the verbal and non-verbal interactions between the characters. There’s meaning in every word and gesture – slightly different perhaps with our time and culture – but the same concept for the same game.

Based on this reading, I do plan to read the second and the third book in the trilogy. My GR book club is reading all three books together, but I don’t like reading multiple books by the same author successively, so I will schedule the second book to read next year. This is the first work by Naguib Mahfouz that I read.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A great article of the author following the steps of Palace Walk around Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk, and Old Cairo: Natalia Sarkissian

cairo trilogy
Naguib Mahfouz and The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library)

 

Buddha by Osamu Tezuka (Vol 1: Kapilavastu)

buddha vol 1
First published in Japan in 1972, published in English in 2004

Buddha is an 8-volume manga by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is best known as the creator of Astro Boy, which I never watched or read, but I knew Tezuka has also produced some more grownup manga, like Buddha. This is my first time reading his work, as I noticed the big volumes readily available at the Westminster libraries.

As titled, Buddha tells the story of Siddharta Gautama, on whose teaching Buddhism was founded. I have only a rough idea of Siddharta: how he was a prince born in India, and in opposition to the caste system he renounced his identity and went on a journey until he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

Knowing that, I expected volume one of Buddha to jump straight to his birth and early childhood, however it is not the case. In volume one: Kapilavastu Tezuka takes his time to introduce the other characters (some invented, some possibly historical), but most of all, the caste and society system of the time. The birth of Siddharta practically just appeared in a few pages of the 256-page manga.

Though that surprised me a little, it makes sense. Siddharta is born a prince as the highest caste (Brahmin). There needs to be a balance, other characters that are born as the lowest caste (slave and pariah) who will show the flaws and cruelties of the caste system.

Kapilavastu is the place where Siddharta was born – in Nepal, just close to the border with India. There’s a map at the beginning of the book, showing places that we visit in that volume and future ones. So I wasn’t quite right about Siddharta being born in India, but very close.

Animals have quite an important role here. One of the teaching of Buddhism is that animals are just as important as humans (hence the preference not to eat animals), and according to the story I was told as a child, upon Buddha’s death 12 types of animals come to give him respect, and those become the symbols of Chinese zodiac as we know it until today. Animals seem important in the story of the Buddha and I like how this is used by Tezuka early on in his retelling. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Buddhist so my knowledge is pretty limited, mainly gained from some older family and even so the beliefs and teaching have been very watered down I assume.)

Some qualms: some attempts to modernize are downright silly (e.g. comparing a big city in Nepal at the period with New York or Paris. WHAT. I’m really curious whether this is just the translation problem.), some attempts to be funny are not funny (e.g. jokes at serious times seem misplaced), and the nudity seems unnecessary (I wonder whether women being bare-chested is the norm for its time and place?)

Negative point notwithstanding, I enjoyed the compelling story, and I love to learn more about the making of the Buddha, and Tezuka’s take on it. Hubby who is not a big reader is devouring volume after volume of this series, faster than me! I’ll definitely be reading more and gradually finishing the series.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Osamu_Tezuka_1951
Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989)

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

dorian gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel. First published in 1890 in Lippincott Magazine, it was widely criticized by London society for its homo eroticism, so Wilde revised it and published its modified version in 1891. It helped little for what’s coming however, as 5 years after the first publication of Dorian Gray Wilde faced trial for “gross indecency”. He was convicted and went to prison for 2 years of hard labor, was self-exiled to Paris, and died 3 years later in poverty.

I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde, having read all his short stories and his most well known play The Importance of Being Earnest. But with The Picture of Dorian Gray I felt like I finally tied all the pieces together, as the book I believe (and many people do) to be the closest to the author in terms of ideas and deepest desires. In fact, I faced the challenge of separating one of the characters in the book with Oscar Wilde himself – or what I thought he must be like.

I assume most people know the gist of the plot about a man and his painting who gets old and ugly instead of him. There are 3 major characters: Basil Hallward – the artist who did the painting; Dorian Gray – the man that Basil completely adored to the point of idolatry, hence the painting; and Lord Henry – a friend of them both who makes all these witty, cynical comments, and partly “tainted” Dorian into the road of sins and pleasure. (Before reading the book I had in my head that Dorian painted a self-portrait.)

Lord Henry was the person that I imagined Oscar Wilde to be. In fact, he famously said: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” A bit ironic then, imagining Lord Henry as Wilde was what made parts of the book a bit difficult to swallow for me, for his comments on women like: “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” or “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.”

However if you think that this book is really about love, passion, and adoration between men, none of them fancying women much, would you blame such comments?

Prior to reading I didn’t know there are different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And unlike Frankenstein’s two versions that are widely available, the second version of Dorian has been the ultimate and only version that we read until today. The first version that appeared in Lippincott Magazine was never published as a book until recent years, in 2011 by Harvard University Press (link).

The revision of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde’s life before and after the publication are the two major themes that were discussed in Edx BerkeleyX Book Club that I followed. And thanks to it I was aware of which chapters were added: 6 chapters, totaling some 28,000 words. Many of which were the expansion of the other characters.

More interestingly perhaps is what was being dropped. An example is this speech by Basil the painter to Dorian: “It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

How radical! I can only imagine how daring you must be to write such thing in mainstream publication in the time where homosexuals were being persecuted.

Prior to reading, I somehow imagine Dorian Gray as a simple morality tale – which it is in a way, but it has so much more. There are a lot of discussions on beauty, aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and hedonism. In many ways it was so modern. And in the style of Oscar Wilde, there are plenty of aphorism (short observation that appears to contain a general truth). The book is full to the brim with them and my highlighter was flying:

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

“The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.”

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

“Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

And some that are simply funny:

“I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.”

“I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather.” (So it has been like that since 1890. England hasn’t changed much.)

I can go on. Oscar Wilde produced more quotes than any other authors I know.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – A fascinating novel that I couldn’t give my full mark, but I highly suspect that the first version would’ve got my full mark. New Yorker article on the revised version: “.. these excursions (the additional chapters) in high and low society feel a bit like staged distractions. There are too many tidy formulations—“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for”—positioned to reassure the middle classes. The version that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s is the better fiction. It has the swift and uncanny rhythm of a modern fairy tale—and “Dorian” is the greatest of Wilde’s fairy tales.” I believe this. The Dorian Gray that we read now felt like the sharp edges have been smoothed out and it sometimes pretends to care about characters and stuffs it doesn’t actually care about. A cut of 28,000 words would also make the work a lot tighter, the pace swifter. Perhaps one day I’ll read the uncensored version. (Though note that the magazine editor had already cut some 500 words before publication without Wilde’s knowledge for fear of “indecency” charges. I guess you can only imagine the *original* original version.)

Trivia:

Do you know that The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four were sparked by the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? I coincidentally read The Sign of Four merely months ago and mentioned this in my post, so it’s interesting that this comes up again in the above New Yorker article.

bosie

Lord Alfred Douglas (picture above), nicknamed “Bosie”, is how I imagine Dorian Gray to look like. His youthful beauty is remarkable, honestly looks like something out of a painting. I can absolutely imagine Basil being enamored of this boy. Bosie is Wilde’s latest lover who brought his downfall. However Wilde only met him after the publication of Dorian Gray.

 

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