The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist / Pyongyang – Guy Delisle

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer - Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer is another recent release by SelfMadeHero which I acquired soon after Vincent by Barbara Stok (which tells the partial life story of Vincent Van Gogh). The Boxer tells the true story of Harry Haft, a Polish who as a 16 years old was taken to Auschwitz. He was then fighting and surviving as a boxer, serving to amuse the German officers. It is clear to him, and to us readers quite early on, that to win the boxing matches was a complex choice, as the losers often, if not always, got killed soon after.

Though lots of literature and films have taken the subject of holocaust, I don’t think I have ever heard any surviving as a boxer, so the book piqued my interest. It’s interesting to learn about the untold stories, the minor paths that some people have taken. At the end of the book, there are a few pages of article titled “Boxing in concentration camps”: “For decades, these men were forgotten about, almost as though they had never existed. Journalists and historians have now started compiling information about some of the boxers…”

Half of the book was set in the camp, and the second half after the camp. Sadly, life after camp for Harry was almost as difficult as most of his family died and he set on a journey to find the girl he loved in America. The drawing is all in black and white, and at times felt harsh and cold, in many ways illustrating what Harry went through. So it was really unexpected when I teared up at the end. I thought the ending was especially profound.

Mee’s Rating: 4/5

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

Pyongyang - Guy Delisle

I have a weird fascination about North Korea. I’ve been to DMZ (the South and North Korean border), I’ve read Nothing to Envy, and I’ve been wishing to visit the hermit country for a while now. In Pyongyang graphic novel, Guy Delisle tells of his experience living in the capital for a few months as a lead animator for work outsourced by his French company to a team in Pyongyang.

I have read many articles about the situation in Pyongyang and what you would find when you visit as tourist e.g. can’t go anywhere without a guide, how the city looks so empty and artificial, how so much part of the city is without electricity including the hotels the foreigners stay in, the godlike status of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, and so on — and these are all in the book as well. If you know very little about North Korea, many things in Pyongyang will surprise you, even for me I still find them informative, and not less fascinating!

This is the first book I read by Guy Delisle, and I’ll be looking out for more for sure. I love his simplistic illustration style. I look forward to reading his books on Burma, Shenzhen (China), and his latest: Jerusalem.

Mee’s Rating: 4.5/5

 

The Rest of the First Half of 2014

I believe I’m getting my reading groove back. Not to the level of my highest record in 2009 with 57 books (I wasn’t working in the first half of the year then), but hopefully to a decent level, relatively decent, considering my meager record in the past few years.

I also intend to take more time in writing my thoughts again about the books I’ve read. I haven’t been doing very well on this, again in the past few years. I won’t do book-per-book review as religiously as before, but I realized how important it is to step back and formulate my thoughts about what I read, and write at least a little about them. Pause, step back, think, write, instead of reading reading reading like an unstoppable train (!?). No matter how much impression you get out of a book, no matter how you think you’d remember it forever, you do forget. At times I even have a hard time remembering books that I read in the same year.

So I will try to write more when I can, but when I can’t, I’ll have a quick rundown like this post. Here are the books that I’ve read in the first half of the year but have not got the spotlight:

Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-Christie-Agatha-9780062073501

I’m never a fan of detective stories, and I’ve only read 2 Agatha Christie books in the past, way way back in Indonesia, when I was in high school. I remember liking them, but I was just never compelled to read more, even though there were tons of Christie’s books in my library, rows and rows of her black books.

I spotted Murder on the Orient Express on Kindle daily deal, and I was traveling in Turkey at the time, so it was the perfect time to devour this one. As you might know, the Orient Express was a long distance train running from London to Istanbul (discontinued in 2009). I can’t imagine the more perfect timing, reading it in Turkey, and possibly also on my flight back to London. I love how I really got all the geography references in the book (including Syria where the train started).

The story itself was quite enjoyable. There is a murder of course, then the train breaks down, leaving everyone trapped with a murderer. Hercule Poirot is on the case, having to weed the culprit out of the twelve passengers in the carriage. I could not guess the murderer, but I don’t read a lot of detective stories.

This is London — Miroslav Sasek

this-is-london-cover

This picture book by Czech M. Sasek was absolutely delightful. It was first published in 1959, and there’s a whole series done by the same author (This is Britain, This is Paris, This is Rome, This is New York, etc) which I’m keeping my eyes on. I absolutely adore the illustrations. Such a great classic.

Fun Home — Alison Bechdel

Fun home cover

Fun Home is an autobiography in graphic novel format (really, my favorite type of biography, and my favorite type of graphic novel), about how Alison deals with her father’s closeted homosexuality, and eventually her own.

This book is a good example of me forgetting, and it wasn’t even that long ago. I’d been wanting to read Fun Home forever, and finally did. I remember it as being quite dense and complex with lots of literary and philosophy references. I liked it, but wonder now if it’s because I felt like I had to, or because I really did.

Things Fall Apart — Chinua Achebe

things fall apart

I’d also been meaning to read Things Fall Apart for ages, and was glad when I finally got to it. There’s is always a kind of trepidation when facing a classic giant, as the book is often put forward as the epitome of African writing and colonialism, amongst many others. I was so relieved to find that I absolutely enjoyed it from beginning to end.

The central character of the story is Okonkwo, a revered man in a small village in Nigeria. He has three wives (and many children) living in three separate huts with his hut in the middle, at the entrance to the compound. He is very proud to the fact that he is a “self-made man”, that he gets to where he is by working hard, unlike his father who is poor and therefore he considers weak.

About half of the book tells of the day to day life of Okwonko, his family, and the people in his village. There’s a folktale quality to the book, and I felt like I was told a really good tale. You may be ready to judge Okwonko at the beginning (e.g. three wives, tough man persona), but soon you would start to see things from his perspective. By the end of the book, I really felt for him, and I’m not giving anything away, but let’s just say I was deeply, deeply sad and disturbed by the end of the book. The ending was very profound.

Oscar Wilde: The Complete Short Stories — Oscar Wilde

oscar wilde complete short stories

I read the Happy Prince and other stories (e.g. The Nightingale and the Rose, the Selfish Giant, etc) last year, and finally got to finish the entire collection in the book this year. I love them, I love them all. The more I read Oscar Wilde, the more my love is reaffirmed. No matter whether they are detective stories, fairy tales, more adult fairy tales, or a ghost story, I loved them all.

There’s one story titled The Portrait of Mr W. H. about the characters’ obsessive attempt to find out about the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (the Mr W. H.). It was the first time for me to hear about this dedication and I’m not even familiar with Shakespeare in general, and yet I was so engrossed in the story.

Thanks to the Hear, Read This! podcast (a monthly bookclub podcast) that gave me the push to finish this collection. A bit sad that there’s no more short stories of Oscar Wilde for me to read, but I really look forward to getting to Dorian Gray and his plays.

 

The Outsider – Albert Camus / The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik

I’m back to doing double bill. My most recent reads are The Outsider by the Nobel prize winner French-Algerian Albert Camus, and the most recent release from Peirene Press: The Blue Room by Norwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik. Both are novellas, or short books – which is my favorite type of book in recent years. Both are also translated and the authors are originated from countries that I had not read before, so they add nicely to my Reading the World project.

The Outsider – Albert Camus

The Outsider - Albert Camus

In The Outsider (or The Stranger in some translation) we meet a main character who has trouble expressing any outer sign of grief at his mother’s funeral. Throughout the first half of the book we follow his day to day life at work and home, and his interactions with other people, in particular his neighbours who live in the same building, and his girlfriend. I like how the characters are described, and find that a couple of them to be memorable – like the grumpy old man with his dog, who look alike but dislike each other.

Just at the end of the first part, something happens, and the second part of the book is dealing with the repercussions of this incident. Details from the first part that seem a bit mundane are brought back to Meursault (our main character) and the reader, and used to explain his character and actions.

On one hand, I got slightly frustrated at how “cold” and how un-feeling Meursault is, how distant he is from the world and everyone else, but on the other hand, I felt for him, and I could see the absurdities of taking random everyday’s details to judge you as a character — and this is not even far off from real life. How could you say someone is of a “good” character by how he takes coffee or smokes?

In one sentence I would describe The Outsider as Catcher in the Rye for adults, but infinitely more interesting. It’s very thin and doesn’t take much time at all to read, even for me, and it could fill in a few of your reading goals, like the Nobel, foreign/translated fiction, and 1001 books, like it did mine. Lovely.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

The Blue Room – Hanne Ørstavik

The Blue Room - Hanne Ørstavik

I seem to catch the Peirene bug, because this is the second Peirene book I read this year (I read and reviewed The Dead Lake a while ago).

The Blue Room was pitched by Meike as such:

“The Blue Room tells the story of a woman who is locked in a room by her mother. I read The Blue Room first a couple of years ago in German translation. It was around the time when Fifty Shades of Grey was hitting record sales and I was struck by the similarity of sexual phantasies depicted in both books. However, while Fifty Shades glamorises submission phantasies (and is extremely poorly written), The Blue Room holds up a mirror to that part of the female psyche that yearns for submission. It shows how erotic phantasies are formed by the relationship with our parents, and then delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers.”

I have not and will not read 50 Shades of Grey, but the comparison intrigued me. What struck me most was how different my take was of the book. While there are a few flashes of the aforementioned “sexual phantasies” – so shocking they’d hit you like electric shock, they are very few and far in between. The theme that was more prevalent for me was the mother-daughter relationship. In a way, it’s almost like the Norwegian Amy Tan’s – mother-daughter tension, misunderstanding, and painful love, but in a Norwegian setting, even the way it is told felt cold.

With 160 pages long, it is novella on the long-ish side, and I found the first half to be on the slow side with rather distant characters. But as I entered the second half, I started to relate, and surprised myself by finding more things in the story that reminded me of my own mother and my relationship with her. At the end, I concurred with Meike’s take on the book that it “delves further to analyse the struggle of women to separate from their mothers”.

I could relate with the struggles, I could so relate, surprisingly, considering how different our background and theirs are. The surface of our struggles were very different, but the tension was familiar. The end was fantastic and would definitely divide people. I am on the opinion that mother’s love is often painful, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need to save you from the world, and from yourself.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

Spring Catchup Post

Once again this blog was seemingly abandoned for a while, but I actually have been blogging bookish things at my travel blog Wandering Mee, so here are some links:

When in Spring, Go See Plays: After my last post about “We are Proud to Present..” play, I went to another two. One was particularly bookish.

Reading the World: I am renewing my Reading the World project, in which I attempt to read at least one book from each country from the UN list. In particular, I’d like to concentrate on the countries I have visited, but yet to read, and at the moment they are: Spain, Austria, Turkey, and Morocco. (I also need to fill in Greece and Switzerland, but am finding these two to be difficult. I can only think of Heidi for Swiss author/setting.)

84 Charing Cross Plaque: in which I finally found the plaque, three years after I arrived in London.

Apart from those, I have also “recently” (if your definition of recent could be, say, 2 months ago) went to two bookish events.

The first was Penguin Bloggers Night 2014 in March at Foyles bookshop. Apparently this was the 4th time Penguin held such event, and it was my first time joining (or being invited). I met a couple of bloggy friends (Jackie, Sakura) and we were all treated to a night of reading by authors like: Will Self, Rebecca Hunt, Nina Stibbe. There was a promise of Ali Smith but she was held off by last minute thing.

One of the most exciting thing was how there were two tableful of books for us to take any that we fancied, and they even provided a tote bag. I went a bit berserk and got meeself a proper haul.

Penguin Bloggers Night books

 

The second one was more properly recent. I went to European Literature Night at British Library on 14 May for the European Graphic Novelists. There was talk, reading (yes, reading from graphic novels, complete with drawings on the projector), and even a bit of drawing. I absolutely loved it. European graphic novels are such a breath of fresh air, everything from the subject matter and the style is completely different to the dark brooding super-heroic American style.

The graphic novelists for that night were Belgian Judith Vanistendael (Dance by the Light of the Moon, When David Lost His Voice), German Line Hoven (Love Looks Away), Spanish Max (Bardin the Superrealist), and Czech Lucie Lomová (The Savages). Some of them have yet to be translated to English, and hope they will be soon. It didn’t miss my observation too that three out of four graphic novelists were women! <3

During Q&A session, all of them agreed that comic is really a labour of love, as it really does not make much money, and most of them, if not all, have to do illustration or design jobs, for the main income I assume. Oh I also need to mention that the host Paul Gravett was absolutely entertaining – which made me want to go look for his books (about comics, graphic novels, and manga).

The ticket included the highly advertised Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition (a good deal!) so I went straight for it downstairs. It featured works by various artists across different eras (including Neil Gaiman and lots of Alan Moore, but  I thought they weren’t the most interesting parts of the exhibition). Lots of the works were quite old, and some of them could be quite shocking seen from our modern lens (think racism, sexism, and violence). The V (as in V for Vendetta) manequins scattered all around the exihibition added to the creepiness of it all. I found the exhibition to be highly informative and entertaining, and recommend you to go for it (open until 19 August 2014).

I have also been reading, and the blog needs to catch up. Stay tune!

 

“We Are Proud to Present…” at Bush Theatre

On the weekend I went to see a play with the longest title ever known to plays:

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915

we are proud to present - bush theatre

The title makes little sense before you see the play (excuse my ignorance, but I never heard of “Herero” and I thought it sounded like a misspell of “Hero”), but it would become very clear once it starts. The title literally tells you what the play is about: the story of the Herero tribe in Namibia, at the time when the Germans arrived and started occupying the land, between the year of 1884 – 1915, when Namibia was called Sudwestafrika (in German), and before the British started to take over and rename the area to Southwest Africa.

So colonization story, you think. Yes, colonization, racism, and all that. In a way, it’s “nothing new”. But the way the story is told is nothing short of genius.

The entire play is acted by six people: A Black Woman, A Black Man, Another Black Man, A White Woman, A White Man, and Another White Man. This is told to you from the beginning, in a presentation format: We are going to play These Characters. You’d know straight away, there would be stereotypes, something would go wrong with the stereotyping.

These six characters then discussed about how they should tell the story of the genocide of the Herero in Namibia, because it’s a very important story that is known very little. Unlike the holocaust that has evidence and documentation all over, the only written documents left about the Herero are some letters written by White Men that provide a little glimpse into what happened.

In documentary style, sort of, we followed these characters trying to do improv to depict what happened, so we were seeing a play of a play, if that makes sense, in the similar concept as A Chorus Line (musical). It also reminded me of the recent BAFTA winning documentary The Act of Killing. The play showed friction between the characters and problems “behind the scene” in recreating this period of history. It bravely touched sensitive subjects – racism being always a sensitive subject – and the result was a very vibrant, fresh, and energetic stage play, with accomplishments in stage techniques like sound effects, use of various media, including live use of video camera, and very efficient use of stage and props. The pace was amazing. The characters were bouncing off each other seemingly with ease.

I really enjoyed “We are Proud to Present …” – a very well produced play. It is currently playing at Bush Theatre until 12 April 2014. If you live in London or nearby, hope you get a chance to see it. I’ve been to Bush Theatre before for South Literary Festival (which I did not write about unfortunately, but it was a good event), and I always love the sitting room. It has tables and couches, with shelves of books around the walls, and drinks available to get just in the next room. I just had to have tea after the play and sunk into a couch — a perfect closure after a great play.

bush theatre

Thank you to the team for providing me press tickets to see this wonderful play.

Vincent by Barbara Stok

Vincent_Graphic_Novel

Ever since I went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I have a little fascination for Vincent Van Gogh, as an artist and as a man. As an artist his brush strokes are unusual, and as a man his life story is probably even more so.

There’s a huge difference in seeing paintings in person, compared to seeing them on computer screens or books. I must’ve seen many Van Gogh paintings before, but they were just brimming outside my peripheral vision. Until I saw them in person, and really looked — so many of them too as the whole Van Gogh museum is full of his paintings. I think I can now recognize his paintings no matter when and where I see them in the world. And I got to learn about his fascinating life on the side.

vincent-for-blog-1

Vincent graphic novel by Barbara Stok tells part biography of Vincent when he resided in Provence, France, in the town of Arles, and later Saint-Rémy when he admitted himself to the asylum. I find that the simple illustrations with bold colors and black outlines interesting choice to illustrate biography of Van Gogh, but it is very effective, as style that is too similar with the artist’s might get distracting I imagine. There’s very little text in the book, most of which are the letters between Vincent and his brother Theo – I assume they’re taken from real life records.

The life of Vincent Van Gogh that I knew was turbulent and sad, including the cutting of one’s ear and suicide by shooting himself. The graphic novel on the other hand, takes Vincent’s life in a very positive way, highlighting his gentle relationship with his brother, and Vincent’s passion about his art. His relationship with artist friend Paul Gauguin was also touching. Stok chose to end the book on a high note and not dwell on the dark aspects of Vincent’s life.

I had warm fuzzy feelings after reading this book, that life is colorful and that spending all one’s life for something one believes in is satisfying in many ways, and that everything will be okay at the end (Van Gogh was poor and hardly accepted as an artist when he’s alive, and his paintings only took off after his death). It may not be the whole truth, but it’s not a bad way to see things too. I personally loved this take on the life of Van Gogh, Vincent.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Barbara Stok on working on Vincent

Thank you SelfMadeHero for the review copy! I love checking their catalogue and am especially fond of their Art Masters series featuring Rembrandt and Vincent, with Picasso and Dalí coming out in the future. I LOVE Dalí — I wrote on my travel blog about the time when I visited Dalí museum in Figueres, Spain.

 

Barbara-Stok_Self-Portrait

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

GreatExpectations2012

I started reading Great Expectations back in late June 2013, by signing up to dailylit.com. That way a piece would be sent to my email every day, and I just needed to read that part for that day. If I stuck through it, I would get through Great Expectations in 229 installments – or 229 days.

And I did. Slightly quicker than that because there were days when I felt like reading more and I only needed to press a link in the email to get the next installment.

I did not think when I embarked on this project that I was going to get til the end, but I did. I think it was almost 7 months long, wow. I found out that now I could get through any thick classics by doing the same thing. Thank you dailylit!

I do believe that I probably wouldn’t finish GE if I read it the normal way. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but like most thick classics, there are parts that are interesting, and some parts that are simply boring, boring, boring, you’d-rather-do-anything-else-apart-from-reading boring. With this method, I only needed to read a small chunk every day, and made steady progress anyway. We read countless emails and web pages every day (or at least I do), why not treat this installment like any other email that I have to read? Also that way I was free to read other books the normal way, so it didn’t feel like I was hogging all my time to read this one thick classic.

So that is how I got through Great Expectations. I recommend this method if you have failed before by reading it the “normal way”.

I quite like the story, though at the end there are too many coincidences that made it a bit soap-opera like. Also I wish the boring parts could be abridged. There were a few events, usually somebody visiting somebody or a group of people visiting a group of people, and the description and conversation just went on and on. As I only read a few hundred words every day, this event could go on for something like a week or more, and induced internal comments like: Omg, are we still here? Can’t we just move on?

I watched the latest (2012) movie adaptation as soon as I finished the book – which was alright. I think everyone is pretty well cast. The only one that was a bit off was probably Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. I usually like her, but I picture Ms Havisham to be very skinny (and most people do, or she’s even described as so by Dickens), but HBC is a bit too.. buxom. I’d love to see the depiction by Gillian Anderson in the older GE movie.

Mee’s Rating: 3.5/5

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