The Invention of Morel – Adolfo Bioy Casares

the invention of morel

This is one of those rare occasions in which I manage to read something for a bookish blogging community event AND write about it. Said event is Spanish Lit Month 2015, organized by Richard and Stu. The timing is just perfect, as I’d been meaning to read this book. Also long story short, I have 2 copies of it (more pressure!). So when it was mentioned as a group read in their blogs I knew I had to read it then.

The Invention of Morel went to my to-read list right after I finished reading Fictions by Borges (which I loved). And this NYRB Classics version includes prologue by Borges. Apparently Adolfo Bioy and Borges have worked together a few times and Borges has only sung high praises for his friend.

The book is very short in just 103 pages, so even for a slow reader like me it felt like a pretty quick read. It is set on a fictional island, to which a man self-exiled himself. There are a museum and a chapel on top of a hill in the middle of the island – that are empty at first, but not long after he starts seeing people there. Most important among the people is this woman called Faustine, often seen staring into the sea, who the man falls in love with. Who are these people and what are they doing on the island? (I will say no more.)

I have not read a lot of South American literature, but from the few that I read, I seem to find a common theme of obsession with a female figure. In The Invention of Morel, our main character is obsessed with the image of Faustine. (It is said that the book is inspired by Bioy Casares’s own fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks. In fact the woman on the cover looks very similar with Louise Brooks.) It reminded me a bit of Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whore. In both books the men are obsessed about the image of their women, not the women themselves because they never really get to know them, but the image that they build.

I like that the book comes with a few illustrations, for example:

invention of morel illustration

Map of the island

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I quite enjoyed reading the book. There are definitely similarities in style with Borges’s work. The unusual storyline means it might make a good movie (a movie has been made in the 70s called Morel’s Invention). Wouldn’t mind watching the movie sometime.

 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

house of mirth

I was quite surprised with how I loved The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I read this book as it’s one of the recommended reads by the Penguin’s online writing class that I’m currently doing. And as I just came back from New York, I was intrigued by the dynamics of New York society in the early 1900s. I usually have little emphaty for stories about high class society and their non-problems, but the story of Miss Lily Bart struck a chord in me. I believe her struggles to fit into a class that she can’t afford are still relevant in today’s society. Perhaps not as much and not as dramatic as back in 1900s New York, but especially in Asian society I find many of the aspects of the book to ring true.

The book is divided into two sections. The first one is on the slow side, as a lot of characters and the world are introduced. But the second book flew for me, and I read it quickly. By the time I closed the last chapter I was breathless and completely exhausted. I loved it. I loved it so much more than Pride and Prejudice. I have no idea why P&P should be the more famous of the two. Well, I have an inkling why. The House of Mirth was ruthless in its portrayal of the society and brutally honest. P&P feels like fairy tale compared to The House of Mirth. After reading this book, I am now completely besotted with Edith Wharton and will read more of her books.

From this section on I will talk more in depth about the book, so there could be spoilers. You’ve been warned!

house of mirth

Back to the comparison with Pride and Prejudice, both novels work on the same premise of society framework, that a woman must marry to survive, as in that period she has no other means to sustain herself. This especially seems almost the harsher for the middle class women, as the poor would just have to work, but the middle class women would be idle and concentrate all their time and effort to catching men with comparable or higher wealth and status.

I find it fascinating that Edith Wharton married young and ended unhappy while her character in The House of Mirth does the opposite and is able to avoid the trap of marriage (though it also does not end well for her). On the opposite end, Jane Austen never married, while her character finds her prince charming and fairy tale ending. Both women wrote novels as escapism but from the opposite spectrum. It just happens that Edith Wharton’s realism worked much better for me, and I found it more meaningful.

I read various people’s opinions about Selden and how they wished him to be less passive, but I disagree. This is a story of Lily Bart, and to be satisfying to the readers, SHE has to take actions, and SHE has to take her fate in her own hands. She should NOT be rescued by some prince charming (I’m very glad that the book did not go in this direction). In my opinion, Selden has done enough for someone in his position, and I thought his reactions and behaviors very realistic.

The ending did shock me. I guess we readers had to see it coming, but I didn’t want to believe it until it happened. The plotting in this book I think is nothing short of amazing, and the world building incredible. Wharton makes us understand the rules of the world this story is set in, and the stakes her characters are up against. Lily’s downfall is so believable that there seems to be no hope, while she passes all possible turning points. It’s funny that knowing the premise, you’d think there aren’t that many possible ways the story could turn, but I could not guess where it was going throughout the book.

So I’m totally in camp Edith Wharton now. I can’t wait to go read The Age of Innocence.

Mee’s rating: 5/5As odd as it sounds, this early 20th century novel set in New York revolving around high class society has touched me like no other novels from that time period had. Miles better than Pride and Prejudice.

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

 

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth of december

Tenth of December and George Saunders seem to be highly acclaimed everywhere. I had not heard of George Saunders until the appearance of Tenth of December (which felt like it was just published, but apparently it was first published 2 years ago in 2013), but upon reading it I found out that he had enjoyed some literary success prior to this book. His short stories have been picked up by The New Yorker many times over. And in fact, most of the short stories collected in this book are available in The New Yorker.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I took me a while to warm to his style. I did not read the stories in the book in order (there are 10 in total), but I read the first story first: Victory Lap. Going in I was completely disoriented and did not know what’s going on. After pages, I had to go browse the internet to get a general idea of what the story was about. Three characters: a girl, a man in a van who intends to kidnap the girl, and a neighbour boy who knows the girl and will be the hero by saving her. The story jumps from inside one character’s head to another. I wasn’t completely foreign to this style after reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but to have that style in a short story was exhausting to read. I’d be really surprised if average readers enjoy this story, it seems to be intended for more avid readers, and probably one that has read Saunder’s stories in the past.

The second one that I read was The Semplica-Girl Diaries, which is probably one of his most famous stories, and can be read in The New Yorker. I liked this one, and went so far as to persuade my short story club to read this story for our next meetup (We did and they all liked it – though there were differences about how we interpret/read the story). Again it took me a while to warm up to the style. The story is written in diary format, and in a very colloquial style, as if by someone who really jots down stuff in his diary in a rush manner thinking that nobody would see it ever. As the story is one of the longer ones, you have time to get into it, compared to Victory Lap for example.

To be honest by this point I started to wonder if I would finish the book at all. I decided to jump to the title story, Tenth of December, which is the last story in the collection. There are 2 characters: a sick man who intends to commit suicide by freezing himself to death in the wood, and a boy who happens to explore the same wood at the same time. The narration jumps from one character’s head to another, ala Victory Lap, which was now half as confusing than when I first read the first story. This one was alright, but not my favorite.

Luckily I found my favorite story next called Escape from Spiderhead. This is the story that I expected George Saunders to write: a slightly futuristic world or an alternate world that is exactly like ours, but with a twist. This story is set in a kind of laboratory, where they do experiments on people who’ve been convicted for some crimes and would rather be in the lab and participating in experiments, than being in normal prison.

I seemed to have read all the meaty ones first, because after that I flew through the rest, going at them in order. Sticks is tiny, a few pages long on the oddities of a father. Puppy delves into two mothers and their different style of raising a family. Exhortation is a long letter from an employer to an employee, urging him to do something that he’s reluctant to. Al Roosten is a reminiscence of Victory Lap and Tenth of December, in which the main character struggles to do the right thing. Home explores the experience of a soldier who just comes back from duty. In My Chivalric Fiasco chivalry is questioned, whether doing the right thing is always the best for everyone.

By the end of the book I realized the colloquial style of writing is really George Saunder’s voice, and not of any specific story, as it permeates in ALL stories. It fascinates me that this kind of writing style has won literary prizes, as it does not seem “literary” in its conventional meaning. That just goes to show how there’s no rule for writing style and it can go in all different ways.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – I like some stories more than others. The style took a while to get into (it’s my first George Saunders). Only after reading 3-4 stories (10 stories in total in the book), it started to get much easier to get into a story and I enjoyed reading it more. But at the end of the book I’m still not totally convinced by the choice of style and language. Mmm.

Pablo (Art Masters Series) / Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann

Pablo by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie

pablo graphic novel (art masters series)Pablo is the latest in the Art Masters Series published by Self Made Hero (a British graphic novel publisher). The earlier two were Vincent and Rembrandt, the former telling the life of Vincent Van Gogh I have written about here before.

The review copy has come at the perfect time, as I just came back from my New York trip, in which I saw tons of Picasso’s works in the Met and MoMA. Prior to that I’ve seen a couple of his paintings and many sketches in London. I haven’t got a chance to go to Picasso museums in Barcelona and Paris. But really looking at his works in New York and knowing there are lots more around the US, I could sense how prolific Picasso was as an artist. The amount of works he produced are staggering.

So for such a prolific artist, who lived a long life (Picasso died at the age of 91 and he’s said to die painting at his death bed), it must be a challenge in itself to pick a period of the great painter’s life to tell. Interestingly, the graphic novel Pablo chooses to tell the story with the framing of a somewhat obscure woman: Fernande Olivier, a bohemian artist who became Pablo’s mistress for 7 years.

Picasso later on would have many other women in his life. Not uncommon among great artists, he would call them his muse, be attracted to a new muse when the current one has run out her course. The timings of the relationships were often overlapped, but they had to accept it nonetheless. Two of former mistresses would kill themselves not long after Picasso died. (These I learned more later after reading the book, from 2015 BBC documentary: Picasso: Love, Sex, and Art —  also coincidentally came out at the right time for me. Seems you can watch the full version on youtube.)

However the important point of his relationship with Fernande was that she was the only mistress who was with him before he reached fame and fortune. Knowing that, the framing of this tome of a graphic novel is perfect, because the story told from Fernande’s point of view starts when Pablo Picasso is a newbie painter arriving in Paris from Spain, and revolves around his struggles as a poor artist living in Le Bateau-Lavoir.

Poor Pablo and Fernande

This book is 342 pages, and quite heavy. It seems that it was originally published (in its original language French) as 4 smaller books, and they are subtitled: Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse, Picasso. But it’s been published in English by Self Made Hero as one big book with no sections or chapters. The drawings are beautiful throughout and full color. Some of you might remember the style of illustration from Aya de Yopougon — the same artist: Clément Oubrerie.

The problem I had reading the book was finding who is who in this early 1900s Paris setting. In that period there were a mix pot of (now well-known) artists, poets, authors, and Fernande and Picasso met tons and tons people. Some of them I’ve mentioned above: Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse. Gertrude Stein is also one who makes constant appearances. In most cases the book assumes that we should know these side characters / famous people, which is understandable because there can’t be enough time to explain everybody’s back story (there are dozens of them), but I found myself having to Wiki quite often. It’s quite a good crash course though if like me you want to know more about people you feel you have to know more about. Ha!

I do feel sad for Fernande at the end. She sticks with a man when he’s poor and nobody, but is dumped when he reaches success. A story that seems to keep repeating itself throughout history. And for Fernande this is not even her story, but that of the Great Pablo Picasso, she just happens to be there at the beginning. She draws a short straw.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – a packed graphic novel of an interesting period of Pablo Picasso’s life, beautifully illustrated, but the appearances of many side characters means readers may need to do their own research on the side to know who is who, which can slow down the reading experience

Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann

I’m going to slip in a short review of Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It’s out of season I know, but this book came to me from its New York publisher by mail a few years ago, and I never managed to read it in December, as it is such a short month with the holidays at the end! So this time I just decided to finish it even after Christmas has passed.

nutcracker

Most of us know about Nutcracker from the famous ballet the story is adapted to (which I knew little about anyway, but after reading I went to see bits of it on youtube). The book was originally written in German in 1816. The version of the book I’m holding (pictured above) was illutrated by Maurice Sendak and first published in 1984, right after the 1983 production of Nutcracker by Pacific Northwest Ballet. Sendak has apparently designed the sets and costumes of the ballet production, which was new information to me, since I only knew Maurice Sendak as a children books illustrator!

The story itself is almost like 19th century version of Toy Story, in which toys come alive when nobody is looking. Except that in this tale the toys come from faraway kingdom, and there are kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and monsters, and lots of rats.

In the preface, Maurice Sendak talks about how different he found the original story is with the ballet production (which itself had gone through many versions in Europe before it was brought to United States, in which again the ballet went through various versions). Since I have not yet seen the ballet production in person, I don’t know how it is in relation to the original story. It’d be interesting to go back to the book sometime when that happens.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – a classic tale, illustrated by one of the most well loved illustrator, though I found the story to be rather simplistic compared to other children classics that I loved (e.g. Alice, Peter Pan)

 

The Stone Diaries – Carol Shields

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

stone diariesIn this Pulitzer Prize winner of 1995, Carol Shields tells the story of Daisy Stone Goodwill. Born in 1905, we follow Daisy’s journey from the womb (starting from Daisy’s father and mother), to childhood, adulthood, marriages (two), motherhood, and old age. Her journey spans almost the entire 1900, so it is in a way also a portrait of the century.

The book comes with a family tree at the front. Some of of you might be alarmed by the need of a family tree in any book, but worry not, at least we don’t have multiple characters with the same names :). By the end of the book there are about 10 major characters, plus 10-15 minor ones, so the family tree does help as a reminder. There’s also a collection of old photographs in the middle of the book. The book is fiction, but the photos are there to give an air of biography, as Carol Shields mentioned in one of her interviews. She picked the pictures from family’s old photo boxes, a few are her own children. Mostly for fun really, it seems.

The Stone Diaries won many prizes, and I can see why – it is a book that probably embodies “literary fiction” in its most widely-understood definition. The words are well chosen, the writing has a great rythm, and the style and language are its strongest points. In fact, as I read pages in, I was wondering if Shields was a poet, and she is! I don’t even read poetry, but apparently I can recognize poetic language :)

My copy of The Stone Diaries is a bookcrossing book and it has been through a long journey across countries and continents. Here’s the book’s journal and my last update after I read it:

How this book was travelling! I was sent this book by moogytee back in 2007, pretty sure I was in Singapore back then. The book then moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, at my parents’s house for the longest time, as it kinda slipped through the crack when I moved back to Sydney, Australia in 2009. I have since then moved to London in 2011, and found this book sitting in Jakarta when I came back for a short visit in January this year, 2015. I brought it back to London, and literally just finished reading it today.

So gosh, 7.5 years and 3 countries later, I finally read this book. And it was a good one too! Perhaps worth all that wait and travelling? ;)

So my copy of the book (the one pictured above) has come from America, traveled to Singapore, Indonesia, and London.  If a book could tell a story…

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Excellent writing, and quite enjoyable to read, but will it stay with me long term? It’s only been a few weeks, and my memories of the characters and the story are already slipping away..

 

New York Book Haul, Bookish Stuff and Reading List

In March I went to New York (9 days) and New Orleans (4 days)! It was such a great trip in many ways, but how is it in bookie ways? I’ve been posting pictures on my Instagram and my travel FB page if you’re into pictures, but this post will be on all bookish related stuff :)

My highlights in New York is the legendary Strand! It is as good as everyone says, with floors of books, rows after rows. And it happened to be close to where we stayed in East Village, so we even got a chance to go twice. Just in the first visit both Mee and Mr. Mee immediately think: We have to come again. So we did.

Mee and The Strand, NY

Mee and Strand Bookstore, NY :)

Unfortunately my luggage had limited space and weight, so I couldn’t buy as many book as I’d like, but I’m still happy with a few that I got. I had already thought in advance that my target would be a couple of those NYRB books, that are so widely available and cheap in the US. In fact, my target was to get only books published in the US, so this time sorry Penguin, I didn’t even bat an eye on you.

New York book haul

New York book haul

From The Strand I got 2 NYRB books:
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (my favorite cover of these bunch)
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih — which I’ve been meaning to read for a while
– Plus a tiny book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists (because we all should, shouldn’t we? :) I’ve read Purple Hibiscus in the past, and been meaning to read more of her books.

My surprise bookshop of New York was Drama Book Shop. I spotted it only by accident, and so so lucky I did, because it was incredible. Everything in the bookshop was scripts, stage plays, screen plays, and books related to those. Very fitting to its name: Drama Book Shop. I don’t know what I’d do if I missed this bookshop — maybe wailing in despair.

Drama Book Shop, New York

I got 2 books from Drama Book Shop:
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen — been meaning to read this one in print form (I don’t want to read thin books on Kindle if possible). I know it’s not American, but it was so cheap for just $2!
– and a play by Woody Allen (love his films and scripts) called Don’t Drink the Water, which apparently was played on Broadway at one point. There were a few plays on the shelf by him, so I just had to pick one that sounded most interesting to me from the blurbs.

What’s that blue Poe thing on the right side, you might think? It’s a temp tattoo box hah! (also from the Strand) We did a day trip to Philadelphia from New York (about 2 hours by bus), and I *almost* went to a house that he used to live in. But it was a bit far from the city center, so we didn’t get a chance to. So this is my commiseration souvenir :). Here is more information about Poe’s house in Philadelphia if you get luckier than me.

I went to New York with just a Joan Didion on my hand (which I later found out that Didion only lives in New York while Slouching Towards Betlehem is essays on California, so I was off the mark there uum..) but I came back with tons of reading list! I used to think that I’d really like to read books set in certain place before I go visit it, but perhaps in reality it works better the other way around. For me anyway. That way the reading seems more meaningful and the setting more familiar.

I am now interested to find more books set in New York. I have added to my reading list these following books (though some of them have actually been on my to read list for a while, just that I wasn’t aware they’re set in New York):
– The House of Mirth / Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton (the first I’m currently reading)
– The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
– The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
– The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (a maybe)
– Woody Allen and more Joan Didion?
– I initially put Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, but I just read his first book Everything Is Illuminated, and I had mixed feelings about it, so now I’m not so sure.

Some of the classics I’ve read: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (not a huge fan of the first two, liked the last).

Any more books to add to my TBR? I will talk about New Orleans in the next post!

Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

everything is illuminated - jonathan safran foer

One of my reading session at a coffee place in the morning before work

I’m going to say it upfront. I have mixed feelings about Everything is Illuminated. The book has been on my to-read list for ages, especially ever since Claire told me that I would like his book if I liked her wife’s book (which I did, I absolutely loved The History of Love). And yes I could possibly recognise some similarities in this book, but it didn’t hit me effortlessly like Krauss’s did, and I’m not sure whether it’s just me, that I’m already at a different place now reading-wise (I read The History of Love 5 years ago).

First of all, the book is started by the voice of a Ukranian boy with a broken English, which means it’s kinda started on the wrong foot for me. As someone whose first language isn’t English, I often find any broken English written by English speaking writers sounding…, well, false. It just doesn’t ring true to me. It’s fabricated. It’s broken English according to people whose first language is English, and it’s often on borderline to being annoying or insulting.

The plot summary of the book: an American writer names Jonathan Safran Foer is coming to Ukraine to search for Augustine, who is a daughter in the family that saved Jonathan’s grandfather in Nazi’s time. The grandfather comes from this village called Trachimbrod. Jonathan hires a guide (translator Alex, and driver – Alex’s grandfather).

Hence there are three types of chapters that go alternately:
– Alex, the Ukranian boy, in letters that he sends to Jonathan  –> broken English
– Alex (the same one), in stories he writes about his experience in Ukraine with Jonathan in their quest to search for Augustine –> broken English
– Jonathan, in stories he writes about what he thinks happens in the past to his ancestors and the village Trachimbrod

Already it sounds more complex than you expected, right? That’s what I think. The voice of Alex means that at least half of the book is written in this sort of broken English. Most mistakes that I see when writers do this is that the characters often use words that are way beyond their levels, YET retain their mistakes for ridiculously simple words. Example of why it doesn’t ring true to me: Alex uses “manufacture Z” for “sleep”, and retains this use until the end of the book even though his English in other areas improve. That is crazy. “Sleep” and many other basic words are the very first thing we learn when we learn English, or any new language. There’s NO way you would use word like “manufacture Z” for “sleep” as it is a way more complicated word. I can understand why the author maintains the usage, because “the voice” needed to be consistent – it’s writing rule. But it’s unrealistic. Anyway, I have to digress here, because I can go on and on about this.

You’ve probably noticed that one of the main characters is also named Jonathan Safran Foer, an American writer. As I recall, in one of Ian McEwan’s interviews that I watched recently, he mentioned that readers should be suspicious when the author appears in their supposedly fictional book. YES. Because, WHY? What is the purpose of using character with the same name and the same background? I can sort of understand the play of fiction vs reality thing, but I find it a bit annoying, like the author is having a laugh at you.

So on and on, in reading this book, I was always on the edge of being annoyed and being entertained. The structure of the book also felt like it’s borderline on being either gimmicky or smart, like the author was trying really hard to tell a story in A NEW WAY to get published (this is his debut novel). These days that seems to be one of the requirements to get your book published for the first time. Can you tell a story in a NEW WAY? After all this is a story of Holocaust at its heart, which has been told many times over. Jonathan needed to bring a new thing on the table.

Real life Jonathan insisted that the book is all fiction, but someone seems to think otherwise. Check the link for a great article / story by a woman who survived the Jew genocide at Trochenbrod, a real village in Polish-Ukranian border (the village is called Trachimbrod in the book). Lastly, Alex the character in the book is nicknamed Sasha, while real life Jonathan’s son is also named Sasha. Confused much?

It’s hard to make up my mind, but the book is compelling enough for me to read until the end. And if anything, the way the story is told IS different than anything I’ve read before. So I guess that’s a good thing. I quite enjoyed Jonathan’s chapters (those written in proper English). Foer seems to have a good command of language. Just can’t help feeling that I was being slightly tricked the whole way. I could see the author’s hands. I could see the strings with which he moved his puppets.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

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