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


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 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 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 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


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