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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.

 

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

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (And More About Coursera Courses)

Jane Eyre

For the second week of reading in the Fiction of Relationship class, we are tackling Jane Eyre. Now I actually started Jane Eyre two years ago, and since then had been reading it on and off. I got stuck at 80% for a long time, and I finally finished it for the class. It’s not that I had specific problem with the book that it took me so long to finish it. I just had problem with the sheer length of it. It is very very LONG! My Vintage copy is 600 pages long. Reading it on Kindle too seems to take forever to move forward. I read pages and pages, and the percentage didn’t go up 1%!

The story itself I really like — a lot more than Pride and Prejudice for instance. Jane Eyre as a character is feisty and courageous. She is cast away as a child and goes through a lot of troubles growing up. The writing is brilliant, it’s almost hard to believe that someone could write that well.

I’m going to talk a bit about the structure of the book, so minor spoilers ahead.

Jane Eyre is roughly divided into three sections. First part for Jane growing up. Second part for Jane with Mr Rochester. Third part is when Jane leaves to become independent. So in short, pre-Rochester, mid-Rochester, and post-Rochester. My problem finishing it was that mainly I found the second part the most interesting, while the first and the third somewhat boring. Now I’m not usually the type of reader who longs for romance story, but honestly with Jane Eyre, it’s like everything dies when I entered the third part along with my desire to continue the book.

I think this is probably a common problem with reading a thick classic. There are interesting parts, and there are boring parts. The time when Jane was confronting Rochester and in deep inner conflict about doing the right thing was mighty interesting. I flew by it. But when it got into a slump, I just thought I would never get through it.

To conclude, Jane Eyre is an excellent literature for classes and book groups. There are a lot to discuss and talk about, layers upon layers, it might be never ending.

I still think the book is too long though…

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

I read Wuthering Heights quite a while ago and loved it. I heard that you either love Wuthering Heights and hate Jane Eyre or the other way around. I can see where this comment comes from, as the two books cannot be more different! It is somewhat mind-boggling that the Brontës are sisters.

The 2011 Movie

jane eyre 2011 movie

I watched the 2011 Jane Eyre movie with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. The movie makers seem to agree with me that the first and third part of the book are rather boring, since they cut them really short. In fact the ending felt really abrupt. It was pretty good movie though, and worth watching in my opinion.

I’ve been following Mia since The Kids Are All Right and I think she’s a little under appreciated as an actress (while Jennifer Lawrence is probably over-hyped — I don’t get how the whole world seems to get almost over obsessed with her). Mia fits her role well as “plain” Jane, while Michael Fassbender is great as Rochester. Fassbender is bit of hit and miss for me, but here he’s really perfect as rough rich Rochester. Approval from Mee!

More About the Courses

To share with you a bit about the reading in the Fiction of Relationship course, these are the books in the schedule:

Module One (all free on the Internet)
Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731)
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)
Herman Melville’s Bartleby (1853) and Benito Cereno (1855)
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915) and “A Country Doctor” (1919)
Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927)

Module Two (have to buy)
William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932)
Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones (1956)
Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace (1963)
J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999)
Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)

Seemingly a bit mental, I joined another class on coursera: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, that requires reading of the following:

  1. Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales (Lucy Crane translation with Walter Crane illustrations)
  2. Carroll — Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
  3. Stoker — Dracula (This reading is somewhat longer than most of the others. You may want to begin it in advance.)
  4. Shelley — Frankenstein
  5. Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems (Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse includes “The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The Artist of the Beautiful” and his Twice-Told Tales includes “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”; The Portable Poe includes all the suggested Poe stories and poems
  6. Wells — The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star”
  7. Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
  8. Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles (not available for legal, free download)
  9. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness (not available for legal, free download)
  10. Doctorow — Little Brother (This reading is somewhat longer than most of the others. You may want to begin it in advance.)

I’m positive that I won’t be able to go through all those (the Fantasy and Science Fiction one especially requires TONS of reading – I’ve checked the length of each), but the courses really pique my interest about reading some of the books mentioned.

If you’re inclined, you should be able to just check out the lecture videos, because they’re both excellent. I love both professors. They seem to be really passionate about teaching and the text, and you do get more understanding by listening to their discussions of the books / short stories. I got really inspired to read more, especially the classics. Most important of all, it’s all FREE! Thank you coursera :)

 

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I hadn’t finished a book in 2-3 months (don’t even mention how many I started and put aside to continue later). I went to Hay-On-Wye for Hay Festival last weekend and apparently our phones don’t work over there (at least not for O2!). No internet for 2-3 days, and I finished one book. Sensing desperate need to unplug. And yes I can see the irony of this post…

So to the book! Animal Farm is a fantastic little read and it probably resonates for most people even vaguely interested in politics or leadership. It is fascinating how relevant the content is until now. Orwell wrote this with Stalin and Russia in mind, but the book reminded me of North Korea – almost every aspect of it. A timeless fable of revolution goes wrong, which only proves that humans (pigs?) don’t change very much, sadly.

This is my first Orwell, can you believe it? I can’t wait to read more! I have 1984 ready on my shelf, so anytime now.

The whole literary atmosphere and the fact that I was able to finish a book kind of energized my reading life. Hope I can keep the momentum and finish more books. I am looking at novellas, short books, or even graphic novels and short stories. Something doable!

I am also currently enrolled in one of coursera.org free course on The Fiction of Relationship and starting Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, which is a French classic that’s the first book in the syllabus and I never heard of prior to this, but it’s a short book and it’s free on Kindle, so who knows, it could be the next book I finish?!

I went to tons of literary/author events in May on top of Hay Festival, so lots of things in store. Hope to share them with you in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, happy reading, as always!

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

fingersmith

Fingersmith was a really fun book to read from beginning to the end, though I thought it almost touched the borderline of being “wordy” (being 550 pages). The first twist (probably the biggest too) left me in a state of euphoria, as I got so excited that I did not see it coming at all. I love unpredictable book!

If I have to describe the book in two words, it’d be Lesbian Dickens (stealing that from a goodreads reviewer which I totally agree with). The style of writing is in the style of those novels written by real 19th century writers, but a couple of things gave it away, like the use of swear words (very rare, do not worry) and the fact that there’s lesbian relationship. I don’t think those ever appear in real Victorian novels. But that’s one of the fun things about it I guess! (I knew about the LGBT aspect before I started reading)

If there’s one thing that I did not quite like, it was the ending. It kept me from giving this book a perfect score unfortunately.

(Spoiler ahead, highlight to read)

I just thought the author took the easy way out: Kill all the obstacles! I had a really bad feeling once one of them started dying, and true enough the rest followed.

(end of spoiler)

sarah waters

This book though has set me firm to read more Sarah Waters books (Fingersmith is my first). I am currently looking forward to read either Tipping the Velvet or the Night Watch next. Probably not this year as I try to read just one book per author per year, but we’ll see!

In term of “fun”-ness level, I think it’s comparable with the Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (also comparable in size).

Interesting fact: Fingersmith was beaten by Life of Pi for 2002 Booker Prize, and by Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) for 2002 Orange Prize (it got shortlisted for both prizes that year). I have to agree that Life of Pi is a probably better book, but I read mixed reviews for Bel Canto.

4.5 stars
(2002, 548 pp)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

the handmaid's tale

I don’t remember the last time I read a book that I totally did not want to put down. Probably Room, which I finished a couple of years ago in 7-8 hours plane ride, and I would say The Handmaid’s Tale is a better book (though completely different, so I don’t know why I made the comparison). Considering how long it takes for me to finish one book these days, I finished this one in a breeze! I spent a couple of weekends just reading for hours, which I also don’t remember the last time that happened.

I’ve read only read Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood before this one, which I wasn’t too impressed of. I’m still not sure if I like her writing style from reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I found it a bit… choppy at times. And it’s not like I’m a fan of dystopian stories, which seems to be the topic she embraces the most. I would really like to read Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin though. I also have Cat’s Eye somewhere in my piles.

All in all, I really liked The Handmaid’s Tale. The way it is written by revealing a little at a time made me want to read more more more and faster. Now I feel like reading another dystopian book, and I’m thinking of Orwell’s 1984. We’ll see.

4.5 stars
1985, 395 pp

sunny reading at kensington garden
Sunny day reading at Kensington garden

thehandmaidstale_movie
The Handmaid’s Tale, 1990, rating: 5/10

As always I could not resist a movie adaptation of a book I just read. Unfortunately the movie is such a silly rendition of a good book. It lacks all the suspense, subtleties, and claustrophobic feeling that the book does so well. You can safely skip this.

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

alices-adventures-in-wonderland-and-through-the-looking-glass-and-what-alice-found-thereYou might remember that I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandlast year and fell in love head over heels with it. It actually became one of my favorite books, ever!

Unfortunately I cannot say the same with Through the Looking-Glass. I’m not sure if it was the timing or if it’s really a less piece of work, but the magic I found in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a bit lost in the sequel. It was still a pretty good read, but I did not love it as much.

I read the Vintage edition on the right which has both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, both with illustrations by John Tenniel-the original illustrator. I decided to wait a bit for the second book after reading the first one, hence the gap (they were actually published with 6 years gap anyway).

In Through the Looking-Glass I found that characters often appear and disappear too suddenly (literally–like poof!) which I don’t remember happening as much in the first book and kinda baffled me a little bit. I laughed reading the first one a lot more too. Lots more. The second book is probably supposed to be smarter because it integrates chess moves throughout the entire story, but I never have much interest in chess unfortunately!

What I found interesting was a few key events or characters that were taken from Through the Looking Glass and get adapted into the Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland, like:

alice live flowersalice live flowers

the garden of live flowers (John Tenniel’s illustration on the right)

bread and butterfly

bread-and-butterfly

tweedledee tweedledumtweedledee tweedledum

tweedledee and tweedledum (John Tenniel’s illustration on the right–as if you’re gonna get it wrong..)

mickey through mirroralice-emerging-from-the-looking-glass

and Mickey Mouse short where he goes through mirror and finds world on the other side of it is an obvious tribute to Through the Looking Glass!

My super favorite passage:

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’
‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’” ~ p196

which I think so reflects the fast pace of our modern life.

4 stars
1871, 170pp

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