Tag Archives: 1001

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

secret history

In The Secret History we follow six Classical Greek students in Vermont college. In the first couple of pages it is revealed that this group of friends killed one of them. So the story is a why-dun-it rather than a who-dun-it, and about the aftermath of the killing. Great premise.

I read the second half of the book on a boat in Greece and Turkey so The Secret History is officially my summer and holiday reading:

reading on a boat

Can’t lie – it’s pretty awesome to spend your holiday reading on a boat :)

As The Goldfinch is more recently out, everybody on the boat seemed to have read it and ask me if I had read it too. I haven’t. The Secret History is my first Donna Tartt book, and I do realize I’m a bit late to the party. In fact I wonder a bit whether the book has gotted a bit dated. Though it was only published in 1992 – so our world is still largely similar, the non-existence of mobile phone was a bit jarring. There are a large amount of calling to someone’s flat or someone’s dorm, and trying to contact someone by landline, and not being able to reach the person. It’s similar to the slight annoyance you feel when you watch movies from the 90s, and major plot points hinge on people not being able to contact each other immediately with mobile phone, and you think there’s no way stories like this could happen again now.

I liked that the book is very readable. I think it’s a perfect beach read (or boat read or holiday read) – or any time when you have a big chunk of reading time, since it is 660 pages long. So since I read it during the holiday I didn’t mind too much that it’s so long – kinda reminded me of the 5th book of Harry Potter, both of which are very readable. But really they went on and on and on. After about 2/3 of it though I’m pretty fed up with all the characters being drunk or drugged 90% of the time. I never liked people’s drunk stories and I don’t like being drunk myself, so I had little empathy for all the drunkenness.

Tons of bloggers/readers love this book I know, so I didn’t quite expect my lukewarm reaction. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently if I read it when it was out. I have a feeling that the book just doens’t date very well. I’d be interested to know what you think if you’re one of those people who just read this book in the past couple of years.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 starsIt’s a very readable book, but I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. Will probably read The Goldfinch though.

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)

 

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..

 

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

 

Beloved — Toni Morrison / The Driver’s Seat — Muriel Spark

I have resigned to the fact that I will not be able to write about all the books I read in 2014 by the end of the year, but that’s okay, my OCD level isn’t too high in this particular area. So this might be the last post of the year, since I’m flying away tomorrow to  what is in this part of the world called  the Far East, or in my language South East Asia :). I’m also keeping the Best of 2014 post for next year (I just cannot bring myself to do it before the year ends).

Beloved — Toni Morrison

toni-morrison-belovedmorrison

Beloved was the last book I read for the Coursera’s Fiction of Relationship reading list (which I have talked about in the past). I also had not read Toni Morrison before and she’s in the Nobel list, so really it was about time that I spend some time on it.

And boy it was a long time. Beloved is only around 220 pages long, and it felt really, really, really long. I think I spent around 6 weeks on it. It wasn’t like I tried to speed up – I was kind of in a busy period in other aspects of life as well – but it felt like I was moving at snail’s pace.

I’m glad that I spent time on this book and that I finished it, but I’d say it wasn’t too enjoyable an experience. The subject matter was hard to swallow, and the way the story is told was far from being straightforward. Unlike some people, I didn’t have problem at all with any elements of magical realism, I was totally fine with things left unexplained for example, but overall it’s a challenging book. It’s… muddled. I’m not sure if I’m going to read another Toni Morrison, just like I’m not sure whether I’m going to read another William Faulkner. Maybe not in the near future, but never say never :)

The Driver’s Seat — Muriel Spark

driversseatmuriel spark

One of the greatest things about Muriel Spark’s book is that they’re short. I so so love that they’re short. The Driver’s Seat is only shy of 100 pages long, and yet it’s smart and sharp. I love short book done well, lean, with every word written for a purpose. The Driver’s Seat is all those things, a controlled piece of writing. If ever I were to write a short book, I wish to write like Muriel Spark.

I have read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, back in 2010, so this is my second Spark’s novels. I heard that all her novels are just as good, so now after reading The Driver’s Seat and with some faint memory of Jean Brodie, I can be confident that I will like her other books as well.

I felt like I was in safe hands while reading The Driver’s Seat, even though the story was really odd, unsettling, and unusual. If you intend to read the book, I highly suggest that you do not read any blurbs or reviews, as it is extremely easy to spoil the book. I read one review on Goodreads after I finished reading the book and someone casually just mentioned the whole ending in the first sentence! (Unbelievable. I have since flagged it, and that particular review is now marked with spoiler warning.)

Why is it easy to spoil the book? Because you really have no idea what’s going on until the end. In essence, by giving away what the book is about, you give away the ending. You need to trust the author all the way through the book, which is probably not an easy feat, but I did. I felt like I was in the safe hands of a masterful author.

Happy Christmas all! 2014 has been a great reading year for me, and I can’t wait for 2015!

 

Siddhartha — Hesse / Of Mice and Men — Steinbeck

By this time I am horribly, horribly late in posting about books I’ve read. In fact, some books are already slipping away from my mind, even though I just read them a few months ago. Nevermind that, as I need to get on writing anyway, before they truly vanish from memory a couple of years from now.

Today is about two short books, both by winners of Nobel Prize in Literature. My first time to read Herman Hesse, second time for John Steinbeck.

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

siddhartaherman hesse

Siddharta was not quite like what I expected. I was expecting some kind of biography of Siddharta the Buddha, but instead, we follow the journey of another man, also named Siddharta, who seems to be in the shadow of Siddharta the Buddha (his timeline seems to happen after Buddha).

Our character Siddharta goes through a different journey to enlightenment, which I’m not going to go into too much details. I cannot remember much about the ending, so  I can’t tell you even if I want to.

I was very intrigued by Herman Hesse. A German writing about spirituality of the East in the early 1900s (Siddharta was published in 1922) seems unusual. Was it the time when the West started to be fascinated about the East? I wonder what his other books would be like. I might read more from him.

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

of mice and mensteinbeck

I have read East of Eden a few years ago and quite liked it, but to be honest I don’t know if I want read more books by John Steinbeck, purely because of the depression era that he concentrated his writing on; it’s just not where my interest lies.

Of Mice and Men however is so tiny and so popular that I might as well read it. One thing that put me off reading it for a while was that I knew about the ending. I can’t remember how it got spoiled for me, it wasn’t completely spoiled either, but I knew about it roughly. I was waiting for the memory to go away, but it never did, so I read the book anyway, knowing the direction it was heading.

It was a sad and heartfelt little book, exactly like what I expected.  I do wonder if I would read it differently had I not known about the ending. As such, I felt like I was seeing all the author’s techniques in bringing readers to reach the climax, and I don’t think I was ever fully absorbed in the story.

 

Light in August – Faulkner / The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway

The Fiction of Relationship course on Coursera is starting again 1 September this year, so I picked up steam to continue reading on the second part of the course, which has the following list of books: (I finished the first part of the course last year)

From all books in the list, I had been dreading William Faulkner the most. It was one of the reason that I got stuck on the first part of the course (ending with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf). But with much trepidation, I finally picked up Light in August.

Light in August by William Faulkner

light in august - faulkner

Light in August is largely a story of Joe Christmas, a person who thinks that he might be black. As you can guess from that sentence, much of the book is about racism, what it means to be white, and what it means to be black, in that area of the US at that period of time. I’m not familiar with what’s so called Southern literature, so I had little clues about what the society and the rules at the time are like. At the beginning of the book, I was quite confused about who was white and who was black — while in any other novels set in other period of time these might be inconsequential, in this book it DOES matter. People who are more familiar with the culture would pick up the clues pretty quickly (from the way people talk and how they interact, e.g. the whites and the blacks almost never interact unless absolutely necessary and their difference in classes would be clearly shown), but it really took me a while.

I read Faulkner’s short story before (Pantaloon in Black), but this is the first time I read his novel. From what I read, Light in August sounds like one of his most accessible novels. The style is stream of consciousness, which somewhat reminded me of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and the writing is amazing – there were many jaw-dropping moments for me, as I could not believe someone could come up with such brilliant sentences. Faulkner was a revelation to me. It is really worth it to push out of your comfort zone every once in a while, and opens new world.

Amongst the brilliance though, there were also many confusing passages. I can’t say I understood everything 100%, but it was a good experience (and lectures from Prof Weinstein helped a lot). I won’t be rushing to read more Faulkner soon, but I’m sure I will read more in the future.

Mee’s Rating: 4/5

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

the old man and the sea - hemingway

In similar fashion with Faulkner, I read both Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s short stories last year, but this is the first time I read Hemingway’s novel. The Old Man and the Sea is a novella of 99 pages, and it’s short and enjoyable enough for me to recommend it if you’ve never read Hemingway.

In similar fashion as Big Two-Hearted River, one of Hemingway’s most popular short stories I read last year, The Old Man and the Sea largely revolves around a man fishing. Fishing is something that is so far off from my world, that probably like a lot of you I wondered whether I would enjoy reading about it at all. I didn’t quite like Big Two-Hearted River — it was way too quiet and the type of story in which nothing is happening: a man goes fishing and reminisces about the time before the war. The Old Man and the Sea is a more happening story, though still has lots of fishing. This time in the sea. Also the fish is much bigger. I have not read Moby Dick, but I have an inkling that there are similarities, in that The Old Man is obsessed about catching the Big Fish and getting it home, in the similar fashion as Ahab obsessing about catching the whale. There is also the whole struggle between man and nature.

People mention how masculine Hemingway’s books are, and I somewhat agree, but was surprised to find a touch of much vulnerability and sensitivity in one of the characters in the book. The old man is poor and has nobody to care for him, but there is a boy who adores him and fetches food for him, and goes to him even though his parents disapprove. He cries when he sees the old man suffering. I was really touched by this boy character in the book, and felt like I saw the vulnerability and sensitivity of the author himself. Based on this, I will read more of Hemingway’s books in the future before deciding what I feel about his works. I’ve got Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises on my shelf.

Mee’s Rating: 3.5/5

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