Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

First published in 1882

I have never watched an adaptation of Treasure Island – except for Disney’s Treasure Planet if that counts, though I don’t remember much about it – so the book was new to me. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected it to be: an adventure story for boys. Unlike J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I couldn’t find appreciation on a different level, though I liked this a bit more than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The book went up my reading queue when The Happy Reader x Joseph book club sent me an invitation and mailed the Penguin Classics book. It arrived a couple of weeks before the book club night – there was a real-life meet up in Kensington at one of Joseph’s store – and I reckoned I could finish 190 pages in 2 weeks, even as a slow reader that I am (I didn’t, but 30 pages away to finishing on the night). Not sure if I mentioned The Happy Reader here before, but I absolutely love the “magazine”. The Treasure Island issue will be for June, so they are still working on it. The Editor in Chief Seb Emina attended the book club in person and led the discussions. It was a great night. Hope to go to more of them in the future.

But going back to the story of Treasure Island, the main character is a teenager named Jim Hawkins, who meets a series of characters – most of them are pirates – and gets tangled in a series of adventures. He starts off living with mum at a family pub, but the discovery of a treasure map leads him to going on a journey to this treasure island.

I’m very wary of books about boats, because there seems to be a million boat related terms – all of which I never heard of in my life and have no real usage for in the future. This book was not an exception unfortunately, there are boat terms. Some of them I googled, some I let go. Luckily the narrative is straightforward and it doesn’t delve too much into boat technicalities. This is why I may never read Moby Dick.

For a book meant for boys, it felt quite grown-up. There are plenty of deaths and murders. And there is one character in particular that is a bit “grey”, and I was never convinced whether he was good or bad throughout the book. For a children (young adult?) book, it felt that Stevenson had gone a bit further to show that life is not as simple as black and white.

I have not read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

ps: I now really look forward to watching Muppet Treasure Island!

Robert Louis Stevenson – born in Edinburgh, died in Samoa (!)

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

dorian gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel. First published in 1890 in Lippincott Magazine, it was widely criticized by London society for its homo eroticism, so Wilde revised it and published its modified version in 1891. It helped little for what’s coming however, as 5 years after the first publication of Dorian Gray Wilde faced trial for “gross indecency”. He was convicted and went to prison for 2 years of hard labor, was self-exiled to Paris, and died 3 years later in poverty.

I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde, having read all his short stories and his most well known play The Importance of Being Earnest. But with The Picture of Dorian Gray I felt like I finally tied all the pieces together, as the book I believe (and many people do) to be the closest to the author in terms of ideas and deepest desires. In fact, I faced the challenge of separating one of the characters in the book with Oscar Wilde himself – or what I thought he must be like.

I assume most people know the gist of the plot about a man and his painting who gets old and ugly instead of him. There are 3 major characters: Basil Hallward – the artist who did the painting; Dorian Gray – the man that Basil completely adored to the point of idolatry, hence the painting; and Lord Henry – a friend of them both who makes all these witty, cynical comments, and partly “tainted” Dorian into the road of sins and pleasure. (Before reading the book I had in my head that Dorian painted a self-portrait.)

Lord Henry was the person that I imagined Oscar Wilde to be. In fact, he famously said: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” A bit ironic then, imagining Lord Henry as Wilde was what made parts of the book a bit difficult to swallow for me, for his comments on women like: “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” or “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.”

However if you think that this book is really about love, passion, and adoration between men, none of them fancying women much, would you blame such comments?

Prior to reading I didn’t know there are different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And unlike Frankenstein’s two versions that are widely available, the second version of Dorian has been the ultimate and only version that we read until today. The first version that appeared in Lippincott Magazine was never published as a book until recent years, in 2011 by Harvard University Press (link).

The revision of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde’s life before and after the publication are the two major themes that were discussed in Edx BerkeleyX Book Club that I followed. And thanks to it I was aware of which chapters were added: 6 chapters, totaling some 28,000 words. Many of which were the expansion of the other characters.

More interestingly perhaps is what was being dropped. An example is this speech by Basil the painter to Dorian: “It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

How radical! I can only imagine how daring you must be to write such thing in mainstream publication in the time where homosexuals were being persecuted.

Prior to reading, I somehow imagine Dorian Gray as a simple morality tale – which it is in a way, but it has so much more. There are a lot of discussions on beauty, aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and hedonism. In many ways it was so modern. And in the style of Oscar Wilde, there are plenty of aphorism (short observation that appears to contain a general truth). The book is full to the brim with them and my highlighter was flying:

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

“The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.”

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

“Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

And some that are simply funny:

“I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.”

“I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather.” (So it has been like that since 1890. England hasn’t changed much.)

I can go on. Oscar Wilde produced more quotes than any other authors I know.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – A fascinating novel that I couldn’t give my full mark, but I highly suspect that the first version would’ve got my full mark. New Yorker article on the revised version: “.. these excursions (the additional chapters) in high and low society feel a bit like staged distractions. There are too many tidy formulations—“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for”—positioned to reassure the middle classes. The version that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s is the better fiction. It has the swift and uncanny rhythm of a modern fairy tale—and “Dorian” is the greatest of Wilde’s fairy tales.” I believe this. The Dorian Gray that we read now felt like the sharp edges have been smoothed out and it sometimes pretends to care about characters and stuffs it doesn’t actually care about. A cut of 28,000 words would also make the work a lot tighter, the pace swifter. Perhaps one day I’ll read the uncensored version. (Though note that the magazine editor had already cut some 500 words before publication without Wilde’s knowledge for fear of “indecency” charges. I guess you can only imagine the *original* original version.)

Trivia:

Do you know that The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four were sparked by the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? I coincidentally read The Sign of Four merely months ago and mentioned this in my post, so it’s interesting that this comes up again in the above New Yorker article.

bosie

Lord Alfred Douglas (picture above), nicknamed “Bosie”, is how I imagine Dorian Gray to look like. His youthful beauty is remarkable, honestly looks like something out of a painting. I can absolutely imagine Basil being enamored of this boy. Bosie is Wilde’s latest lover who brought his downfall. However Wilde only met him after the publication of Dorian Gray.

 

The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes #2)

the sign of 4

I read The Sign of Four as my last book of 2015, actually finishing on the 31st December. I read the first one in the series – A Study in Scarlet in 2014, but alas, it was a period when I got too lazy to write about every single book I read, so I didn’t put any thoughts down – something that I kind of regret. These days I’ve gotten into the habit of writing about every book I read again, because I know my future self will thank me for it.

Therefore I only have a vague recollection of A Study in Scarlet. I know I quite liked it (a 4 stars read) and it was about a murder mystery (you think?) and a back story of American Mormonism. A bit odd, and old-fashioned, but readable.

The Sherlock Holmes books appear in various must-read book lists, the 1001 Books, the Guardians’s 1000 novels, and 100 best novels written in English, to name a few. But they all seem to pick different ones in the series. So after reading the first, I decided to just read them all in order. One for every year (hence the rush to finish one before the end of 2015). The Sign of Four is picked by Robert McCrum for his 100 best novels list, so my expectation was high.

I’m not sure if it met my expectation.

I don’t read or watch much mystery, but even for me the plot and the mystery seemed too familiar, as if I’ve seen it a couple of dozen times on various media (and no, I have not seen all Sherlock TV series, only the first season). Even more interesting, some people on GR mentioned that the plot is too convoluted. I wonder if I missed anything, as I thought exactly the opposite.

Just to give a brief idea, the mystery involves secrets and betrayal happening in India, while featuring ridiculous set of characters: a twin Indians in turbans, one-legged man and a dark-skinned dwarf man – a savage one at that. Really?

A silver lining is that this is the book where Watson meets Mary Morstan – his future wife, and their relationship is pretty sweet. So if you’re a completist, it’s definitely worth reading. I do plan to continue to book #3: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which features his short stories, and people say Sherlock short stories are really the best, more than the novels, so I look forward to that.

After watching some episodes of the TV series and reading the first 2 books, I can say that the TV Sherlock by Benedict really stays true to the books. So much so that the image of Sherlock as I was reading was that of Benedict Cumberbatch. And when I explained some parts of the book plot to hubby, I started saying Benedict instead of Sherlock “Then Benedict says…” Yeah, it’s that close.

To conclude, The Sign of Four isn’t my favorite Sherlock Holmes, but I still have quite a few books to see whether it’s the worst of the bunch. The rating on GR *is* the lowest amongst the 9 books. So how did Robert McCrum chose this particular one? Perhaps it is more to do with the history. Do you know that Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Doyle’s The Sign of Four were the results of the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? Now that kind of story, I love.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

conan doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle – what a fabulous name!

The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

importance of being earnest

Once again I managed to combine reading a play with watching the play performed on stage afterwards (the last one was Death of a Salesman a few months ago). This time it’s the delightful play by my favorite author Oscar Wilde. It is funny, in a very 19th century English way. I enjoyed the way it pokes fun at the class system of the time, courting and marriage.

I listened to the Overdue Podcast (my latest favorite podcast!) about the play just yesterday, and the guys seem to think of the play as being too lighthearted and mainly word play, which I found very interesting, though disagree with. Perhaps you need to be a certain type of person to appreciate Wilde’s style — tackling serious things in life with a healthy dose of humour, as made clear by his very own quote: “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”

I’m nodding. Yes, yes, YES.

Oscar Wilde is known for his witty quotes that I often found scattered all over the internet, and I was happy to find many familiar lines in this play and got to know them in the context they’re originally from. Some of them in the order of their appearances (and the characters that say them):

“The very essence of romance in uncertainty.” – Algernon

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Algernon

“Health is the primary duty of life.” – Lady Bracknell

“A man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.” – Lady Bracknell

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” – Algernon

“I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.” – Cecily

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” – Gwendolen

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” – Gwendolen

The 2015 Play at Vaudeville Theatre, London

The Importance of Being Earnest has 5 major characters: 2 couples and an imposing Aunt figure, as you can see in the poster of the 2015 London play below.

My great surprise was the aunt – Lady Bracknell – was played by a man! (David Suchet) Even more surprised to find that it has happened before in 2011 production with Geoffrey Rush! I would love to see Geoffrey Rush playing Lady Bracknell. Just thinking about already put a smile to my face :)

earnestlondon

The rest of the casts quite fit with how I imagined them to be. Algernon was played by Philip Cumbus, Jack is played by Michael Benz. Gwendolen is played by Emily Barber, and last but not least, probably my favorite actress of the night, was Imogen Doel, playing Cecily (far right in the poster).

The thing with English period play like this is that sometimes it could be challenging to fully catch the speech with thick, sort of old-ish accent — with its high up and down tone (I find modern accent easier), depending on the actor/actress and how far back or high up you sit. Keep in mind too that plays in West End don’t usually use microphones, as the theaters are pretty small. Even if the theatre is quite well built the actors do need to make considerable effort to be audible and comprehensible (you can’t mumble!). So my favorite actress/actor is often the person whose speech is the clearest, and in this case it’s young Cecily :). Every time she entered, the stage felt a bit brighter too. Love.

I feel that the script could be enjoyed by itself — I did. I thought it was funny even without being spoken out loud. But if you have a chance to go see it performed, definitely do.

Mee’s rating (on script): 5/5

 

The Jungle Book – Rudyard Kipling

I read the free Kindle version, but I'm using this cover for this post because it's one of my favorite Jungle Book covers :)
I read the free Kindle version, but I’m using this cover because I like it. Also Harper Collins version comprises only the first Jungle Book, while the Oxford World Classics for example, while it has a nice cover, comprises both the first and second Jungle Book.

The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Rudyard Kipling. A lot of us probably know The Jungle Book from the Disney cartoon — I did. I remember my dad telling me that The Jungle Book is his favorite Disney movie. And talking about movie, there’s a good reason why I read this now. You may be aware that Disney is remaking a lot of his old cartoons, and that includes The Jungle Book. But in fact, there is not one upcoming Jungle Book movie, but TWO. One will be out in 2016 (the Disney remake), and one in 2017. (I know this very well because yours truly is currently working on one of them :).

The book is now on public domain (Is that the reason why there are 2 movies coming out around the same time?) so you can get it on Kindle or Project Gutenberg for free. There are 7 short stories in total, each story is followed by a poem.

Surprisingly to me, only the first three stories are about Mowgli and his jungle friends (and frenemies). All the familiar characters appear in the 3 stories: Bagheera the black panther, Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger, Kaa the snake, and the monkey people.

I’m well aware that Disney takes much liberty in its adaptations, and how the movies are always quite different compared to their original stories, so I was well prepared and wasn’t easily surprised. There are a couple of characters that didn’t make the cut into the Disney movie: the wolf that takes Mowgli as a baby – Akela, and the annoying figure Tabaqui the indian jackal (for some reason he always appears in my mind as hyena). Shere Khan is a limp tiger, and he’s not exactly brave or honorable.

And if I haven’t been clear enough, the stories are nothing Disney-ish. They’re pretty harsh by today’s standard of children stories, and Mowgli in particular is a lot stronger and more assertive than the Mowgli I remember from my childhood.

The other 4 stories also feature animal characters and occasional humans. The White Seal features a white furred seal who sort of plays Moses role as he searches and finds a “promised” safe land and takes all his seal people there. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi features a mongoose who defends the human family he lives with from a couple of cobras. Toomai of the Elephants is about a boy who’s on his way to become a respectable elephant handler (or mahout). In Her Majesty’s Servants we get a glimpse of a late night conversation among a bunch of camp animals right before an important parade the next day.

I quite enjoyed all the stories — the Mowgli stories in particular, perhaps because of the familiarity and the continuity of characters. I did have a slight reservation when I reached the fourth story and realized that Mowgli stories have passed, and in fact I was taken out of the jungle altogether despite the Jungle Book title for the collection. But overall I found them refreshing and quite charming.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Rudyard_Kipling_(portrait)

There are more Mowgli stories in The Second Jungle Book and I might go read it at some point, but for now I’m happy to have a taste of Kipling. Fun facts: Rudyard Kipling was the first English-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he’s also the youngest recipient to date, who was 42 years old when he received the prize in 1907.

Way back when I was a kid I never realized that The Jungle Book was set in India. I guess I instinctively associated animals with Africa. Kipling’s background of having born in India and spent some time there really interests me, so I look forward to reading more of his work, in particular Kim, as I heard good things about it.

 

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 :)

 

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