The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

First published in 1907

I received another invitation for the Happy Reader (real life) book club, and after a short consideration, decided to join again as I really enjoyed the last time with Treasure Island. They again sent me a copy of the book – which I really appreciated, but wish they had organised everything a bit earlier. The reading period was two weeks, and I didn’t quite finish it in time (probably about two third). Luckily I got to the point that mattered.

I never read Joseph Conrad’s, so this is my first. I knew he was the author of Heard of Darkness, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The Secret Agent just came to my attention with this event. A quick read of the summary showed that it’s a London book, Soho specifically, with Greenwich as an important setting. I’m a big fan of Greenwich area so it was almost enough as a hook in itself, and I work in Soho! From Penguin introduction:

“The Secret Agent is as much a Soho novel as a London one. Loosely bordered to the south by Leicester Square’s theatres to the east by Covent Garden’s fruit and vegetable markets, to the north by Oxford Street’s busy shops and to the west by Regent Street’s wanky stores, Soho, home to the Verlocs, was the apotheosis of Bohemian London, a bolthole for refugees, prostitutes and Anarchists. In Charles Booth’s analysis of the district in 1898, what most characterized it was the starkly heterogenous mix of its denizens, from the well-to-do to the nearly destitute. While the East End housed the recent influx of Eastern European immigrants, Soho was home to an established immigrant population, though it was no more reputable. Adolphe Smith writing of the district in 1909 states: ‘For centuries England, but more specifically London, has been the asylum of the defeated.’ … Soho was thus a natural home for Conrad’s Anarchist misfits. … To Conrad and his readership, therefore, the district represented the alien in the home, at home even; … Soho, in reality and in Conrad’s imagination, was terra incognita, a locale of political conspiracy and sexual deviance, a zone where ‘foreigners’ circulated.”

Amazing to think how Soho was a century ago, now that it is one of the most expensive place on earth, the rent per square foot is astronomical. (So much that visual effects studios are being pushed out of Soho. But that’s story for another day.)

Conrad got his ideas from a real event. In 1894, a 26-year-old Frenchman named Martial Bourdin accidentally got himself blown up near Greenwich Observatory. His purpose and plans were not clear. That and a bunch of other incidents terrorised Britain and Europe in that period, known as the Anarchist movement. Anarchism was not simple or monolithic. They’re “unified only by their impassioned rejection of government and authority” (Penguin Introduction, an excellent read.)

In a way the book felt timely, what with the terror attacks that have been happening in recent years. It reminded us that there have always been attempts to disrupt society and break peace, by different group of people, under different movement names, throughout different times. Sadly nothing is new nor unique, and history probably repeats itself again in the future, even after we’ve passed through this particular period.

People mentioned the book as dense, which I agree with. I went through it with audio book to keep my reading pace constant and ensure my reading to move forward, as I’m the type of reader that often gets stuck on a paragraph that I can’t get into for a while, just repeatedly reading without getting anything into my head. Audio book forces me to keep going. The Secret Agent does need a bit of dedication to read, but I think it pays off at the end.

Conrad himself had a very interesting life. Born in (what is now) Ukraine, he moved around Europe with his family before moving to England. English is his third language. (Reminded me of Nabokov.) He’d also been a sailor traveling to Australia, south east Asia (now Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand), and Africa (Congo). What a life! The feeling of ‘foreign-ness’ I can relate with, and it comes up in The Secret Agent with almost all the characters being from ‘somewhere else’, half-descents, live outside of ‘place of origin’, and identify as one thing or the other. I’m interested to read more of his works to see how the themes play out.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). Born: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

I’d been meaning to read this book for years. Years. Maybe a decade. You know what it’s like – you put a book onto your TBR and a decade later it’s still there, unread. I’m glad I finally got to it, but I’m not sure whether it quite lived up to my expectation.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is the first book by Jeanette Winterson I read. I first knew her from the “1001 books you must read before you die” list. I know she’s popular. I’ve even seen her in person at some Penguin’s event. I liked the sound of Oranges and I liked the title. I did enjoy reading it too, to a degree, but it felt like I wasn’t the targeted audience of the book. Let me explain.

Oranges is set somewhere in mid England, working class, Christian society. I’m not sure when it is set, but the book is published in 1985, so anytime before that I guess, the 60s or the 70s. If you know even a bit about this book, I think you’d already know that it is about a young woman coming out and coming to terms with her homosexuality. It’s semi-biographical, even the main character is called Jeanette.

It is a debut novel, and it read like one. I felt some parts were disjointed, but there were moments of brilliance. The story is interspersed with sort of fantastic tales (some from Arthurian legend?), which although I enjoyed reading, I had trouble connecting with the main story line. And this is where I put my case about not being the target audience. It seems Winterson wrote this book with “her own people” as the audience in mind – mid England, working class, Christian. I was raised in quite traditional Catholic/Christian family and society, so the religious references I understood, but it’s hard to imagine anyone raised in other religions to “get it”. The English working class references I probably missed in much greater degree.

The point of reading is the access and ability to “jump” into people’s lives completely different from yours, which is what’s amazing about it. So I’m wondering, as a writer, should you make an effort to include people outside of your core audience? I don’t know the answer to that. But reading this book I couldn’t avoid the lingering feeling of being out of the circle, an unexpected audience on the side peeking in, and probably only got 50% of the in-jokes.

So to conclude, no, the book was not quite what I expected. But some parts of the book made me want to read more books by Winterson, especially the fantasy part. I liked her humour. It also reminded me of Amy Tan’s books, which just like Oranges, focus on primarily mother daughter relationship, while father’s role remains minuscule, if any. As Jeanette ruminates in the book: “As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless.” – p126

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

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 (!)

No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter, and the 2016 London Play

 

no man's land
No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter, first produced and published in 1975

I read this play for the 2016 London play starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. It seemed a very good timing to read this script by Harold Pinter – a Nobel prize winner in literature in 2005, and tick him off my Nobel project. I never heard of Pinter prior to hearing about the London play, and seems the libraries also have already forgotten about him, because it took me a lot of effort to procure a copy of this play. I finally found it tucked in a compilation of plays – the only copy I found in the whole Westminster libraries.

I wondered why it was so hard to find his plays in his own country (that’s the United Kingdom), if he was the Nobel prize winner in literature. After reading, I started to think I understand why. I can’t see how this could become popular outside a very niche literary circle.

No Man’s Land is an absurdist play. Plucking from Wikipedia: Absurdist fiction is a genre of fictional narrative (traditionally, literary fiction), most often in the form of a novel, play, poem, or film, that focuses on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value.”

Does that sound like a lot of nonsense? Yeah I think so too. Looking at Wiki, I have apparently read some absurdist fiction, namely Camus, Kafka, and Murakami, but probably as they were all in prose form, it didn’t feel as absurd as in the form of play. This is probably the first time I read an absurdist play, so apology if I sound amateurish. Waiting for Godot has been on my to-read list, and I’m interested to learn more about it.

As you can probably guess, there’s not much plot in No Man’s Land, as it is all about the dialogue. There are four characters. Two main characters in their sixties: Spooner and Hirst, and another two secondary male characters in their forties and thirties. Spooner is visitor to the wealthy Hirst’s mansion. Just by reading, I could already guess that Ian McKellen would be Spooner, and Patrick Stewart as Hirst. Something about Spooner not being very well dressed :)

I don’t have a lot to say about the script itself, and rated it 3/5. But the performance really made a difference. So continuing to…

The 2016 London Play

no man's land

In the stage, everything made more sense to me. There were cues from the audience on the supposedly funny bits – and it just dawned on me that it’s a comedy. I guess I had an inkling while reading, but it wasn’t just the dialogue, the physical movement of the characters and the comedic timing made it all come alive.

I loved Ian McKellen in particular. I had a lot more sympathy for the Spooner character on stage than on paper. On paper he often seemed to lose his mind as much as his “friend”, but on stage he was a kind person, humoring old Hirst who is, plainly, bonkers. The other two younger men, Foster and Briggs, are the ones who are less kind, and seem to just keep Hirst company because of his wealth and big house. Foster may be Hirst’s son or secretary, Briggs is another person working in the house, and on stage it seemed clearer that they may be lovers (which I didn’t get at all by reading).

So a lot of it for me was an exercise of interpreting one format into another, how performance, gestures, expressions change the impact of words on paper. It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed the play on stage a lot more than reading the script. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were a huge bonus. I loved them! The duo reminded me of Magneto and Professor X, or Gandalf and Picard. Patrick Stewart in particular was a definite reminiscence of Professor X, as he spent most of his time sitting down on stage. Ian McKellen was more Gandalf-like, a wanderer and waved his hands a lot. So sweet to seem them play together. I like to think they’re friends in real life.

Play on stage rating: 4.5/5

pinter_postcard
Harold Pinter

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Tamara Drewe and Aya of Yop City (Graphic Novels)

Tamara Drewe – Posy Simmonds (2007)

tamara drewe

I watched Tamara Drewe the movie many years ago, remember liking it, and thought I wouldn’t mind reading the graphic novel to see it in different format. So I took it when I saw it at the library.

The setting is charming: a writer’s retreat somewhere in England countryside, where writers go to have all services done – meal, cleaning, laundry presumably, leaving them all the time in the world to ponder and write. I can only imagine how much this may cost.

In the oldest story structure style of a stranger coming to town, Tamara Drewe is a former inhabitant of the small town who went to make a pretty successful writing career in London, now back to her old family house with a nose job and glamorous London life under her belt. At one point she even starts bringing a drummer boyfriend who’s been in a band!

This feels like a really grown-up graphic novel. Simmonds often write in prose and paragraphs with illustrations on the side, in addition to the usual comic panels. The characters and conflicts in the story are realistic and down to earth. The open marriage relationship between the married couple host of the retreat is particularly interesting and believable – all the characters are. Love how all the threads come together at the end. The literary backdrop is a bonus.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (2009)

aya 2

Aya of Yop City is the second book in the Aya series. It picks up a story thread from the previous book – which I read years ago, so it took me a while to remember. The premise isn’t complicated however, so it almost doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the first Aya or not.

The series is set in the idyllic Ivory Coast in the late 1970s. It seems rare to find books set in Africa that are not about bad things happening, and Aya fills in that gap. I love how it just tells the story of average middle class people with their middle class problems – that felt like it could happen anywhere in the world, except that this is in Africa.

But in some other ways it also felt uniquely African. There’s a baby in dispute at the beginning of the book (as pictured with Aya on the cover – but he is not Aya’s baby), and I love how the baby being passed from one hand to another and is essentially taken care of by the whole village. There’s a little note at the end of the book about the African culture related to this, how spoiled a woman would be after birth, how mom and grandmother would take care of her, while sisters, sister-in-laws, cousins would take care of the baby, and the rest of the women in the village help with the cooking and cleaning. In the weeks following, the mother would go from one door to another in the neighborhood to introduce the baby, sort of a ritual to make it part of the community. As it grows up, the whole village would keep watch together. Such a nice image.

Aya herself is a great main character. She is the sensible one amongst the other crazier characters. She is a good student and she clearly has dreams and goals for her future that is not simply playing housewife. Just like book one, book two also includes a recipe, this time Kedjenou Chicken. (I have yet to try the recipe in the first book =/ )

There’s interview with Abouet (who’s migrated to France at a young age) at the back of the book with a quote that’s especially poignant even to this day:

“As an African from the West, I would like to point out that the French had the black Africans brought over to do the jobs that no on else wanted to do. As long as the Blacks stayed in their assigned place – as supermarket attendants, house maids, street sweepers, in child and geriatric care, or at most, as artists and athletes – all went very well. But now some of the offspring and young children of those first arrivals are doing more than that. At the price of a difficult struggle, they are becoming company owners, managers, intellectuals, and they are more visible. These Blacks sense more discrimination because they have abandoned their role. This kind of racism is more frequent when the economy is doing poorly.

Today’s real danger is not idiotic racism and the increase in nationalists. We know how to deal with it — it is evident in ordinary attitudes which convey the worst paternalistic and condescending cliches that symbolically destroy Blacks even more surely than the overtly racist insults.” (Interview with Angela Ajayi at Wild River Review)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

The Dover Road (Play by A.A. Milne) – Jermyn Street Theatre

the-dover-road-poster

Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book’s post I was made aware of this delightful 1922 play by A. A. Milne. Bought the ticket just 2 days in advance, and strolled along to Piccadilly Circus Friday after work. This is exactly the kind of time that makes me so grateful and happy to live in London and work in Soho.

I wonder why I didn’t know about the existence of Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is a tiny 70-seaters basement theatre in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and it seems magical that it survives. It was like entering a different world as soon as you step into the theatre. It’s so small that the seats are only 4 rows and the stage is on the same level as the first row, so you can walk around the stage set- and you most probably would, as the toilets are at the back of the stage.

I’ve never seen and read A.A. Milne’s plays – so this is the first for me (I loved Winnie the Pooh series) and I really enjoyed it. Agree with Simon that the cast was just perfect. And having seen many plays in big theatres, I realised how different, how more personal, and how much I enjoyed small theatre. You can actually see people’s faces and expressions, the voices were loud and clear, and in some scenes the actors were literally 2 metres away from me and I could see all the beautiful details of the props. I promised myself to go to small theatres more, and to go back to Jermyn Street Theatre when I see anything of interest.

The plot moved swiftly in The Dover Road – unlike some plays I’ve seen that seemed to take forever to build the first act. A couple find themselves stuck in the middle of the road to Dover (Dover is where you take ferry to France) in a place that could be a hotel, or a private house. It’s quickly revealed that the woman isn’t the man’s wife, and that the host of the house Mr Latimer isn’t going to just let them go on their way easily. He suggests that the couple, Leonard and Anne, stay for a few days to sort of test-drive their future life together, which would give them time and chance to reconsider if the need arises. Soon it’s revealed that Leonard’s wife is also in the house with her beau, experiencing the same formulae, just starting a week earlier.

Since I knew absolutely nothing about the play, the beginning almost seemed like a mystery or horror (a strange house with strange people that seem oddly prepared for the couple’s arrival), while Mr Latimer seemed slightly sinister with his hobby to detain couple in his house until they are “enlightened”. But it’s none of those things, as this is a comedy – and a thoughtful one at that, as it explores the silliness of romantic love and marriage.

The quadruple in conundrum aspect reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest I saw last year. After seeing The Dover Road, I’m thinking the abundance of wittiness in Earnest was almost too distracting. Milne doesn’t play too much with words, but it’s equally smart and funny. It did feel more modern (Earnest is almost 30 years older) and that possibly made it more digestible. I have full intention to read this play or Milne’s other plays in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Guardian’s The Dover Road review

 

1984 – George Orwell

1984

I might be one of the last people on earth that had not read 1984. I ony read Animal Farm a few years back. Absolutely loved it. Since then I’ve been reading a few of his essays here and there. I’m a huge fan of Orwell. I know he’s not a terribly literary type of writer, and some people may disagree with his style of writing with a political purpose, but I’m inclined more to his side rather than the other extreme of “art for art’s sake”.

In his essay Why I Write (1946) – which I read a while back, but it really made an impression on me even though it’s only a few pages long – he mentions 4 great motives for writing prose for any author. The last point is political purpose – “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

From the get go I roughly knew what 1984 was about. A dystopian novel was my impression. And it is. But it is bolder and even more political than what I imagined – almost like a political essay dressed in a novel. The scary thing is, it’s still as relevant today than it was when it’s first published in 1949. North Korea definitely came to mind. In fact, just the weekend after I finished the book, I met someone from Angola who told many stories about how she and her family went through the communist regime – which lasts to this day. A lot of what she described was very similar with what is described in 1984.

From pop culture point of view, I’m glad to have read the origin of things like Big Brother, Room 101, and doublespeak. It’s amazing how the book has penetrated many aspects of society and culture, and not just Western society, as I remember an occasion when an author from a communist regime at a literary event told the story of how 1984 was the book that everyone was smuggling between revolutionaries. It’s like a secret code. A shorthand for the worst society humanity could possibly become. But it’s not a mere distant possibility, not just a cautionary tale. Some elements are too familiar. They make you realise how easy it is for humanity to slip into this kind of regime – and in fact it does exist in some parts of the world, at different times perhaps, but it never totally goes away. We are still part of the 1984 world! The book is important in many ways, and there is still no other book like it.

Another quote to close this, again from Why I Write, at the very end: “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” 

I feel like he allows me to have a political purpose in my own writing. Thank you Orwell.

Mee’s Rating: 5/5

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