Tag Archives: classic

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)


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.


Fictions — Borges / The Ice Palace — Vesaas

Fictions / Ficciones — Jorge Luis Borges

Fictions - BorgesBorges

Last year, I read two short stories by Borges (The Garden of Forking Paths and Emma Zunz), and this time I plunged into his full short story collection: Fictions (Ficciones), while finishing up Coursera’s The Fiction of Relationship course that I started last year. (I have one more book to go out of the 10 units of reading, a bit proud of that!)

My mind was blown away by Borges. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before. Some parts were a bit hard to read, and some sounded “technical”, but all the stories were so so refreshing, and different. It is definitely not a quick read and I don’t think you can/should rush it. Though Borges wouldn’t admit it, for me Ficciones is a book of ideas. It’s bursting with ideas and imagination. All the stories are only short (few pages long), but they pack a punch.

My favorite stories are: The Circular Ruins, The Lottery of Babylon, and Funes, His Memory. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, and I can see myself re-reading it in the years ahead.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Ice Palace — Tarjei Vesaas

The Ice Palace - VesaasVesaas

The Ice Palace was also something that I read to finish up Brown University’s The Fiction of Relationship (if you want to know, the last book I have yet to read out of the 10 units is Beloved by Toni Morrison so look out for that soon-ish). It is translated from Norwegian, first published in 1963, and considered to be one of the classics in Norwegian literature.

I read The Sibyl by Pär Lagerkvist last year and fell in love head over heels for it, so I was happy to take a stab at another Scandinavian literature (pardon me for grouping all Scandinavian countries together, but I have very limited contact with the region in general). Unfortunately it fell a bit short of my high expectation. I didn’t like The Ice Palace nearly as much as The Sibyl, and even though the book is short I found it almost a slog to go through.

The Ice Palace tells the story of Siss and Unn, two friends who have only spent one evening in each other’s company, and the next day Unn is gone missing. The whole village is looking, and Siss feels extreme guilt that she might be the reason Unn has ventured off her usual paths. The setting here plays a big role, as it is a place that is cold, sparse, and has very short day light. The frozen waterfall (the one called the ice palace) is an important figure in the story, and its foreboding presence seems to be in the center of events and everyone’s mind.

Part of my problem with it was that I never quite figured out what was going on between Siss and Unn, not even after listening to the Prof’s lectures. I don’t understand the whole point of the story, and reading it was akin to an experience of walking in the fog. Or maybe in the snowy cold. It was all a bit blurry, and looking back you’re not quite sure what you just pass by.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

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

The Rest of the First Half of 2014

I believe I’m getting my reading groove back. Not to the level of my highest record in 2009 with 57 books (I wasn’t working in the first half of the year then), but hopefully to a decent level, relatively decent, considering my meager record in the past few years.

I also intend to take more time in writing my thoughts again about the books I’ve read. I haven’t been doing very well on this, again in the past few years. I won’t do book-per-book review as religiously as before, but I realized how important it is to step back and formulate my thoughts about what I read, and write at least a little about them. Pause, step back, think, write, instead of reading reading reading like an unstoppable train (!?). No matter how much impression you get out of a book, no matter how you think you’d remember it forever, you do forget. At times I even have a hard time remembering books that I read in the same year.

So I will try to write more when I can, but when I can’t, I’ll have a quick rundown like this post. Here are the books that I’ve read in the first half of the year but have not got the spotlight:

Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie


I’m never a fan of detective stories, and I’ve only read 2 Agatha Christie books in the past, way way back in Indonesia, when I was in high school. I remember liking them, but I was just never compelled to read more, even though there were tons of Christie’s books in my library, rows and rows of her black books.

I spotted Murder on the Orient Express on Kindle daily deal, and I was traveling in Turkey at the time, so it was the perfect time to devour this one. As you might know, the Orient Express was a long distance train running from London to Istanbul (discontinued in 2009). I can’t imagine the more perfect timing, reading it in Turkey, and possibly also on my flight back to London. I love how I really got all the geography references in the book (including Syria where the train started).

The story itself was quite enjoyable. There is a murder of course, then the train breaks down, leaving everyone trapped with a murderer. Hercule Poirot is on the case, having to weed the culprit out of the twelve passengers in the carriage. I could not guess the murderer, but I don’t read a lot of detective stories.

This is London — Miroslav Sasek


This picture book by Czech M. Sasek was absolutely delightful. It was first published in 1959, and there’s a whole series done by the same author (This is Britain, This is Paris, This is Rome, This is New York, etc) which I’m keeping my eyes on. I absolutely adore the illustrations. Such a great classic.

Fun Home — Alison Bechdel

Fun home cover

Fun Home is an autobiography in graphic novel format (really, my favorite type of biography, and my favorite type of graphic novel), about how Alison deals with her father’s closeted homosexuality, and eventually her own.

This book is a good example of me forgetting, and it wasn’t even that long ago. I’d been wanting to read Fun Home forever, and finally did. I remember it as being quite dense and complex with lots of literary and philosophy references. I liked it, but wonder now if it’s because I felt like I had to, or because I really did.

Things Fall Apart — Chinua Achebe

things fall apart

I’d also been meaning to read Things Fall Apart for ages, and was glad when I finally got to it. There’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


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

Mee’s Summer Reading 2013

Since I am way way way behind in blogging about books read and all bookish things that happened in the past 3 month, I’m just going to write about them in one giant post. And I just realized those 3 months were summer (coincidence?), so I can call them summer reading!

Books Read

Frankenstein — Mary Shelley (England/Europe, 1818,  4/5)

I liked Frankenstein, a lot more than Dracula, which I did not like very much. It seems that most people either like one or the other. I’m definitely on Frankenstein side. Also if you read a little about Mary Shelley’s life, it is as shocking and as interesting as her story.


Metamorphosis — Franz Kafka (German, 1915, 4.5/5)

Metamorphosis is my first Kafka, finally. Well the first was actually his short story called A Country Doctor, which I read just before Metamorphosis, but it was a 5-page short story. Metamorphosis is rather short too, around 90 pages. I thought it was amazing story about a man waking up as a giant insect. I got the impression that it was going to be depressing, and it was at the end, but overall I thought it was hilarious. I will need to read more Kafka!

The Night Bookmobile — Audrey Niffenegger (US, 2010, 4/5)

An illustrated book by Audrey Niffenegger about a woman who stumbles upon a mobile library, in which there is everything she’s ever read in her life. Wow it’s so dark and depressing at the end, that I’m not sure what the whole point of the book is. The story is just a bit strange. But there’s a lot of work put into the book as she illustrates it herself using various art techniques.

don quixote comic

Don Quixote (graphic novel, vol 1) — Cervantes, illustrated by Rob Davis (Spain, 2011, 4/5)

As I imagine I won’t get into the real Don Quixote anytime soon, I jumped at the chance to read the graphic novel. The illustration is lovely and colorful – I really liked it. The story however seems a bit pointless, about a disillusioned old man and his servant-like mate. I’d probably need to read the real book to get the layers of the story. Don Quixote is still amazingly popular in Spain, as proven by my trips to Spain, so I’m curious.

Watchmen — Alan Moore (fantasy world, 1987, 3/5)

What a DENSE graphic novel! I’m not sure if I’ve read a graphic novel as dense as that. Apart from the comic style pages, there are also pages of writing, in newspaper clip style or letter. It took me forever to read Watchmen, and at the end I speed read it, because I could not stand it not-finished any longer. I know this is a very important graphic novel — it’s in one of Time’s All-Time 100 Novels, but I got impatient. I watched the movie after that and I’d probably recommend most people to just watch the movie. The movie stays very true to the book, and nicely directed (Zack Snyder). Watch the Director’s Cut (around 3.5 hours, while the cinema version is far shorter than that) to get more details from the book, including the meta-comic.

To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf (England, 1927, 3/5)

It is my first Woolf, so I’m happy that I finished it, and at least understood most of it. I probably wouldn’t ever be able to get through the book without Prof Weinstein’s lectures on Coursera though, so if you’re struggling, I’d recommend getting his lectures on Coursera’s Fiction of Relationship, and you can sort of read alongside the lectures (there are many of them). My advice is if there’s a paragraph that you don’t understand after reading a couple of times, KEEP GOING! Don’t obsessed and get stuck over one paragraph. In the bigger scheme of things, it really does not matter, and you’ll be glad once you get to the end and able to see the book as a whole.

The Invisible Man — H. G. Wells (England, 1897, 3/5)

Apart from Fiction of Relationship in Coursera, I am also following Fantasy and Science Fiction course, by Prof Rabkin. The reading list is interesting. There are many that I wouldn’t read by myself, so I’m glad to be able to broaden my reading horizon (the same as true for Fiction of Relationship). In one of the weeks the reading list includes all H. G. Wells: 2 novels and 2 short stories. I didn’t know how important Wells was in SF. He is often compared with Jules Verne, as they were from the same era, but as explained in the lectures, Verne is purely entertainment, while Wells questions social and political issues in his writing.

In Invisible Man, Wells created a man that because of a personal scientific experiment has turned invisible. And he can’t go back. Since I read this so close to Frankenstein, I saw some similarity, like how the two main characters are rejected by the society and turn bad as a result. I guess that’s the end of the similarity, because I didn’t enjoy Invisible Man as much. The description of actions tire me, and I kept waiting for deeper discussions of life like in Frankenstein, which does not happen in Invisible Man.

A Grief Observed — C. S. Lewis (1961, 3/5)

I feel the need to say that this book was given by a friend, who asked me to read this favorite book of his, so I felt compelled to read it. I might appreciate the book more if I were at different stage of life, but as it was, it didn’t speak to me in any profound way. I have long left any discussions of God and Christianity IRL, and therefore found the discussion here about God, his intentions and afterlife to be heavy handed.

C.S. Lewis wrote books journalling his thoughts after the death of his wife of 4 years, referred to here as H. I’m just glad that they edited much of it, and left a thin 60-page large-font book, as I wouldn’t have much patience for longer book about wallowing in grief. I feel a bit bad for not thinking higher of the book given the sad subject matter and the circumstances of my reading it, but as I said, in another time I could’ve taken it differently


The Island of Doctor Moreau — H. G. Wells (1896, 3.5/5)

In the Island of Dr Moreau, Wells plays with the idea of turning beasts into men. Our narrator is someone who got stranded in an island, where he meets two other men, one of them Moreau. Later finding shows how Dr Moreau has been experimenting with animals and turning them into imperfect human that is more half man half beast. Interesting premise, but after reading 2 books by Wells, I’m pretty clear that I don’t fall in love with his writing. His ideas are great, but his writing just doesn’t evoke much in me.

ps: Don’t even look for the movie. It seems to be really bad from what people say. I just some pictures, and the effects don’t impress me too.

Short Stories

Been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne (Before I started I didn’t know he is also well known for his short stories, some are mentioned as early conception of Science Fiction. I only knew he wrote Scarlet Letter prior to this.), Edgar Allan Poe (never quite like Poe. Maybe I’m just not into psychopathic behaviors?), Flannery O’Connor, John Updike,  more H. G. Wells (I kinda liked the two I read: The Country of the Blind and The Star), Gustave Flaubert, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Hemingway.

I got little sparks from Borges so I’ll be reading more. Flaubert, possibly. I’m eyeing Madame Bovary.

Currently Reading

Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember John Carter? Also, did you know that Burroughs wrote Tarzan? Yeah, I didn’t know too!)

Great Expectations by Dickens via Dailylit, sent daily to my mail, which I try to read first thing in the morning on the way to work for. I’ve been doing this for a few months now, and I’m over a third in. I’m happy that it works. I don’t think I would be able to do it reading it like normal book to be honest. It is very very long, and in spite of the interesting bits, there are more boring bits.

On the Pipe

I probably shouldn’t mention much in fear that I would jinx it, but if all goes according to plan I’ll be reading Herland — Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Old Man and the Sea — Hemingway, and the Martian Chronicles — Ray Bradbury.

I can’t believe how much I’m reading considering how little I did for the last couple of years. I think I probably needed more structure and direction in my reading, and I’ve got them, thanks to the Profs and Coursera.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...