1984 – George Orwell


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

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.)


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.


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.


Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih

season of migration to the north
Sudan, first published in 1966, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies

Season of Migration to the North is a post-colonial book by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese writer. The book is first published in Arabic in 1966, and translated to English in 1969. My edition is the NYRB classics with introduction by Laila Lalami (who’s born and raised in Morocco) and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Sudan became independent from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, and these two countries comes up again and again in the book – becoming almost as an important setting as Sudan itself.

And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances
And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances

We can sense the post-colonialism theme from the beginning as we meet the narrator who just comes back to Sudan after an extended period of studying in Europe. The narrator is never named, and at the end of the book, I’m not even sure if he is a reliable one. Through his eyes, we learn the story of an enigmatic man in the village called Mustafa Sa’eed. Just like the Narrator, Mustafa has also studied and lived in England for a period of time. The difference is that, while for the Narrator his experience abroad doesn’t seem to have much effect on him, Mustafa’s adventures have gone to the extreme, which includes several women and the demise of them.

The book is rich and multi-layered, and would definitely trigger a lot of discussions if you read it in a book group (luckily I did). But on the flip side, there are a couple of very violent scenes, including psychotic behaviors, and I’m not sure what is the purpose of them. I wonder whether the shock factor is a big part of what made the book as well known as it is. Especially that it came out from Sudan – a Muslim country. Though perhaps it indicates a contrast between Islam of the 60s with the Islam of now? On that note, I like how Islam works more like a backdrop in the book rather than center stage, and how the author didn’t feel the need to always explain for Western audience. (There are times when this would be useful in other books of course, but it’s also refreshing to find varying style.)

When a book comes with the so-called Introduction I always leave it for last, as I’m a bit paranoid about spoilers. In this case with Laila Lalami’s introduction it was the right choice (again!) as she goes to summarise everything that happens in the book. But it’s a great “introduction” and I recommend it if you have that edition. Lalami had the advantage as she read the text in the original language Arabic and English, and was able to compare them. Not many Arabic books get to be so successfully translated. I thought the translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was amazing, and Lalami thought highly also of the collaboration between Sayih and Johnson-Davis to translate the book.

She noted that Season of Migration isn’t the first book in which a writer of color has decided to “write back” to the empire, but it is unique in that it is written in the author’s native language, rather than the colonial one. “Indeed Salih stands out among African writers of his generation for his insistence on continuing to use Arabic in spite of having lived the majority of his life outside of Sudan. ‘It’s a matter of principle,’ he once told an interviewer.” This really contrasts with the opinion of Wole Soyinka.

Interesting aspect to highlight, considering many books, if not all, that I’ve been reading by African writers in recent years have used the colonial language (just to mention a few: Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka – English, Kamel Daoud – French). 

Season left me with conflicting reactions, but it is short, it’s readable, it’s a classic from a region whose literature isn’t available widely in English, so I think it’s worth reading.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 

tayeb salih
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009)


A Room with a View – E. M. Forster

room with a view  emforster

A Room with a View was published in 1908, and my copy is the above beautiful Penguin English Library edition. I read this following the Edx course with BerkeleyX Book Club. BerkeleyX has focused on a few books for their book club programme, but this is the first time when the timing was right for me. It doesn’t quite work like traditional book club – at least not for me – as I found the discussion thread format a bit clunky and not easy to view (This is however on the hands of Edx, not BerkeleyX), so I didn’t join any conversation. But I like how the course provides background information for the book.

The first third of the book is set in Florence, Italy – and this setting is a crucial part in building the story. The protagonist is Lucy, a young English girl who is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone, a (much) older cousin. In a pension (inn) full of English abroad, Lucy meets father and son pair, who are deemed by many of their fellow English to be too brash. But deep inside Lucy holds a different opinion, and finds their direct personality refreshing. In fact it is more than that as she starts to fall for the son, George..

(On a side note, Lucy seems a favorite name for young naive girl in that period of England. It reminds me of Lucy in Dracula. Lucy this, Lucy that. Poor Lucy. Everybody seems to always tell Lucy what to do.)

The contrast of Italy and England settings is emphasised, as in the second part of the book we are back in England, where stuffiness is paramount, where things always have to be proper, and Lucy is engaged to a man who she thinks is right. The contrast is played quite obviously throughout the book: Italy vs England, holiday time vs real life, the lively guy who isn’t quite “the right sort” vs the serious man who is, and of course, heart vs mind. In its essence though A Room with a View is a love story, so I think it’s better if one is prepared for that from the beginning (I was).

This is my first time reading E. M. Forster, and I’m not quite sure yet whether I could connect with his writing. There’s some humour in A Room with a View, but I always caught it a few seconds too late. (one.. two.. “Aah.. it’s a joke..” late smile..) I like the sound of his other books, such as A Passage to India and Maurice, or even Howards End. So I can see at least reading another one of his books before deciding whether he’s for me or not.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

A Room with A View – the movie (1985)

Room_with_a_View film

I watched the movie straight after the book and it was fabulous. I probably liked the movie more than the book. A lovely Merchant Ivory production, it features impressive casts, including young Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, Maggie Smith as the older cousin, and Judi Dench even made a small appearance. The male actors however, seem to have sunk into obscurity since then? I don’t know any of them.

The biggest surprise for me was Helena Bonham Carter, whose younger self I had never seen prior to this movie. She was so sweet looking then (as opposed to her charisma today as a gothic looking woman). Now I’d really like to see more of her old films.

The film won 3 Oscars in 1987 for Best Writing by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (one of the Merchant Ivory trio), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design, and received nominations for Best Picture (Ismail Merchant), Best Director (James Ivory), Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith), and Best Cinematography. Very critically acclaimed it seems. Worth watching.

Mee’s rating: 8/10


The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

the waiting years

Continuing my Japanese book strikes, my first book of 2016 is The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi. I read this together with the Japanese Literature book group on GR. It won the most votes out of the 5 books I proposed, and coincidentally it was probably the one I wanted to read the most, so it worked out nicely :).

Just a couple of dozens pages in, I was already surprised how quickly the plot was laid out. Somehow I was expecting it to be a slow read. The book is set in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). It started with Tomo – wife of a high Japanese official – looking for a young girl to be brought home. For what purpose, it was clear to the reader: to be a second woman, or a concubine, but it was never said out loud among the characters. Unlike some other cultures, there was not an official concubine role in this society, as the man does not marry the girl. And I mean it when I said “girl”, because they were looking for a 15 year-old, inexperienced girl. The fact that the girl is underage made a very uncomfortable read to my modern eyes, probably more than any other issues that appear throughout the book.

The book kept surprising me throughout. I anticipated it to concentrate on catty rivalries between Tomo and the new girl, Suga, in the style of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (which I have not read, so I may be totally off, however Wikipedia mentions that Nagai Kafu was in young Enchi’s reading list). But it’s not. There would be more women coming into the house later on, but all the female characters get along with each other, for the most parts. How they behave felt very realistic, and to me showed how women behave in real life more than TV dramas. Hint: I’m not a fan of Asian TV dramas. I don’t like how in them people behave in such outrageous, outlandish, exaggerated manners.

In this book, the women are dignified and logical in handling what life gives them. I loved that we get very close into the heads of the women, offering insights that I never felt I got when I read the other big name Japanese authors – who happen to be mostly male. As far as I remember, the female characters in books written by Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Kobo Abe, or Mishima even, are all very distant and aloof, and we never really get into their heads. It’s hard to see them pass their outwardly submissive demeanour.

In the Waiting Years, though the women may still look to be submissive, there’s a lot of internal conflicts and struggles, and there’s anger that bubbles up in the characters, which is obviously Enchi’s own feminist views of the system. And that brought me to conclude, that this book I think could only be written by a woman, and I’m thankful Fumiko Enchi gave voices to these women and made them real. It’s an interesting portrait of Japanese culture at a particular time from a point of view that we rarely get.

I was wavering between 4.5 and 5 stars, but the ending pushed it over the edge. It’s incredibly powerful, and so sad that I shed some tears.

During the reading, I coincidentally found a beautiful second hand copy of Masks – another popular book by Enchi, which I look forward to reading sometime.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

Fumiko Enchi – finally, a favorite Japanese female author! (I really don’t like Banana Yoshimoto. I couldn’t stand her books.)

This also concludes Japanese Literature Challenge 9. From June 2015 to January 2016, I read 3 Japanese books:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

A very successful challenge I must say! Considering my Japanese literature reading had been zero for the past few years. Will I continue the strikes? The books did whet my appetite for more, but on the other hand I have a lot of (reading) projects going on. Perhaps I will wait until June to continue again. See you in JLC 10 :)

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!

Slouching Towards Betlehem by Joan Didion


Slouching Towards Betlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that were written between 1961 to 1968, the collection itself published in 1968. I heard the name Joan Didion thrown a lot, and this is my first time reading her book. I chose this, first because of this Great Courses, secondly because I happened to see it at a secondhand bookshop — an Oxfam in York (a pretty odd place to find it actually).

My first mistake was that I read this on my way to New York, having connected Didion and New York in my head, only to find that the essays were not about New York at all, but about California — which is a completely different beast.

The collection is divided into 3 sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. I somewhat liked the very first essay titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, about a woman who’s accused of murdering a husband in a burning car, wrapped in the theme of losing your dream.

But after that it just kept going down hill for me. I experienced the same frustration that I had reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: there are way too many American culture references that went over my head. And it’s not just any American culture, it’s American culture in the 1960s, and even Californian culture in the 1960s. Some authors write for the world as their audience, but with Didion you can tell she wrote only for her fellow Americans, and familiarity with the culture and the setting was assumed, taken for granted. I am definitely not the target audience of these essays.

The title story Slouching Towards Betlehem is something to do with the decline of San Fransisco. Lots of drugs references, so again, not for me. I was really hoping that I could relate more with the Personals section, but it didn’t really happen either. Was it her writing? – I wondered.

It was somewhat redeemed by the very last essay: Goodbye to All That. In many ways, this is the essay and the Didion I was expecting when I started reading the book on my flight to New York. It’s about young Didion trying to survive in New York, and after a few years, finally decided to leave it all.

“Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Fransisco, but because I’m talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” 

“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”

(The wiki mentioned that as of 2005 Didion came back to live in New York to this day. Does it mean she’s become the “very rich”? :)

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite the same way again.”

But at the end…

“There is no possible, no adequate answer to that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.”

I could relate with this. Her New York is my London. I too thought I would stay a year, and ended up staying five years, and counting. I too fell in Love with London at the first sight, like none of the other cities that came before it. And I always think that I won’t be able to afford to stay in London forever, nobody does, except for the very rich of course. I haven’t got to that point yet, but maybe someday.

Mee’s rating: 3/5 – An uneven collection of essays for me, so I can only give it average rating.


In his course Prof Grant L. Voth compared Didion a lot with Truman Capote. I somehow never thought Didion and Capote as contemporaries — Capote seemed older and his books are more often considered classics. Perhaps because he died a while ago while Didion is still alive? For that reason I’m counting this for my Classics project as I have already put In Cold Blood on the list. It will be interesting to compare their literary journalism style when I get to Capote.

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