The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree – Tove Jansson

Stories first published in 1962

I first discovered Moomin when I moved to the UK. For some reason Moomin never made its way to South East Asia, or even Australia, though it seems to be big in Japan. I immediately found the hipo-like creatures to be adorable, and went to buy some merchandise – mug, soft toy, postcards, shirt, notebook, even when I hadn’t known the stories of Moomin at all. My other encounter was when I went to Helsinki and didn’t know that Finland was where Moomin was from. I brought and wore my Moomin shirt, in Moomin land, by coincidence! It was an odd feeling looking at all the shops with Moomin stuffs, while wearing the Moomin shirt. People must’ve thought it was on purpose. Well the surprise was on me!

I read Tove Jansson’s non-Moomin book The Summer Book last year and absolutely loved it, so I know I like her writing. Moomin however has many books in the series, so as always the case with me, when that happens, I don’t know where to start. I’d be too anxious to even start, or to start with any book that is not the first in the series. (The big reason I have not read Émile Zola…)

This book came at a fortunate time. It’s published by Sort of Books in support Oxfam. Costs £4.99 and ‘at least £4 from each book bought goes to Oxfam projects supporting women and girls worldwide’. It’s a beautiful hardback copy too. I buy a lot of books and at times don’t feel very good about it, but this kind of purchase surely makes all you warm and fuzzy inside, hah.

The book contains two stories, which became my first introduction to Moomin stories. They’re taken from Tales from Moominvalley collection (which is #7 in the series according to Goodreads), first published in 1962. The Invisible Child is a story about a child that literally became invisible out of sadness by her own mother, and she is dropped to join the Moomin family. The Moomin family of course tries their best to bring the child back to being visible again. As this is originally a latter tale, you are assumed to know the characters, which I didn’t, and I had to look up. But it’s not a big deal.

The second story is surprisingly Christmasy. I bought the book a couple of months before, and didn’t know there’s a Christmas story inside. To read it around Christmas time was perfect. In The Fir Tree the Moomin family was waken up in Christmas time, which doesn’t seem to be a regular occurrence. Seems they usually sleep through Christmas and winter, because they have no idea what Christmas is, and that’s where all the comedy spins of.

The last part of the book is a gallery of all the Moomin characters, with illustrations. I love them all already with this thin book, and really hope to read more Moomin books soon. Also the Dulwich Picture Gallery is having a Tove Jansson exhibition which I plan to visit before it ends on 28 January 2018. Consider me a fan of Jansson! :)

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

 

Miss Julie – August Strindberg

 

I read Miss Julie (written in 1888) before the London performance at the lovely Jermyn Street Theatre in Piccadilly. This is my second time going to this tiny theatre, first being the The Dover Road, and it remained as charming as ever.

Miss Julie is the first play I read by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. It’s regarded as his masterpiece. I like to start an author with what is considered to be his masterpiece, really. Why start with anything less? I felt like I heard his name often, so I just checked whether he’s a Nobel prize winner and if I could tick off another from my Nobel project, but alas, he’s not. Wiki says that in 1909, Strindberg “lost” to Selma Lagerlöf – the first woman and the first Swede to win Nobel prize in Literature. That reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Gösta Berlings saga by Lagerlöf for a while. (As an aside, are you all just ecstatic as me for Kazuo Ishiguro?)

I read Miss Julie before seeing the performance, and I actually wasn’t sure about quite a few things on the play by just reading the script. And only after watching the stage play, my uncertainties were confirmed one way or another. For example, the script starts with a short description of the three characters: Miss Julia, age 25; ‘Jean’, the footman, age 30; Kristin, a cook. So it mentions the age of the first two characters, but not the third. Why? Is Kristin an old woman, as in too old to be paired with Jean? It took me a while to get that Kristin and Jean are together, while Miss Julie/Julia comes in between them.

This is really a perfect play for a small theatre like Jermyn Street. Thinking about it, they need to be very selective about the plays to run, and setting is probably the biggest factor, as they can’t afford to change setting mid play. Both Miss Julie and The Dover Road only uses a single setting. Miss Julie is set entirely in the kitchen (of an estate). The number of characters are crucial too I’m sure. Miss Julie has three characters, and The Dover Street four characters.

The story is so simple that it’s hard not to give anything away by summarising the plot. But like all good plays, the goodies are in the dialogue. There’s plenty of tension between classes (the old upstairs vs. downstairs). Miss Julie is in a way almost a caricature of an upper class. She’s  brash and feels entirely entitled. Jean is more interesting, seemingly firm in rejecting Miss Julie’s advances at first, but at the end turned into… a monster of such, with no regard for her whatsoever. But what could he do, being merely a footman, with life and livelihood depending entirely on the owner of the estate (Miss Julie’s father)? He is a really torn character, and seems to reflect Strindberg in some ways, as his first wife, Siri von Essen was a noblewoman and socially above his standing.

I found some elements to be shocking. And if it’s shocking to me in 2017, I wonder how shocking it was back in 1889! Apparently it was produced abroad, attacked by the critics, and 25 years passed before it was seen on stage on his native land.

My copy is the Penguin edition with three Strindberg plays: Father, Miss Julia, and Easter. I’ve decided to just read the one I was going to see, as it is a completely different experience between just reading the script and watching the play. And after doing this pairing a few times, it feels incomplete to do just the former (though I guess watching the play without reading the script is completely fine).

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Miss Julie – Jermyn Street Theatre

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Audible version, read by Helena Bonham Carter

I visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam back in 2011, the first time I came to Europe, and had been meaning to read the book since. I finally did, thanks to audio book. I listened to the 70th anniversary edition above, read by Helena Bonham Carter, and it was perfect. I really liked her reading.

As a side note, I recently just got into a series of audio books through audible. I tried listening to audio books in the past but but couldn’t get into it. This time I found a way that works for me, which is listening while reading the actual paper book. Might sound a bit odd for a lot of you, but for me I feel like I miss too much with just listening, and listening the words being spoken while reading makes the reading more interesting and lively. I don’t this for every book, but it worked great for this book. And because this book is a series of diary entries that are not too dense, I wasn’t too strict about the listening and reading combo, and sometimes just continued listening while walking.

Anyway it was a long winded way for me to say that this audio book was the perfect way to “read” it. Though I loved many aspects of the book, it is after all a diary of a young girl (Anne Frank was 13-15 years old at the time of writing), and I can see how reading diary entries of a young girl could be… tiresome? I myself wrote diary when I was her age, in a style that is not unlike her. In fact the diary reminded me so much of my own, that at times I was embarrassed for both of us, especially on subjects like boys, and all the assertions to be independent from our parents. Funny how a lot of young girls are alike, no matter where you are and which culture you are born into.

Obviously the similarities ended there, as Anne Frank’s circumstances were so extraordinary. The diary spans more than two years living in hiding, in such close confined space, with the same eight people. I can’t imagine it. On top of that she was at the age in which you begin to yearn exploring the world outside your home, to be independent away from your immediate family. Instead you are forced to be living 24/7 under the adults. How frustrating it must’ve been, and it shows in her diary.

The paperback that I read was given by a friend many years ago (above picture). Reading while listening gave me an extra insight into the different versions of the diary. According to the introduction of the audio book, there are sort of 3 different versions of the book. To simplify, my paperback is an edited version of the diary, while the audio book contains extra content.

You might already know that Anne Frank, her mother, and sister, and in fact everyone living in the secret annex did not survive, except for Anne’s father. The father found the diary after the war ended, and published it eventually as a book. In the first version he did edit out some parts that have anything to do with sex talks, and those that criticize or speak harshly about Anne’s mother in particular. The translations of the two editions are also slightly different, and I think the new translation is superior – more reason to choose the 70th anniversary edition.

Though some parts of the diary might be a bit boring than others, I’m thinking it’s impossible to read this book on its own merits, outside the context it is written in. It is an extraordinary testimony of a time and place, and of the life of a young girl living in it. There are millions of Jews suffered and died in that period, but there’s only one diary that survives and lives. Surely that speaks volume. Anne was articulate, witty, and thoughtful. She spoke of the future. I dreaded every chapter, the closer I came to the end, because I knew what awaits. Knowing the ending, I was slightly surprised how incredibly sad I was at the end. The diary ended abruptly, and the afterword gave a brief closure to the fate of everyone in the secret annex. I could hardly sleep the first night, and I thought about Anne for days afterwards. The thing that hit me the most is that they all died alone, away from each other, in stark contrast from living together in such close quarter for a long period of time. Dying alone seems the worst. It’s too sad, I have no word for it.

On a somewhat brighter note, Anne achieved what she wanted:

“I want to get on; I can’t imagine that I would have to lead the same sort of life as Mummy and Mrs Van Daan and all the women who do their work and are then forgotten. I must have something besides a husband and children, something that I can devote myself to! I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.”

And so does she go on living after her death. She’s been immortalized through her diary and people from all over the world reading her writing. If only she knew..

Mee’s rating: 5/5

 

 

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

First published in Italy in 2011. Published in English by Europa Editions in 2012. Translated by Ann Goldstein. I received my paperback copy from Europa Editions. Elena Ferrante is pseudonym and her real identity is kept secret. 

I had quite a high expectation going into this book, because of the popularity. And I can’t say it met my expectation.

My Brilliant Friend is set in 1950s Italy and features two female friends as the main characters. The prologue was intriguing. The “brilliant friend” is missing – or to be exact “taking off” without a trace. She’s mentioned as a computer programmer – which is what I do – so I thought this started great! I have never read a book with a female computer programmer as the main character.

But after the prologue – which is the most exciting bit about the book unfortunately – the readers are brought to the very beginning of the two friends relationship. Way way back to childhood, which takes about a quarter, then another three quarter of the book about their adolescence. This might be a matter of personal preference, but in general I’m very impatient reading about childhood and teenage-hood. I love classic children stories with multiple layers that serve adult readers too – if not more, but I avoid YA like a plague. I don’t have patience for it. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, the beginning part that tells Jane’s childhood to teenage-hood was the most boring part for me too. I wish it was cut altogether. And My Brilliant Friend is exactly that part – the part which I think should be cut if talking about Jane Eyre!

Hard to believe I’d say this about a book, but I also found the narration way too linear. I wonder if I’d been reading too many convoluted books? How could I complain that a narration is way too linear? But it is! It literally goes from one small event to another in chronological order. There’s no flash forward or flash back (apart from the prologue), it’s point a to b to c to d to e – a long tedious Beverly Hills 90210 style, with a web of not very distinguished characters (friends, brothers, sisters) hooking up with each other. The similar names really didn’t help. There are Rino, Nino, and Gino. Really? Even the two main characters are called Lila – sometimes Lina, and Lenu – or Elena. There’s a big list of character names at the beginning of the book, which I referred to a lot at first, but gave up after a while, because I stopped caring. I was bored. Halfway through I switched to audio book and continued on audio. I doubt I’d finish it without the audio book.

So yeah, I can’t say I liked this book very much. I suspect the next books are probably better and where all the juicy bits are, but at the moment it seems very unlikely for me to continue to the next ones in the series. I may try Ferrante’s other shorter books, but I don’t have a definite plan now. I read they’re going to make TV series based on this, I may just watch that.

Underwhelmed.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

My Brilliant Friend on audible

Dance by the Light of the Moon – Judith Vanistendael

Published in English in 2010 by Self Made Hero (first published in Belgium, 2007)

I went to a panel of European Graphic Novelists a couple of years ago at the British Library (wrote a little about here), and one of the panelists was Belgian author Judith Vanistendael. Her semi-biographical graphic novel based on her own experience falling in love with a refugee piqued my interest, and I still remembered it as I saw this book at my library one day.

It’s quite surreal reading it now and felt how timely it is, what with the refugee crisis all around us. The book was actually published in 2007, and I imagine the real event was happening even years before that. It is now 2017, and seems the time has finally caught up with the graphic novel.

The first part of the book is told from her father’s perspective (it’s said to be in response to the short story written by the author’s father), the second part is told in flashback by the protagonist, Sophie, to her young daughter.

The man in question is from Togo, who sought asylum in Belgium. Despite prejudice and skepticism, Sophie’s parents try their best to stand by their daughter and open their home to Abou. I found it quite touching actually, and could feel the parents’ mixed feelings in particular. After all it’s not just skin color they had to overcome – that’s probably the least of the problems, it’s the vastly different background and culture, socio-economic factor, not to mention residential status. Abou’s refugee application may not even be accepted and the potential to be deported is looming.

Here we get a glimpse of how complicated and how fragile the refugee application process is. The fact is only a small percentage of applications would succeed, and there are too many factors – at times seemingly arbitrary – at play. In my life I’ve gone through many immigration processes, and I could relate in some ways. You’re at the complete mercy of unknown individuals “up there”, you never know if one single tiny oversight could cause rejection, and once rejected, there’s very little you can do. It costs a lot of time, a lot of money, and not to mention emotional toll. It makes you feel very very small.

The black and white illustrations are very effective, and beautiful in showing the black and white skin individuals. I think this book definitely deserves a wider audience.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

Chess – Stefan Zweig

Chess - ZweigChess

Chess or Chess Story is a novella by Stefan Zweig, a German-speaking Austrian author. It’s been published by a few of my favorite publishers, as pictured above, i.e. NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, though I read the more humble edition published by Penguin:

Chess

The book is tiny. With 80 pages long, I wondered how it managed to be published on its own, and not with a collection of some sort. It’s borderline long short-story.

Stefan Zweig was someone that I’d been meaning to read for a while. He’s the kind of author that I may have missed had I not read blogs — so loved he is by the book blogging community. Though The Grand Budapest Hotel has probably helped to raise his profile more. I already have a few of his books ready, but as we’re nearing the end of 2016, with still quite a few book commitments at hand, I decided to choose his shortest book: Chess.

And what a compelling read it was. What story telling! The book is set in a large passenger steamer going from New York to Buenos Aires. Words go around that there’s a world chess champion on board. Thus the scene is set quickly. The setting is laid, the gun is out on the table.

We’re then told the fascinating background story of this champion, who you may think at this point is the main character of the story. But hold on, he’s not. There’s more to come.

I absolutely enjoyed this book and can’t wait to read more of Stefan Zweig’s work. Should I read Beware of Pity next, or The Post-Office Girl? I also have The Society of Crossed Keys – a compilation of Zweig’s writings by Wes Anderson.

Mee’s rating: 5/5 – a satisfying read from a new-to-me author

Stefan-Zweig-001
Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) — Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide. (Yes, the good one always committed suicide.)

Chess is my first entry for Austria for my Reading the World project, and German Literature Month V (my first time participating!). The book is also included in 1001 books you must read before you die list.

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.

 

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