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 Friend Dahmer – Derf Backderf

First published in 2012. Setting: Ohio, USA, 1976.

I first heard of My Friend Dahmer from Literary Disco podcast. The trio spoke very highly of it, and I think it was mentioned even as one of their favorite or most memorable books of that year that they read as a group. So I snapped this book when I saw it at my library.

I have a certain fascination for serial killers and murderers. I could spend a lot of time reading about them on Wikipedia, and I watch plenty documentaries about them. There’s just something inside me that wants to understand the psychology behind what I think is very unnatural acts.

My Friend Dahmer tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, who killed 17 men and boys. But the book tells the part before he was a murderer. Backderf, the author, was in the same high school as Dahmer, and even though you can’t say they were close friends, they had some interactions. Dahmer may not be Backderf’s closest friends, but it seems Backderf was one of the closest to Dahmer during that teenage period.

The book seems like Backderf’s way to dissect what happened in the past, to question if there was any sign leading Dahmer to become what he was, if anything could’ve been done to prevent the making of a murderer.

I did not (re)read Jeffrey Dahmer’s Wiki before reading this book, though I’m sure I’ve read about him in the past amongst one of my many afternoons spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia (Tell me I’m not the only one?). Just so I could read the book as it was, without images in my head about what he’d done after.

I must say the foreboding was clear from the first few pages. There was an uneasy feeling throughout the book, from the beginning to the end. It definitely made for an uncomfortable reading. Dahmer had always been an awkward kid, with separating parents at home, and teachers that were oblivious to his drinking problems. Other students, including Backderf, treated him like a mascot – a character that provided entertainment for many, but no real friendship ever formed. It was a lonely existence.

The art is excellent. The blocky, flat, kinda psychedelic way of Backderf’s drawings show the 70s era and the characters in such an amazing way. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. Backderf also provided extensive appendix at the end of the book, explaining his sources: interview with various friends, teachers, parents, and Dahmer himself, newspaper articles, and the author’s own memory. The research he’s done was commendable.

The book practically ends at Dahmer’s first killing. I spent the next couple of days reading about the details of his subsequent murders and watching some of his and his parents’ interviews. It was chilling. A good chunk of the interviews were focusing on the “why”. And after what must’ve been hours and hours, nobody, including Dahmer himself, seemed to get any closer to the answer. Dahmer died in prison in 1994, so I guess that is the end.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

Pablo (Art Masters Series) / Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann

Pablo by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie

pablo graphic novel (art masters series)Pablo is the latest in the Art Masters Series published by Self Made Hero (a British graphic novel publisher). The earlier two were Vincent and Rembrandt, the former telling the life of Vincent Van Gogh I have written about here before.

The review copy has come at the perfect time, as I just came back from my New York trip, in which I saw tons of Picasso’s works in the Met and MoMA. Prior to that I’ve seen a couple of his paintings and many sketches in London. I haven’t got a chance to go to Picasso museums in Barcelona and Paris. But really looking at his works in New York and knowing there are lots more around the US, I could sense how prolific Picasso was as an artist. The amount of works he produced are staggering.

So for such a prolific artist, who lived a long life (Picasso died at the age of 91 and he’s said to die painting at his death bed), it must be a challenge in itself to pick a period of the great painter’s life to tell. Interestingly, the graphic novel Pablo chooses to tell the story with the framing of a somewhat obscure woman: Fernande Olivier, a bohemian artist who became Pablo’s mistress for 7 years.

Picasso later on would have many other women in his life. Not uncommon among great artists, he would call them his muse, be attracted to a new muse when the current one has run out her course. The timings of the relationships were often overlapped, but they had to accept it nonetheless. Two of former mistresses would kill themselves not long after Picasso died. (These I learned more later after reading the book, from 2015 BBC documentary: Picasso: Love, Sex, and Art —  also coincidentally came out at the right time for me. Seems you can watch the full version on youtube.)

However the important point of his relationship with Fernande was that she was the only mistress who was with him before he reached fame and fortune. Knowing that, the framing of this tome of a graphic novel is perfect, because the story told from Fernande’s point of view starts when Pablo Picasso is a newbie painter arriving in Paris from Spain, and revolves around his struggles as a poor artist living in Le Bateau-Lavoir.

Poor Pablo and Fernande

This book is 342 pages, and quite heavy. It seems that it was originally published (in its original language French) as 4 smaller books, and they are subtitled: Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse, Picasso. But it’s been published in English by Self Made Hero as one big book with no sections or chapters. The drawings are beautiful throughout and full color. Some of you might remember the style of illustration from Aya de Yopougon — the same artist: Clément Oubrerie.

The problem I had reading the book was finding who is who in this early 1900s Paris setting. In that period there were a mix pot of (now well-known) artists, poets, authors, and Fernande and Picasso met tons and tons people. Some of them I’ve mentioned above: Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse. Gertrude Stein is also one who makes constant appearances. In most cases the book assumes that we should know these side characters / famous people, which is understandable because there can’t be enough time to explain everybody’s back story (there are dozens of them), but I found myself having to Wiki quite often. It’s quite a good crash course though if like me you want to know more about people you feel you have to know more about. Ha!

I do feel sad for Fernande at the end. She sticks with a man when he’s poor and nobody, but is dumped when he reaches success. A story that seems to keep repeating itself throughout history. And for Fernande this is not even her story, but that of the Great Pablo Picasso, she just happens to be there at the beginning. She draws a short straw.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – a packed graphic novel of an interesting period of Pablo Picasso’s life, beautifully illustrated, but the appearances of many side characters means readers may need to do their own research on the side to know who is who, which can slow down the reading experience

Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann

I’m going to slip in a short review of Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It’s out of season I know, but this book came to me from its New York publisher by mail a few years ago, and I never managed to read it in December, as it is such a short month with the holidays at the end! So this time I just decided to finish it even after Christmas has passed.

nutcracker

Most of us know about Nutcracker from the famous ballet the story is adapted to (which I knew little about anyway, but after reading I went to see bits of it on youtube). The book was originally written in German in 1816. The version of the book I’m holding (pictured above) was illutrated by Maurice Sendak and first published in 1984, right after the 1983 production of Nutcracker by Pacific Northwest Ballet. Sendak has apparently designed the sets and costumes of the ballet production, which was new information to me, since I only knew Maurice Sendak as a children books illustrator!

The story itself is almost like 19th century version of Toy Story, in which toys come alive when nobody is looking. Except that in this tale the toys come from faraway kingdom, and there are kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and monsters, and lots of rats.

In the preface, Maurice Sendak talks about how different he found the original story is with the ballet production (which itself had gone through many versions in Europe before it was brought to United States, in which again the ballet went through various versions). Since I have not yet seen the ballet production in person, I don’t know how it is in relation to the original story. It’d be interesting to go back to the book sometime when that happens.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – a classic tale, illustrated by one of the most well loved illustrator, though I found the story to be rather simplistic compared to other children classics that I loved (e.g. Alice, Peter Pan)

 

On Writing – Stephen King / The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros

On Writing - Stephen King

This Stephen King’s book on “A Memoir of the Craft” seems to be one of those books that is always recommended in any beginner writing courses. I didn’t grow up with Stephen King’s books, and in fact I never read any of his books, simply because they are of the horror genre (I just can’t take/read/watch anything remotely scary). I know he has written some stories that are non-horror – and I loved the movies based on his stories like Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me – but I guess I am never tempted enough to read in that direction.

His non-fiction On Writing is another case however, and I absolutely do not mind learning from someone who has been very successful in what he does, even though the works are not really my cup of tea.

In a nutshell, I enjoyed reading this book, and I was even pretty sad when it ended, because it felt like I lost a mentor figure of some kind that had been with me for a few weeks, who had become a voice on my shoulder, telling me what to do and what not to (Is that you, Jiminy Cricket?).

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is his memoir, about his life from childhood, teenagehood, life as a struggling writer, first breakthrough with first novel Carrie, and his subsequent books. As I am not his big fan, and therefore was not familiar with his books, this part was the one that was least interesting to me. But a story about the making of a writer, especially someone as bestselling as he is, has its own appeal. He seems to be genuinely a nice guy, and I think his good marriage and family life affect his works a lot. You cannot hate women or end up with aweful women characters if you love your wife in real life (I hope).

The second part is the meat of this book, the actual advice and instructions on writing. I loved reading this part. Some of the advice have been repeated often by others at various sites and articles (e.g. the use of adverbs, active vs passive voice, etc) but it’s nice to read them all together in the right context. The third part is sort of like an epilogue on a life changing event in his life that I won’t give away here, and it closes the book nicely.

My favorite part is when he equates writing to telephaty. There he was, Stephen King, in year 1997 in his basement somewhere in Maine, sending telephatic messages to me here in London, 18 years later in 2015. In 1997 I was a high school girl who never even read a novel in English. 18 years later I’m learning how to write an English book, and his voice has traveled through time and space, to the me who is here, right now, ready to absorb what he has to say. It would’ve been useless in year 1997, but now the time is right.

Love that image. Love love love.

In the last twist, Stephen King dedicated this book to Amy Tan, “who told me in a very simple and direct way that it was okay to write it.” What a surprise! They are apparently friends playing in the same author band, which is called The Rock Bottom Remainders (whose personnel has included Barbara Kingsolver and Mitch Albom, amongst many). I heard of this band before, since I am a big fan of Amy Tan and follow her Facebook page, but I guess I never made that connection with Stephen King. I read all Amy Tan’s books back when I begun to read novels again after my vacuum of a few years in my transition of moving from Indonesia to English-speaking countries. This was a very nice surprising detail for me, as if things have come full circle in a funny way. Perhaps if Stephen King had been born a Chinese ethnic woman in America he would’ve written Amy’s books. HAH :)

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros

When I started writing my book, I knew I had to read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I’m not sure why, perhaps because our house used to have a mango tree as well and it plays a significant role in my story, but the book is just like what I imagined it to be. It is written in a clear, almost childlike voice, that is also dreamy and original.

The book consists of dozens of vignettes, that “are not quite poems and not quite full stories” — most of them are only a couple of pages long. They all work together on a theme of growing up and surviving as migrants (in the USA in their case). Some of vignettes left me wanting for more, some of them felt like the right length — mixed feelings that always come for this kind of format. The book is very short in just over 100 pages, and I’d recommend it for anyone really as it is a nice, simple, and original read, that tells stories with a heart — something that I’d love to aim for in my own writing.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist / Pyongyang – Guy Delisle

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer - Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer is another recent release by SelfMadeHero which I acquired soon after Vincent by Barbara Stok (which tells the partial life story of Vincent Van Gogh). The Boxer tells the true story of Harry Haft, a Polish who as a 16 years old was taken to Auschwitz. He was then fighting and surviving as a boxer, serving to amuse the German officers. It is clear to him, and to us readers quite early on, that to win the boxing matches was a complex choice, as the losers often, if not always, got killed soon after.

Though lots of literature and films have taken the subject of holocaust, I don’t think I have ever heard any surviving as a boxer, so the book piqued my interest. It’s interesting to learn about the untold stories, the minor paths that some people have taken. At the end of the book, there are a few pages of article titled “Boxing in concentration camps”: “For decades, these men were forgotten about, almost as though they had never existed. Journalists and historians have now started compiling information about some of the boxers…”

Half of the book was set in the camp, and the second half after the camp. Sadly, life after camp for Harry was almost as difficult as most of his family died and he set on a journey to find the girl he loved in America. The drawing is all in black and white, and at times felt harsh and cold, in many ways illustrating what Harry went through. So it was really unexpected when I teared up at the end. I thought the ending was especially profound.

Mee’s Rating: 4/5

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

Pyongyang - Guy Delisle

I have a weird fascination about North Korea. I’ve been to DMZ (the South and North Korean border), I’ve read Nothing to Envy, and I’ve been wishing to visit the hermit country for a while now. In Pyongyang graphic novel, Guy Delisle tells of his experience living in the capital for a few months as a lead animator for work outsourced by his French company to a team in Pyongyang.

I have read many articles about the situation in Pyongyang and what you would find when you visit as tourist e.g. can’t go anywhere without a guide, how the city looks so empty and artificial, how so much part of the city is without electricity including the hotels the foreigners stay in, the godlike status of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, and so on — and these are all in the book as well. If you know very little about North Korea, many things in Pyongyang will surprise you, even for me I still find them informative, and not less fascinating!

This is the first book I read by Guy Delisle, and I’ll be looking out for more for sure. I love his simplistic illustration style. I look forward to reading his books on Burma, Shenzhen (China), and his latest: Jerusalem.

Mee’s Rating: 4.5/5

 

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

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-Christie-Agatha-9780062073501

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-is-london-cover

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 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 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.

 

Vincent by Barbara Stok

Vincent_Graphic_Novel

Ever since I went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I have a little fascination for Vincent Van Gogh, as an artist and as a man. As an artist his brush strokes are unusual, and as a man his life story is probably even more so.

There’s a huge difference in seeing paintings in person, compared to seeing them on computer screens or books. I must’ve seen many Van Gogh paintings before, but they were just brimming outside my peripheral vision. Until I saw them in person, and really looked — so many of them too as the whole Van Gogh museum is full of his paintings. I think I can now recognize his paintings no matter when and where I see them in the world. And I got to learn about his fascinating life on the side.

vincent-for-blog-1

Vincent graphic novel by Barbara Stok tells part biography of Vincent when he resided in Provence, France, in the town of Arles, and later Saint-Rémy when he admitted himself to the asylum. I find that the simple illustrations with bold colors and black outlines interesting choice to illustrate biography of Van Gogh, but it is very effective, as style that is too similar with the artist’s might get distracting I imagine. There’s very little text in the book, most of which are the letters between Vincent and his brother Theo – I assume they’re taken from real life records.

The life of Vincent Van Gogh that I knew was turbulent and sad, including the cutting of one’s ear and suicide by shooting himself. The graphic novel on the other hand, takes Vincent’s life in a very positive way, highlighting his gentle relationship with his brother, and Vincent’s passion about his art. His relationship with artist friend Paul Gauguin was also touching. Stok chose to end the book on a high note and not dwell on the dark aspects of Vincent’s life.

I had warm fuzzy feelings after reading this book, that life is colorful and that spending all one’s life for something one believes in is satisfying in many ways, and that everything will be okay at the end (Van Gogh was poor and hardly accepted as an artist when he’s alive, and his paintings only took off after his death). It may not be the whole truth, but it’s not a bad way to see things too. I personally loved this take on the life of Van Gogh, Vincent.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Barbara Stok on working on Vincent

Thank you SelfMadeHero for the review copy! I love checking their catalogue and am especially fond of their Art Masters series featuring Rembrandt and Vincent, with Picasso and Dalí coming out in the future. I LOVE Dalí — I wrote on my travel blog about the time when I visited Dalí museum in Figueres, Spain.

 

Barbara-Stok_Self-Portrait

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