Thursday, January 11, 2018

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

One thing I always love from Tracy Chevalier is her theme choices to weave her stories. Either paintings or culture, Chevalier’s themes are always unique and unusual. In Falling Angles, she picked Victorian fetishism of death. Depicting the turn of the century, from Victorian to Edwardian, Falling Angels is about two families who were brought accidentally and reluctantly together by funerals.

The Waterhouses were more conservative (fanatic Victorian followers) compared to their neighbours: The Colemans, who were more moderate and progressive. On the day Queen Victoria died, both families visited their graves in London, which were located side by side, to mourn. That was how Maude Coleman and Lavinia (Livy) Waterhouse—both around 9 years old—met and then became best friends. As their families did not get along well, Maude and Lavinia could only meet and play together in the graveyard, where they befriended a gravedigger boy called Simon.

Along with the changing era, everything around the two families was evolving too. And this is what Chevalier wanted to portray. Many readers say that Falling Angels was a disappointment after Girl With a Pearl Earring (Chevalier’s best novels until today) because it lacks poignant story and strong characters. Yes, it may be true, but I think we derive something else from it in exchange: the peek into the turbulence era; how society was reshaped after the end of Victorian era; how they evolved and moved on. We get a glimpse, for example, of mourning etiquette, women suffragette movement, and how science slowly replaced superstition. And for that, Chevalier gave each character equal portion in the story by making them the narrators of themselves. Yes, we literally jump from one person’s to another’s point of view throughout the book. It’s rather annoying at first, but soon enough I got used to it; and it really become quite interesting in the end.

And so, Falling Angels might not be the best book by Tracy Chevalier, and if you analyze the writing more thoroughly, you might find that the personality of the characters seemed to be inconsistent. Richard Coleman for example; he was fond of astrology, and even promoted his daughter’s interest in it, not to mention his idea of swapping sex partner in chapter one. You would think him as liberal thinker, and that he would have given his wife more freedom. But no, when Kitty actively involved in women suffragette, Richard opposed strongly. But, maybe, it’s Chevalier’s way of emphasizing the turbulent era. It’s when people were timidly looking out for the future, while still clinging to their past. But nevertheless, time changes, and either sooner or later, everyone must going along with it.

Like I said, this book is not my best read, but it’s interesting, and is just the appropriate book to read around New Year! 3,5 / 5.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Last Dickens

What if Dickens has actually finished the last installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood after all? What would be the fate of the poor young Edwin Drood? If you have lived in England or America in 1870, these questions must have filled mind of people everywhere—Dickens’ readers, publishers, and perhaps all the literary world—following the death of the great author. For James R. Osgood in particular, it is about the life and death of Fields, Osgood & Co., the publishing company who holds the rights to publish Dickens’ books in America. Matthew Pearl crafted this historical event into a wonderful 19th century mystery novel.

After Dickens died, the last installment of Drood was shipped to Boston. It was the sixth and last installment from the most beloved author in England as well as in America at that time. Unfortunately, the junior clerk whose task was to procure the manuscript from the ship at the dock, had an accident and died. At first the police believed it’s an accident caused by opium overdose, but it was found later that he was ruthlessly killed. It’s double lost for Osgood, as he lost his reliable employee and the manuscript at the same time. And without Drood, Fields, Osgood & Co. might not survive another year…

But who did it? Was it their publishing rival, the Harpers, who have been using the Bookaneers (literary pirates) to be able to publish cheaper editions of top authors’ novels? Was it Dickens’ fanatic fan who wanted to collect the author’s last writing just for himself? Or was it related to the opium smuggling, which Pearl has used as his opening, just as Dickens used it in Drood? Throughout the book, these themes were intertwined alongside the interesting detailed stories of Dickens’ reading tours in America in 1870. 

Together with his pretty widowed bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, Osgood departed to England to trace Drood’s trail, that perhaps he could get Dickens’ unpublished piece on Drood which will be an added value to the original (unfinished) book his publishing company would like to print; before the Harpers and other pirate companies publish their cheaper issues, and kill Fields, Osgood & Co.’s business. But Osgood and Rebecca’s journey was not merely business or literary journey, it turned out to be very dangerous. Osgood was no longer a dedicated literary businessman; he must also act as a detective. Not only to save his company (and in certain point his own life!), Osgood must save the most precious literary legacy in the world, the genuine work of Charles Dickens—or its remnants….

The question is, did his enemies’ intentions were as noble as Osgood’s? Who was going to win? And the most important, perhaps, what would become of Drood? Or in other word, was there any possibility—even very small one—that Dickens did write the ending before he died? Or at least…did he ever mention his intention of Drood’s ending? These points perhaps, besides Dickens’ charisma which surpassed centuries, that made this book so engaging and exciting to follow, helped, of course, by Pearl’s thorough research and his ability to revive the history in its original style.

So far I have read three of Pearl’s historical novels about classics authors: Poe Shadow, The Dante Club and The Last Dickens. But this is the only book in which the author became one of the characters. I have never read any book in which Dickens is ‘alive’, and it makes The Last Dickens my new favorite historical fiction. Kudos to Matthew Pearl; and now I can hardly wait his latest literary-hisfic on Robert Louis Stevenson: The Last Bookaneer!

Five stars for The Last Dickens.


I read Vintage Books paperback edition

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Asia and Pacific History Reading Challenge 2015

I have participated in several reading challenges, but this one: Asia and Pacific Reading Challenge 2015 is hosted by my fellow Indonesian blogger, Helvry—he’s a history and philosophy freak just like me, haha! And because I have at least one book on my reading list that would be eligible for this challenge, I decided to participate.

The challenge is to read one book or more on Asia Pacific history, be it non-fiction or historical fiction, as long as the setting is in Asia Pacific. I will read this book:

Empress by Shan Sa

It’s a historical fiction of Empress Wu, the first and only female emperor of China, from Tang Dynasty.

I might add another book (perhaps Max Havelaar) along the way, but it depends on how I would deal with my reading schedule.

Bravo for Helvry for this reading challenge! I can’t wait till you host your philosophical reading challenge… ;)

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Paris Wife

It’s said that “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”—in Ernest Hemingway’s case, Hadley Richardson was that great woman. Hadley was Hemingway’s first wife; he loved her very much, but somehow his troubled and unstable soul—and perhaps the corrupted age they lived in—torn out their happy marriage. The Paris Wife is a fictional story of their lives, written from Hadley’s side, but Paula McLain told it closely following the historical facts, which made this book very interesting.

Hadley Richardson was twenty eight on October 1920, a plain young woman with a plain and boring life who was still mourning over her mother’s death, when she first met a ‘beautiful boy with brown eyes’ whom introduced himself as Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was then a war veteran, and was starting a literary career by writing for magazines. It’s obvious from the beginning that he had ambition to be a reputable writer. Shortly they fell in love, got married, and lived in a small apartment in Paris.

Living in Paris during the Jazz Age meant paradise for young talented writers or artists, but it’s not suitable for a conservative young woman like Hadley. But Hadley loved Ernest so much, that she dedicated herself to bring her husband’s career to the top. Accompanying Ernest, Hadley tried to mingle with the rising writers at that time, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, etc. Ernest got the safety and stability feeling alongside Hadley, that he could pound his way to what his talent could produce; while Hadley got the man she loved very much—maybe too much. Everything should have got on very well, but then complicated things happened. First a baby appeared, then a woman (Hadley’s best friend) entered their marriage life.

Maybe Kate (Hadley’s friend before she married Ernest) was right from the beginning. Hadley shouldn’t have married Ernest, for “he liked women very much”. But then, marriage was what has saved Hadley’s life at that time, and she loved Ernest so much. To marry a talented and ambitious writer means a sacrifice. For Hadley, it’s okay. She could endure hours and days of loneliness when Ernest retreated into his passionate writings. She could endure Ernest’s changing mood and unstable emotion, including his war trauma. She could also endure the awkwardness being a conservative among the moral lose people of the Lost Generation. She could endure all those, as long as she still had Ernest’s love. So when Pauline Pfeiffer stepped up and seduced Ernest to leave his former wife, everything collapsed. I was so relieved that finally Hadley found a loving husband who led her to a happy normal life.

World War I has created what we now call the Lost Generation, the disoriented and confused young men who survived the war. But without it, we might never have talented writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. For Hemingway’s sharpness and intense writing, for instance, was produced by what he had endured during the war. The war re-shaped his character, along with his mother’s dominance during his adolescence. That’s why he needed Hadley very much, for he found in her the sturdy rock where he could hold on to every time the tempest of the past hit him to swallow him into its rolling waves. So, in a way, we must thank Hadley Richardson for her role in Hemingway’s earlier career, or else, we would never have been amused by The Sun Also Rises (the novel he was writing when they were still married), A Farewell to Arms, and his other famous novels.

Two thumbs up to McLain who has written The Paris Wife so vividly that for two weeks I was like transported to the 1920s Jazz Age of Paris. She wrote as intense as Hemingway’s, and the ending made me feeling wretched for hours after finishing it. I loved the bullfighting scenes at Pamplona; Hemingway’s reaction reminded me of what I loved from The Old Man and the Sea and, vaguely, from To Have and Have Not: the intense and sharp description of a scene.

Five stars for The Paris Wife! It has changed my view towards Hemingway, and now I am eager to read more of his books, including A Moveable Feast, which I have failed when I read it five years ago. Sometimes reading the author’s bio (or semi bio like this historical fiction) helps you understanding and accepting him as he wanted to be.


I read Virago paperback edition

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Monday, December 22, 2014

The Help

Jackson, Mississippi in the 1962 might not be your dream town to live, especially with the thick atmosphere of racial segregation. Kathryn Stockett tried to tell us this history through the view point of some African-American maids who work in white households, and a white girl who loves challenges and journalism. Skeeter Phelan has a sweet memory of her maid Constantine—an African-American woman—who nursed her before she went to college, but then she suddenly left. In the midst of segregation issue in Jackson’s white households (to build a separate toilet for the maids), Skeeter feels uneasy. At this time a publisher offers her chance to write a book with a specific and interesting topic. Then she has an idea to write about the lives of these two different races, from the point of view of the maids.

So, for the next months, Aibeleen Clark, Minny Jackson, and a dozen other maids are in between excitement and fear, when they meet Skeeter at Aibeleen’s house at night after work, and pour down their memories—sweet and bitter (more bitter than sweet)—into the draft, which Skeeter then edits into a book. There are a lot of struggles for these women to do that. The meetings between black and white women are very dangerous, let alone their project of revealing sensitive issues during those times.

Racism is always an emotional topic to read, and the issue is always relevant. Reading The Help, I was reminded again that family has the most powerful influence on our way of thinking. Either love or hatred, towards others who are different, it has been planted into our mind by our parents, schools, and everyone around us. We are shaped by the society. In a way Mae Mobley is lucky to have an ignorant mother but an affectionate and wise maid, Aibeleen. Without Aibeleen’s lectures on love and humanity, most probably the little girl would grow up just like her mother, her teacher, and most of her surroundings.

I have once read John Grisham’s novel: The Chamber. It’s about a man, Sam Cayhall, who is sentenced to death for bombing a lawyer office and killing two little boys. Later in jail, Sam ponders over his motif to do the crime. He is a member of Ku Klux Klan, and from his childhood, his father—also a member—has taught him to hate black people, and that the whites are more superior to the blacks. In short, he was brought up to hate black people; it’s only natural for him to do the crime, as nobody taught him any other way. This is only an example of how difficult racialism is to be eradicated, no matter how modern our society is. Morality and religion sometimes only keep us from doing harsh things to others, but deep inside there are still those prejudices and suspicions.

My sympathy goes to Celia Foote. Under her vanity and silliness, she is a kind-hearted woman; the only woman in Jackson, perhaps, who treats her maid equally. Johnny Foote is so lucky to have her as a wife (and he is damned right for dumping Hilly!), although she often humiliates herself. I was touched to read how Johnny and Celia treat Minny as if she is family member. Celia and Minny are two women with their own problems (one with no child, the other with too many), and they should respect each other as friends as well as mistress and maid. If only we can all do that….

The Help is a very enjoyable reading, and I liked how Stockett wrote it in three voices: Skeeter’s, Aibileen’s, and Minny’s; each with her own strong personality. Four stars for The Help and Kathryn Stockett.


I read Indonesian translation from Matahati Publishing

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