Monday, July 16, 2018

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

You could never really know what the word "starving" means if you have never been deprived of the food SOURCE. This novel by Helen Dumnore taught you to always be grateful for every single day of your life.

The Siege depicted the historical siege of Leningrad by German (Nazy) Army in World War II; the biggest prolonged siege in the history. The novel particularly focused on the most extreme part of the siege, i.e. the winter of September 1941 to February 1942. Food ration was down to only 125 grams bread per person per DAY. Can you imagine that? 125 grams for 24 hours! And when the temperature was down to -30 degree (Celsius); many people died from combination of starvation, malnutrition, and freeze. Food and fuel suddenly valued like gold, while money became worthless (you couldn't eat money no matter how rich you were!). The siege was prolonged until January 1944 (900 days in total), but at least a new access was available after the severe winter had passed, that food supply was gradually back to normal--food ration was still on, but at least they didn't have to starve.

The central characters of this historical novel are the working class family: Anna Mikhailovna, a young woman who lives with her father and her little brother Kolya. Then Marina Petrovna, a former actress and a friend of Anna's father, came to stay with them just before the city was besieged. Another important character was Andrei, a medical student who helped Mikhail (Anna's father) in war, and so he and Anna met and soon lived each other. These four adults and a little boy was a portrayal of how the city heroically held on and refused to surrender to the Nazi (Hitler's plan was to raze the city to the ground--another method of genocide?).

And so, amidst the famine, struggle of life, bombardment, and cannibalism (yes, there were some cases of starving people ate human flesh!), there grew love and hope, which I believe were two important keys of survival. From their heroic acts, I see humanity at its highest and strongest state, which no one could dream to destroy.

Two thumbs up for Dunmore for writing so vivid and compelling story of war and humanity.

Final verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

To sum up this unique book in one short sentence is nearly impossible; but if I must, I would say that this book is about everything and nothing. Confused? So will you be, if I have interested you, by this review, to read it. By everything, I meant that this book covers wide and various (read: complex) topics around 14th century. I'm not actually familiar with this era, and must grope throughout the book to try to understand the historical background. Italy during the Middle Age seemed to be full of power struggle between the state and the Church; disputes between various orders inside Catholic Church; heresy, mystics, and thirst of theological study.

Our protagonists are William of Baskerville—a Franciscan friar and an inquisitor, and Adso of Melk—a Benedictine novice who helps William as his secretary. They came as guests at a Benedictine monastery, where, in a week, a theological disputation between the Pope and Friars Minor who was suspected of heresy, was going to be held. Unfortunately, a monk has been mysteriously found dead, and the abbot asked William's help to investigate the case, which seemed to be related to the monastery's library—a magnificent one with ancient manuscripts, with a labyrinth inside, but was full of dark mysteries. Within the seven days of unfolding the mystery, five more monks were dead—murdered—and many layers, signs, and paths began unfolding but leading, apparently, to nowhere. With it, the book also speaks about many heavy topics which seemed unrelated, confusing, and finally ended nowhere. This was what I meant earlier by 'everything but nothing'.

The magnificent (probably the biggest in the whole country) monastery owns a large collection of manuscripts from scientists and theologians from around the world (let alone important relics and valuable treasures hidden inside their vault). It should have been the centre of the civilization; but it mysteriously guarded from anyone, restricted, even from the monks, by some complicated designs and a dangerous labyrinth. They were scholar-monks, but forbidden to access of certain books. **spoiler alert** - In the end, it was burned down by the villain—library and the whole monastery; nothing survived. Everything, then nothing. **spoiler ends**

In this book, too, there were debates around poverty in the Catholic Church—whether or not Jesus disciples and monks were allowed to have personal possessions, etc. (without final conclusion and not related to the murder). They were also debating whether or not monks were allowed to laugh or joke. The later finally led to Aristotle's missing second book: Poetics, which spoke about tragedies and comedies. This book seemed to be the main cause of the murders; however, just as William and Adso seemed to have solved the mystery and found the murderer, we found out that the suspect did not do the murders, and some of the cases were not really murders. Again, everything, but means nothing.

In short, this book contains some chaotic ideas—some are true but the rest are false, and Eco let us readers to have our own opinion and perspective, and finally make our own conclusion. I am personally interested in two aspects. First, that knowledge should be opened to the world. Instead of banning (dangerous) books, the authority (country, school, parents, etc.) should have given us freedom to read, but with proper education. That way we are trained to sort the good from the bad from our readings. Second, the correlation of the heresy issue with the cause of the murders. Both are so relevant to the modern terrorism which is mostly rooted from religious people. Piety and heresy are divided only by a very thin line; sometimes a pious man and a murderer both love God, but the one humbly seeks and follows God's will, while the other only focus on his own will (arrogantly thinks it correspond with God’s). After finishing this book, I remembered Pontius Pilate's 'what is truth’? This book answered it beautifully; that love needs humility in order to be true, without that, it can lead to evil, destruction, and death.

Final verdict: 4 to 5

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is probably one name of which no one would ever claim he never hears. It has never occurred to me before that a woman has ever made that distinction in the world where men's domination is strong. After 2000 years—Cleopatra died only one generation before Christ—her name is still many times repeated by poets, historians; in literature, in movies, and I think in many other aspects. She is the Queen of Egypt. But after her, many queens have also reigned. What made her so enigmatic? When she died, Cleopatra ruled over so many lands and nations—the widest a queen has ever ruled. That made her so powerful. But I believe, the fact that we never know much about her, has also raised her values. Cleopatra is a myth, legend. At this point, Stacy Schiff tries to break the myths, and bring us the real person in this book.
I have put high expectation on this book when I bought it. I wanted to know the real character and qualities of Cleopatra, other than what was depicting by Elisabeth Taylor in the movie or in Shakespeare's plays. But somehow, I was quite disappointed. It's not entirely Ms. Schiff's fault, maybe. Apparently, there were not much facts about Cleopatra's deeds on which one could base upon. Many historians have written about her, of course. She was the mother of Julius Caesar's and Marc Antony's children! No foreigners have ever set so important role in Ancient Rome when it was a dominant ruling nation like Cleopatra. We are talking about the Western world! However, most of what Plutarch or Livy or Dellius wrote were either bias or only suggestions. I believe the misogynistic culture of Rome was the culprit here. Hence, there was almost not accurate account of Cleopatra's real .... in her world.

From what I read, I could gather that Cleopatra:
  • was the last Ptolemaic clan, which was full of incest and mayhem.
    Cleopatra in coin (the most accurate
    picture of her)
  • was really a Greek-Macedonian, not originally an Egyptian.
  • loved pearls, used to wear it abundantly, even also on her hair.
  • was not very pretty woman (far from Elizabeth Taylor!), but she possessed a charisma; she was attractive in her high intelligence, her ambition, her enthusiastic speech, and self-possessing manner.
  • was great in politics and governing a nation. She brought Egypt to be a great nation before it was finally annexed to Rome after her defeat and death.
  • took care of people's, and that's why was loved by them.
  • ruled by herself (a woman at that era!) and played great role in Western world. She was more than capable in military stuffs, leading a great army, controlling currency, and was great in diplomacy. She was really Caesar's equal.

While people portray Julius Caesar as warrior or mighty King, we tend to see Cleopatra as an exotic woman who used her sexual appeal as weapon. While we take Caesar's conquest over Western world as great, people believe that Cleopatra became Queen of Egypt through cunning and seduction. This was how men--Octavian most of all, and the Roman historians—has misled us. Worst of all, those papyruses in the magnificent Alexandria—which might have kept facts about Cleopatra's deeds—had been destroyed. So, now all we have about her is just myths—most of all the wrong ones.

This book would have been interesting. However, Schiff seems to be drifting too much to Rome's histories and chief actors in it. I understand that it might be because there were poor materials to build the life of Cleopatra, but still… She also put suggestions in rather disproportionate amount (compared to facts) to my taste. Add that with rather bad Indonesian translation, which made my reading quite tedious. I was really glad when it's over!

My rating: 3/5

Friday, April 20, 2018

Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

I am never a movie person. But among the short list of movies I have ever watched (most of them are book-turns-to-movies or movies starred by Matt Damon--yes I'm his fan!), there are even shorter list of movies which I often rewatch. One of them are Anna and the King, starring Jodi Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. I loved its cultural background of 19th century Siam. I also loved the silent and respectable romance of an English woman and the King of Siam, as well as the perfect chemistry of Jodi and Yun-Fat. I learned later that it was based on the diary of a real Anna Leonowens--an English Governess hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his children (later on, his harem too). When searching for this diary, I stumbled upon this historical novel by Margaret Landon. She re-wrote Leonowens' diary into a more flowing story (cutting a lot of tedious geographical and antropological entries of the original diary).

If you have watch the movie, imagine the much savage, violent, selfish, and distrustful King, in oppose to Yun-Fat's charismatic and charming version; then increase by ten folds the wretched condition of the slave of a rich lady, of whom Anna has helped to buy the freedom. Imagine also how the revengeful King would react when his favorite concubine, Tuptim, was running away with her lover; that instead of regretting his impotence in intervening the court verdict and heartbrokenly but secretly crying for Tuptim's unfair death penalty like Yun-Fat's version, the real King was ten times more cruel and revengeful in his terrible rage. And lastly, the real King, while quite often granting Anna's request, he was also harsh, unfair, and deceitful towards Anna--and certainly very far away from having any sparks of romance! There... if you combine those aspects, you'll get the rough idea of the book.

When starting it, I have prepared myself to not expecting any romanticism of the movie. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised to learn the terrors Anna and her household must have endured during her stay at Siam. And my admiration grew for her. If this was truly Anna Leonowens' account of her real life in Siam, then she must have probably been one of the most brave women ever lived in 19th century. How terrible and dangerous her life and work was, and all for a vague hope that the crown prince Chulalongkorn might bring justice and brighter future to Siam when he succeeded his father!

The only time I did not hate King Mongkut, was near the end, in his thank you letter to Anna, where he said: "...All that [Chulalongkorn] ever learned of good in his life, you taught him." I think that was one thing teachers would always like to hear.

Finally, while the movie ends with emotional separation (the dance always makes me cry!), the historical novel ends with a slightly hopeful future, though not as emotional as when Yun-Fat embracing Jodie in their last dance: "It was through the principles laid down in her teaching that he had formed the plans by which he had transformed his kingdom."

4/5 - for this tremendous story of an English woman.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

March by Geraldine Brooks

While Little Women has become so many people's favorites, I have failed to recognize its high value when I read it few years ago. It was difficult for me to relate with the story, that it just flowed to the end without deeper influence. It felt like an old blanket; comfortable, but nothing else.

Only after I read March, did I realize the reason. March was inspired by Little Women; telling the historical events of the 19th century American Civil War from the point of view of the missing father of Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth. However, to me, March felt more realistic than Little Women because Brooks made March and Marmee true persons with their weaknesses and struggles; while in Little Women they were like Mr & Mrs. Santa Claus—too good to be true!

March was actually inspired by Amos Bronson Alcott—Louisa May Alcott’s father—who was a teacher and abolitionist. But instead of teacher, Brooks made March a chaplain. As we already read in Little Women, March left Concord, Massachusetts to serve in the Civil War as soldier’s chaplain. In his letters to home, he told everything but the real horror and brutality in the battlefield, for he didn’t want to add burden on Marmee and the children. Then he caught a severe illness and was brought to hospital, where Marmee immediately went to nurse her husband. Then and there she learned for the first time the damage war had wrought into her husband.

I don’t think Brooks wrote March (and won Pulitzer Prize in 2006) only as a fanfiction or to reminisce over one of the best-loved classics. She focused on the warfare; how it has touched every family and changed the veterans’ personal lives. To do that, picking March as the central figure is ideal, since his absence in Little Women gave Brooks rooms to explore the influence of war to men, and kind of recreating the story—if not one of the characters—of the best-loved classic. Moreover, Alcott’s history as an abolitionist might have given Brooks more rooms to write about racism and slavery.

I loved how March discusses about cowardice. I remember one episode of Downton Abbey (TV series) where Mrs. Patmore was troubled when her nephew’s name was excluded from war memorial given to the village because he was shot for cowardice in WW I. I remember being shuddered while watching that scene, as I thought how easy it was for us—who have never been in the war, or perhaps been in the war but not in that specific moment—to label others with “coward”. While survival is human instinct, is it really disgraceful when one selfishly saves oneself instead of risking life for saving others? I mean, morally it is not right, it is not ideal. Still, not everyone is blessed with bravery. And having just several seconds to make decision at a critical moment, sometimes there are a lot of things one must consider (one’s family, for instance). It is really not easy to be brave to accept death. And I think it’s enough that one must account his actions to God, without having to face society’s sanction for the rest of his (and his family) life too. So I won’t blame March for doing (or not doing, in this case) what he supposed to do in the battlefield. And I can relate with his guilt afterwards; how he must bear the burden alone; how it changed his life forever. I was glad that Marmee and Grace Clement never blamed him. And it was kind of Marmee too to try to understand his relationship with Grace.

War… there are things that only those who participated in it can relate to. I am glad I have finally been able to read this magnificent book. Pulitzer Prize or not, it is the kind of book that opens your mind and change your perspective.

5 of 5