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

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

This book is counted for: