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

This book is counted as:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

No man owned any part of the earth, and a man could not sell what he did not own.” This statement came from an Indian chief from Nez Percés when US government wanted him to sell their land so that the whites could live there. When I read it, at first I thought this chief was wrong. Of course one must own the land he lives on, otherwise others would claim it. However as I stopped reading and began reflecting…. I could see the truth behind the statement. Who is the real owner of the earth? It was created by God, and so, it was His property. Then he created man to manage it, and to produce from it things to support his family’s life. So everyone has the right to live on a certain part of the land, while the land belongs to God, because it’s Him who supplied it. But then, man becomes greedy. He also wants his neighbors’ land, and because he actually doesn’t really need it, he sells it to others to quench his greediness. I think feudalism came from this.

The chief of Nez Percés was right, and so were all other chiefs of all the Indian tribes, who have stated the same thing over and over again to US government. This book is all about how the Whites systematically pressed the Indians to hand over their territories and to force them to be ‘civilized’. It covers Indian history of the American West beginning from Christopher Columbus’ arrival at San Salvador on 1492 to the massacre at Wounded Knee at the end of 1890.

This book contains of nineteen chapters, each telling the histories of so many events of different tribes, but the outlines are always the same. For centuries the Indian had been settling peacefully on one prairie. Then one day came a group of white people. The Indians could accept them; and in some tribes, they even made good friendship with the whites. Then came the gold rush on mid 19th century; huge bands of American citizens flooded the territories; and the peaceful era ended. The government made treaty with the Indians by shrinking their lands to make way for the Americans, and appointed Indian agents to supervise it. The Indians accepted; they just wanted to live peacefully with their new neighbors.

But then the Americans wanted to build railroads across Indian lands, so they forced them to live inside a Reservation (to avoid conflict), and with many sweet promises made them signing another treaty. The Americans broke the treaty; the rations in the reservation were poor. The Indians protested and escaped from the Reservation, then the Americans sent their military troops to herd them back to the reservation with many more promises. They refused, and were killed or even massacred.

The story repeated again and again for ages. It was painful and disturbing to follow it; and I was angry all the time with the arrogance and cruel way the Americans treated their fellow citizens. It is astonishing perhaps, to see how the Indians could be deceived so easily by the Americans over and over again; didn’t they learn anything? My argument is, that they were simple and honest race, and in their straightforward mind they could not imagine that human being could do such low deed as cheating—least of all a race who had boasted to be more civilized.

Dee Brown presented the history as if he has let the Indians ‘talked’ about their cases themselves. This is the most interesting point of this book, which made it livelier! As if, silenced by the Americans at that time, they were now given chance to talk honestly and freely to the world. In the beginning of each chapter, Brown would include quotes from some Indian chiefs, and within the chapters he often let the Indian witnesses to narrate the events from their perspective, as well as the Americans.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has affirmed my belief that the cost of modernization and civilization is moral corruption. What people think of ‘civilized’ is sometimes different with the result. The Indians treated their enemies honorably as humans like themselves, while the Americans often assumed and treated the Indians as non-human or even animal! You would be surprised to read how these people who called themselves ‘Christians’ massacred the Indians like barbarian, while the Indians—whom they wanted eagerly to be converted to Christians—never killed anyone without reason, and even, sometimes, forgave them. How can that be? I think, modernization alienated men from God; while the Indians who lived in the nature had closer relationship with the Creator.

In the end, the Indians must be exterminated, as the whites were much more powerful than them. Nobody could alter it, and this book taught us the bitter truth of our own civilization.

Five stars for Dee Brown for ever writing this inspiring and thought-provoking history: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee!


I read paperback edition from Holt Paperbacks

This book is counted as:

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Professor and the Madman

Oxford English Dictionary—if you have never seen or known this dictionary, you might not have any idea of the heroic works to compile it centuries ago. Then you have probably never heard about Dr. James Murray or Dr. W.C. Minor. And it is unlikely for you to know that Oxford English Dictionary (OED) would have not been finished without the contribution of a madman who has committed a murder. Thanks to Simon Winchester, we could study the history of one of the most magnificent books ever published, as well as the dark tragedy of one of its contributors.

Winchester started this history with a visit of Dr. James Murray to a mysterious contributor of OED project he was currently leading. Dr. Murray was very surprised when knowing that the huge mansion he was visiting was actually the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum; where Dr. Minor has been a patient for more than twenty years. Winchester then brought us in a flashback to Victorian era, 1872, when a poor man was killed in the infamous slump area of London: Lambeth Marsh. The murderer turned out to be a professional surgeon, and also former army medical officer, named William Chester Minor. He was diagnosed with “delusional”—to soften the word “insanity”, and was submitted to Broadmoor asylum. It was assumed that the disorder began shortly after Minor had been forced to brand an officer with hot iron, and after witnessing a lot of violence during the war.

Simultaneously with the story of Minor’s earlier life until the symptoms of his brain disorder first appeared, Winchester took us to the literary world; particularly when the idea of publishing a compilation of English words as a source of reference, first appeared. It was in 1857, when Richard Chevenix Trench, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, first suggested that idea in a meeting of the Philological Society. However, it was not until 1879 that Dr. James Murray was appointed to lead the biggest project ever held in literary world, which was financed by Oxford University Press. The mechanism of this giant work was to read as many as English books, and to sort any English words from it, which have not been analyzed yet.

If you have not been familiar with OED, here is an example (taken from OED dot com). “The word of today" (when I am writing this review) happens to be: procerity, n.

click image to enlarge

So, in OED, each word in English has its biography. Each word, besides of its meaning, would be traced back: when it first appeared; in what books it appeared; in what context it was used; how it evolved from a word of other language, and so on. From the example above, you can imagine how many works required for just one entry. Many volunteers were needed to read books, took notes of the words, the sentences they were appeared, and the details of the books. To get volunteers, Dr. Murray spread invitations to the entire England; one of them accidentally arrived at the cell in 2nd block of Broadmoor Asylum, where Dr. Minor was resided. Dr. Minor later proved himself as one of the most influential contributors of OED; that he and Dr. Murray finally became good friends.

However, this book is fascinating for me not because of the history of OED making, but more than that, because Winchester challenged us to reflect upon the life of Dr. W.C. Minor; that in the making of so prestigious dictionary, the world seemed to have forgotten the passion and dedication of a madman behind the locked door of his ‘prison’. Later on Dr. Minor’s illness was known as schizophrenia. But at that time, no one seemed to know how to cure the illness other than confining the patient so that he won’t cause danger to society. It was so touching to follow Dr. Minor’s condition in his old age; he suffered from injustice and the lack of love and care, which severed his mental health. Dr. Minor stayed in the asylum for 38 years; he was freed from it in 1910; and after enjoying freedom for ten years, he died at 85.

This was a beautiful history that is written in beautiful prose. You would think you are reading a novel, not a history. Winchester went further than just providing us with history facts; he made us reflect on humanity; he moved us like any novel writers do. Thank you Mr. Simon Winchester, for bringing this story to us, and to monumentalize Dr. Minor’s great deeds for the literary world.

Five stars for The Professor and the Madman.


I read Indonesian translation from Serambi publishing

This book is counted as:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Foucault’s Pendulum

Finally, I have finished this one of the most confusing and intriguing books I’ve ever come across: Foucault’s Pendulum! This is my second Umberto Eco (after Baudolino), and I don’t think I would ever come back to him again, ever. Not that his books are bad; on the contrary, they are genius. But there’s my problem, they are too genius to me that I must often open Wikipedia to consult almost everything from the stories. If you ask me, what this book is about, I might answer, it’s about conspiracy theory, Foucault’s Pendulum, semiotics, mystics, Kaballah, Knights Templar, telluric current, hermeticism, Rosicrucians, Paulicians, Synarchists, and many other (seem to be) incoherent topics. However, surprisingly, at the end of all those nonsense, you would find a quite deep philosophy that makes you think about the value of life, and your existence in the universe.

The story is narrated by Casaubon, an Italian freelance researcher, who was hiding in Parisian technical museum, from a secret society that had something to do with Foucault’s Pendulum, located in the museum. Casaubon then related the whole story in flashback. He was a student studying about Knights Templar’s history in Milan, while he met Belbo, the editor of a publishing house. Together with Belbo’s colleague, a cabalist called Diotallevi, they became involved in the story of the Knights Templar. A writer came to the publishing house, he believed that, although the Templar had been disbanded by French monarchy and the Church six centuries ago, its followers have planned a secret conspiracy to take over the world as their revenge. Although nobody knew the exact truth, our trio excitingly worked on the conspiracy theory, as a fun game at first, maybe to challenge their active minds. But soon they became obsessed with it, and so seriously they took The Plan (as they called it), that some people believed The Plan did really exist, and suddenly, our trio’s game was not fun anymore, but mortally dangerous!

During their game, they met many people who believed in supernatural things (occultist), whom they called the Diabolical. From them, and from their own knowledge and unlimited sources from libraries, they built their own theory. Oh, and don’t forget the valuable help from Abulafia (the nickname of Belbo’s computer), and the index card system built by Casaubon. Reading this, I only imagined, how their work would have been so much easier were they born on this century, with all the search engines on the internet….

I did not know whether all the theories (the connection of those hundreds of sects) in this book were historically true, or at least there were people who wrote them, not just Eco’s invention. If it was true, then Eco himself is a great researcher, and to craft all those conspiracy theories into a thriller is great. But if he invented some of those, then it is a geniusness.

But this book is not all about conspiracy theory and semiotics, it is also about human’s seek of existence. During their working together, Belbo told Casaubon his bitter past. From his childhood he was never a brave boy. He often missed his chances because he was always a doubter; a boy who could not make decision. Later he grew as a loser; he lost better chances not because he failed but because he thought about lost before even trying. So, with The Plan, Belbo was in quest of his existence, more than a quest of the secret of Templar. But not only Belbo who has been changed by The Plan; Casaubon too, finally saw that Wisdom is the most important thing, not knowledge. Many people pursue knowledge, and when they reach the highest level, only then that they realize it was vain. And when the realization comes, it is perhaps already too late; you have been chasing the unreal things while ignoring the most important ones.

While I was skeptical during the whole thriller, I was amazed by the ending. I have learned that Eco was a Roman Catholic, but when he was in college, he left Catholic Church and his believe in God [source: wiki]. His cynical towards Catholic Church is obvious in this book, but I don’t think he completely stopped believing in God. The way he talked about the Supreme Wisdom and the vanity of chasing knowledge is one signal that, on the contrary, he believes in God, but perhaps, dislikes the religion. Whatever the truth is, I think Umberto Eco is one of the biggest authors in our post-modernism literary world.

Three and a half stars for this extraordinary, although quite frustrating to read, piece of work!


I read translated edition, by Bentang Pustaka

This book is counted as:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician

An eloquent man, my child, an eloquent man, and a patriot”, was Augustus Caesar’s remark to his grandson, on Marcus Tullius Cicero. And after I have finished this book, I couldn’t but agree with him. Cicero is not just a great—or the greatest—orator in the universe, but he is also a true statesman. Cicero is not as famous as Julius Caesar or Pompey the Great, but what he did, he has done for the sake of his beloved Republic, for the country; while Caesar and Pompey did their greatness merely for satisfying their own ambition. Thanks to Anthony Everitt through this biography, we can learn much about Cicero; both his contribution to Rome and his personal life.

Everitt has interestingly started this biography by relating the famous Ides of March—the brutal murder of Julius Caesar. After Caesar died, Brutus—the conspirator leader—shouted Cicero’s name and congratulated him for the Republic’s freedom form tyranny. Caesar’s murder became, later on, a culmination point for Cicero to return to Rome’s political arena after his first fall. Soon after this opening chapter, Everitt began by describing how Rome was already in crisis when Cicero was born; and what had caused it. This is the first simple analysis I have read about how the biggest empire in the world was on the verge of ruin.

Its fault governance systems must be the one to blame; these are several examples of its ineffectiveness:
  • Republic of Rome was a state without institution; they had neither police force, nor public persecution office. These services were run by the current elected senators, which enabled them to lead the services to their own advantages. In short, they had no independent institution that could issue fair judgment for the state.
  • The Senate, who should be the advisory committee for the Consuls, was a lifetime membership (permanent); while the Consuls (the officeholders) were not. So, the Senate was in fact the ruling instrument of the Republic.
  • The complex bureaucracy was another obstacle, especially in the widespread use of veto (Consuls and Praetors could veto their colleagues or their junior’s proposals), and in too many checks and balances of a proposal. In order to restrain one’s power, Rome has created this complex bureaucracy. However, it also led to equal and individual political competition, where one could use his power to overthrow the other. In the end, they used it not for Rome’s but their own sake.

So, when Cicero was born in a countryside near Arpinum on January 3, 106 BC, the Roman Republic was already in the start of crisis. He was an intelligent child right from the beginning, and as a youngster preferred to lead intellectual than physical (military) achievements. Cicero persistently sought literary pursuits until his end of life, and he soon found that he has been born a distinguished orator. Cicero was very good in character’s assassination; his humours were often sharp and witty. Cicero was appointed Consul at 63 BC, and during his office he thwarted a conspiracy by Catilina, not with military force, but with the force of words. He was called “Father of His Country” for this, and it was his biggest achievement.

What I admire from Cicero—and made him distinguished from other famous Roman statesmen—is that he always works sincerely and consistently for the Republic. He is neither greedy nor ambitious; and his only weakness is his exaggerated boastfulness. But, I am ready to defend him by arguing that, born without traces of great ancestors, Cicero did not have any marks of family’s glory which was very important at that time. So, it makes sense that he pointed out his achievement over and over again, because it was a family pride. Moreover, Cicero reached the highest office (Consul) and became one of the most respectable Roman statesmen without money or aristocracy background. His success came merely from his own merit; his literary background and his oratory skill were on one side, while his integrity and his consistent loyalty to the Republic were on the other.

Because of his persistency in advocating Rome, he made quite a lot of opponents. The first sign of the Republic’s collapse was the rise of Julius Caesar—perhaps the most ambitious man in Rome. He has formed the first triumvirate: Caesar-Pompey-Crassus. Cicero has also been invited to join this power sharing, but he—loyal as he was to the Republic—reluctantly rejected. Later on he was banished from Rome, thanks to Clodius, and to the triumvirate who had let it pass. Cicero was desperate; during the exile he had a setback, and even suffered from mental breakdown. It is ironic that a man from outside Rome should have loved the city more than anyone else.

Cicero was finally recalled to Rome; and the city welcomed him almost like a Triumph. It was only a sign that Cicero was distinguished as an individual. He did not belong to any office, but as a personal, Cicero still had great influence. So when the established Rome was in the threat of being ruled by a dictator (either Pompey or Caesar), the Senate needed Cicero for his independence of mind. In the end, we all know what the outcome was. Nevertheless, Cicero has put his efforts to prevent it; later on he even betrayed his own principle in order to compromise with the enemy, although with a huge burden in his heart. But the Republic was finally collapsed. If only there were more conservative men in the Senate, Cicero must have had a bigger chance to succeed. But unfortunately, most of them have been slaughtered in the era of Sulla and Marius’ reign. Or if there were still some of them (like Brutus and Cassius), they were working without no method, no plan, and no thought.

It’s so pity that Cicero must fight alone for the existence of the Republic, because his enemies only thought about their own interests. Although Cicero did not succeed in maintaining the Republic, for me Cicero is still Roman’s hero; one of its best leaders. Cicero was good in administration, and so, was able to govern well. He was a great philosopher too, and the early Catholic Church even regarded him as a virtuous pagan. His thoughts about Republic were later used by American Founding Fathers.

Thanks to Anthony Everitt who has brought Cicero to us. This biography is quite an easy reading, and you would feel like reading a Roman historical tale instead of a biography. Moreover, I like how Everitt put a thorough analysis of Roman’s fault lines, in order to get a better understanding of the collapse of one of greatest empires in the universe.

A very thorough and entertaining work of history, four stars for Cicero!


I read Random House paperback edition

This book is counted as:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Liebster Award, and 11 Facts About Me

Thank you, Ruth of A Great Book Study and Ekaterina of In My Book, for nominating me for this Liebster Award!  The Liebster Award is a way of spreading the word about blogs in the vast community of book bloggers.  It’s somewhat like a chain letter or a slam book, but a lot more fun. Although Ruth and Ekaterina nominated me for my classiclit blog, I prefer to answer it here (in case you haven’t known yet, this is where I blog about history & historical fiction).

The Rules:

*Thank the blogger that nominated you and link back to their blog.
*Display the award somewhere on your blog.
*List 11 facts about yourself.
*Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger who nominated you.
*Come up with 11 new questions to ask your nominees.
*Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less than 1,000 followers. You may nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you cannot re-nominate the blog that nominated you.  
*Go to their blog and inform them that they've been nominated. 

Eleven facts about me:

  1. I am an only child, and I am always grateful of being one.
  2. My father is an avid reader, and that’s why I become one myself, because I have never been living in a house without books. In short, I grew up with books around!
  3. I liked drawing pictures on a drawing book when I was a kid; mostly pictures of girls, all with detailed clothes, hair styles, etc. (though that hobby faded along my coming of age). But I was always lousy in coloring, either using crayon or water colors!
  4. I was a dancer too until I was in college. I loved modernized-traditional dances, and have performed several times on local TV.
  5. I don’t like to be among a lot of people most of the time, I prefer being solitary. I love to hang around a bookstore alone, and often go to the theatre alone. *hey, who needs a company when you have a good book with you?*
  6. I work as a business assistant in a private trading company. There are only my boss and me, and an office boy. Most of the time I am alone in my office, and I am very comfortable with it. *please boss, don’t ever think of hiring someone else, I’ll do everything myself, promise! :)*
  7. I like to do various jobs, as it won’t get me bored, and I can learn many different (and often unexpected) things. The other day I learned how plywoods were made from logs, when I must provide a short article about it for one of our customers.
  8. I wear glasses since I was eight years old (and became the only kid in 3rd grade who wore glasses).
  9. I am allergic to chicken and eggs. And as I have often a problem with sore throat, I must keep off too sweet, too cold, spicy, and fried foods. It’s annoying, but it helps me a lot to stay healthier.
  10. I am a Catholic, and serve as a Lector at my local Church. Not surprising, really, eh…for an avid reader?
  11. France is my favorite country, Roman history my favorite subject, red is my color, and I think French is the most beautiful language (I studied it years ago).

Ruth’s eleven questions for me:

I was working on Ruth’s questions while finding that Ekaterina nominated me too, and as answering 22 questions would be too much for me, I decided to answer only Ruth’s. I hope you’d forgive me, Ekaterina! :) So, here they are:

1.  Share a favorite quote from a book or author.
I have a lot of favorite quotes, but the most memorable is perhaps this: "A room without books is like a body without a soul" ~Marcus Tullius Cicero. And Cicero is one of my favorite history figures.

2.  Is there a book you have disliked immensely?  Which one, and why?
I don’t remember any. Usually I am quite good in judging a book I’d like to read. And if I don’t feel comfortable from the first chapter, I will give it up for good. My biggest failure is perhaps Dracula; I could not continue it as it was too dark for me, and it really affected my soul. Perhaps having kissed by a dementor would feel like that! LOL…

3.  Why did you start blogging? Has your purpose changed?  How did you come up with the name for your blog?
To ‘capture’ my memory about certain book I have read, just as people take photos or videos of their special moments in life. I don’t really good in creating name (and don’t have the patience to do it), so it’s usually a summary of my blog’s content. This blog bears the name ‘A Glimpse to the Past’ because reading history and historical fiction is like taking glimpses of random events in the past.

4.  Have you ever counted how many books you own?  If not, estimate.
Never! I keep discarding and adding books in my collection every now and then, so I can never be sure about the number. It is perhaps more than 30 but less than 100. :)

5.  Which author have you read the most?
Definitely Agatha Christie! She was my favorite since I was in junior high school, and I don’t even know how many books I have read. I also often forget that I have read a certain title until I read the first chapter!

6.  Which book have you reread the most?
I have never reread a book more than 3 times, but perhaps Agatha Christie’s Curtain, And Then Were None, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are among the most.

7.  Do you have a memorable childhood book? 
Tintin! I have read most of the series, they are always entertaining, and I learned many things from them, especially about countries and cultures.

8.  Have you ever imagined an actor/actress to play a character in a book you were reading?  (For example, I always thought Sharon Stone would make a great Dominique Francon in the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.)
The only time I imagined a real actor to play a character in book was when I was reading The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio plays as Jay Gatsby. But that’s after I knew he would play it, though before the movie was released. Not very imaginative, eh?

9.  Is there a book you would like to see in film version, permitting they kept it true to the book. 
I am not a book-to-movie fan, but I’d really like to see Robert Harris’ Cicero series in movie version; I think I would love to feel the Roman atmosphere, and hear Cicero’s great oratories.

10.  Name a character from classic lit that you would love to be neighbors with.
Maybe Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady. I admire her; she has an independent air, and I think it would be interesting to have a chat with her sometimes, if only she lived in this century! ;)

11.  What books are you avoiding, and why?
Controversial books that attack my Christian faith, such as Da Vinci Code. I haven’t read anything from Dan Brown. I have tried Digital Fortress (which is neutral) once, but got sleepy by it, so I give up on his books entirely.

Questions for my nominees:

  1. Who is your most favorite book character? Why?
  2. Do you have a full collection of books from one certain author? If yes, which author? If no, are you planning to do that?
  3. When you are starting a new book, can you tell from the beginning how much you would like it, or you can only judge after finishing it?
  4. What book do you want to reread the most right now?
  5. What was the last book you rated 5/5 stars?
  6. The longest book you’ve ever read is…. How many pages is it?
  7. What country do you like most for book setting?
  8. When buying book that has more than one edition, how do you decide which edition to pick?
  9. How do you slip time to read books during your daily activities?
  10. Do you read while traveling (when you are not driving, of course)?
  11. Do social media hinder you from reading?

I nominated these great bloggers for the Liebster Award:

Melisa @ Surgabukuku
Karen @ Books and Chocolate
Melissa @ Avid Reader’s Musings
Astrid @ Books to Share
Bzee @ Bacaan Bzee
Listra @ Half-Filled Attic

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Untung Surapati

nuli bakal lair
sawijining manungsa kang linuwih, kapilih
kang miwiti uripe nyarira batur najis
nanging ing titiwancine piyambake
bakal madeg raja tinresnan
kang bakal kalebu  ati marang kawulane
nganti salawase

[dan kelak akan lahir | satu manusia yang dipilih | yang mengawali kehidupannya sebagai budak hina | namun, kemudian menjadi raja | yang dikenang sepanjang waktu]

Itulah rangkuman singkat perjalanan seorang Untung Surapati, pahlawan Nasional Indonesia, yang namanya sudah sangat familiar bagiku, namun yang masih aku ingat hingga sebelum membaca buku ini, hanyalah bahwa beliau orang Bali. :)

Suatu hari di tahun 1664, karena sebuah pemberontakan, seorang Raja Bali bernama I Gusti Ngurah Jelantik terpaksa melarikan diri demi menyelamatkan diri dan keluarganya. Sayangnya, di malam berkabut itu, putranya yang masih berusia 4 tahun hilang tanpa jejak. Sang putra inilah yang diyakini kelak sebagai Untung Surapati. Namun perjalanan panjang penuh perjuangan harus dilalui si bocah sebelum akhirnya menjadi seorang Raja. Perjalanan itulah yang dikisahkan kembali oleh Yudhi Herwibowo dalam fiksi sejarah ini, termasuk perjuangannya yang gagah berani melawan penjajah yang notabene jauh lebih kuat darinya.

Singkatnya, si bocah malang ditemukan orang dan dijual sebagai budak. Di usia sangat muda si bocah yang—karena tubuhnya sangat kurus—lantas dipanggil si Kurus, harus mengalami siksaan berat layaknya para budak yang diperlakukan tak manusiawi. Nasib baik membawanya ke Mijnheer Moor, seorang pedagang VOC di Batavia, yang membesarkan si Kurus untuk menemani putrinya yang bernama Suzanne. Karena kehadirannya banyak mendatangkan keberuntungan bagi sang mijnheer, si Kurus pun berganti nama panggilan menjadi si Untung.

Untung tumbuh dewasa dengan berguru ilmu bela diri dari seorang pendekar, sementara hatinya tertambat pada Suzanne, yang tak menolak cintanya. Mijnheer Moor tentu saja murka karena si mantan budak pribumi berani merayu putrinya, maka Untung pun melarikan diri bersama sekelompok begal (perampok) yang disekap bersamanya di penjara rumah Mijnheer Moor. Bersama-sama mereka melarikan diri dan bersembunyi di hutan. Di sini, tersulut nasib buruk, merekahlah kebencian di hati mereka terhadap VOC dan penjajahannya terhadap bumi nusantara. Maka kelompok yang jumlahnya sedikit itu berikrar untuk menjadi gerilyawan melawan VOC dengan si Untung menjadi pemimpin mereka. Lambat laun kelompok yang awalnya adalah kawanan begal namun akhirnya menjadi pendekar tangguh ini ternyata menjadi duri dalam daging bagi VOC.

Untung sempat (terpaksa) bergabung dengan VOC, dan di situlah ia mendapat pangkat Letnan. Namun jiwa pribuminya akhirnya membuatnya kembali melarikan diri dan menjadi buronan nomor satu VOC. Ia akhirnya menjadi seorang Tumenggung di Kartasura, dan mendapatkan nama keduanya: Surapati. Dari seorang budak hingga akhirnya menjadi Raja, Untung Surapati tetap memegang teguh prinsipnya untuk memerangi VOC hingga titik darah penghabisan, yang ia tumpahkan di benteng Bangil, Pasuruan, kala ia dikepung oleh gabungan pasukan VOC, Kartasura, Madura dan Surabaya. Uniknya, bahkan setelah kematiannya, Untung Surapati tetap tak mau menyerah. Ia berwasiat untuk merahasiakan kematiannya pada VOC, sehingga pengikutnya menggotong-gotong tandu yang seolah-olah ditumpangi Untung Surapati yang sedang terluka kesana kemari, padahal jasadnya sudah lama dikuburkan di tanah yang diratakan.

Salah satu keuntungan belajar sejarah dari novel fiksi-sejarah adalah karena kita diajak mengenal secara pribadi si pahlawan, alih-alih menghafalkan nama-waktu-tempat-peristiwa saja. Seperti pada Untung Surapati, kita merasa bahwa Untung adalah manusia biasa yang pernah merasakan jatuh cinta, sering merasakan gundah dan tak berdaya saat melihat musuh yang jauh lebih digdaya, bahkan pada banyak pertempuran awalnya, ia banyak dibantu oleh gurunya. Sedang pada buku pelajaran sejarah, Untung Surapati hanya akan menjadi seorang pahlawan, yang di benak kita seolah manusia super yang hidupnya hanya untuk menjadi pejuang semata.

Bravo untuk Yudhi yang mau mengisi ranah fiksi sejarah Indonesia yang masih sepi ini. Hanya saja, muatan fakta sejarah yang disisipkan terasa terlalu berat. Kupikir, cukuplah kita belajar sejarah secara detail hanya lewat kisah si tokoh saja, sehingga kita tidak merasa digurui, atau seolah dipaksa (lagi) membaca buku pelajaran sejarah. Itulah kelemahan novel ini, sementara yang sangat aku sukai adalah kesan dan nubuat yang mendahului banyak bab di buku ini.

Kesan membantu kita merasakan suasana yang mendahului suatu peristiwa, seolah-olah kita melihatnya dari mata orang lain, alih-alih disetir oleh narasi pengarang. Kalau dalam film, fenomena ini seperti saat kamera menyorot sehelai daun yang tertiup angin dan terbang melayang sampai jauh, hingga akhirnya jatuh ke tubuh sang tokoh utama, alih-alih langsung mengarahkannya pada sang tokoh begitu saja. Sedangkan nubuat adalah unsur yang paling aku suka, karena mengingatkanku pada kisah-kisah Romawi kuno, yang adalah favoritku :), atau kisah-kisah kepahlawanan Yunani. Nubuat atau ramalan itu membuat sebuah kisah menjadi terkesan epik, apalagi karena hal itu memang menjadi keyakinan pada jaman itu.

Momen favoritku adalah di Jembatan China, saat pohon yang tak pernah berdaun itu tiba-tiba menjatuhkan sehelai daunnya di pundak Untung Surapati ….kehidupan selalu saja bermula! Penggambaran yang sempurna untuk memperlihatkan kebangkitan seorang Untung. Ya, pahlawan bukanlah manusia yang hatinya terbuat dari besi, ia pernah merasa sakit hati, namun bedanya, ia tak lama meratapi nasib, dan dengan semangat baru bangkit dari keterpurukan, sambil terus berusaha mengobati luka hatinya, karena ada hal lebih besar yang harus ia lakukan demi negaranya.

Empat bintang untuk Untung Suropati, dan Yudhi Herwibowo….


I read Metamind paperback edition

This book is counted as:

February theme of Baca Bareng #BBI: Historical Fiction Indonesia

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens. Who haven’t, at least, heard of his name? He is probably the second British writer, after Shakespeare, whose works are most well known in the world. But, like Shakespeare, we are more familiar with his stories and his famous characters than with himself as a person. It is common knowledge that we can get to know an author from his writings. But particularly in Dickens—although it happens in many other authors too—only half of his writings did reflect his true personalities. Only after reading The Invisible Woman, did I realize how hard it is to become a famous person. It becomes even harder when the famous person is a Charles Dickens, who, in his era, was perhaps only slightly less worshipped than the Queen (or even God?). The Invisible Woman is actually the story of Ellen Ternan, but it also reveals so many layers of the extravagant Charles Dickens!

The Ternans is a family of theater workers. Ellen—or Nelly, as the family used to call her—was the youngest of three sisters, and she was born and brought up in the influence of theater industry. Nelly was born in 3 March 1839, a time when women were divided into two distinguished categories: a woman and a lady. No matter how virtuously a woman has been brought up, if she worked in theater, she would automatically be labeled a bad woman; and in the same level as prostitute. In this condition had Nelly—now an eighteen years actress—found herself, when the most prominent writer at that time plunged himself in the theater world, got acquainted with her family, then was attracted to her: Charles Dickens.

Now Dickens has been consistently criticizing social hypocrisy in his contemporary society, and has been modeled as virtuous family man. So, when he found himself loathed his worn-off wife Catherine—who has born his ten children—and attracted by the fresh and innocent young actress Nelly, Dickens was torn between two passions; his passion for a woman who can understand him, and the passion of fame and public honor. Dickens knew he could never marry an actress, and so, was forced to take Nelly only as a mistress. These two ends would be pulling Dickens to each other’s side for years, leaving him restless and in interminable fear of creating scandal for the rest of his life.

First Dickens ruthlessly banished Catherine from Gad’s Hill by cooperating with Georgina Hogarth—Catherine’s sister who was more loyal to her brother-in-law—to accuse Catherine of neglecting their children and being a bad wife. Succeeded in doing that, and as a widower, Dickens started to lead a double live; one publicly, one secretly. At the same time Nelly Ternan’s theatrical career was suddenly terminated, and she disappeared from public life. Dickens installed her at a house, and so, Dickens often went to and fro two homes, as well as travelling a lot for his public readings. This happened in his entire life, until he died in 9 June 1870.

After Dickens’ death, Nelly was freed from threats of scandal and humiliation, which she must endure when she became Dickens’ mistress. She was believed to get pregnant from Dickens twice, but both ended in miscarriage. The seclusion, the fear of scandal, and the uncertain future (as it was impossible for Dickens to marry her) mush have shaped Nelly Ternan to a new stronger woman after Dickens death, when she was only 31 years old. As she has probably learned a lot from Dickens on how to manipulate things, she reappeared in the society by shedding ten years from her age (to prevent any questions about her missing years with Dickens), married a school master, had a happy family, and consistently hid her past from her children until her death in 25 April 1914.

About Dickens – After reading this biography, now I can see why Dickens’ novel characters are mostly comical, unbelievable, and—that’s why—memorable. It is because Dickens himself was a boyish man, both in appearance (his dandy style, even in his later years, his sudden outburst, his energy), as well as in his personalities. I pictured Dickens as a man with great fantasies (that’s where those great stories came from, anyway!), and he believed he must and could make it come true. All that he wanted to happen must happen! His marriage to Catherine prevented him from being with Nelly, so he ruthlessly arranged everything he could to banish her. He did not want to ruin his honor in public, but he also did not want to lose Nelly, so he created false names, false identity, arranged false schedules, produced codes and wrote letters here and there; in short, making every possible way to possess all he wanted. So, while he criticized the hypocrisy in his society, he doubly led a hypocrite life by leading a life he publicly disapproved.

I kept asking myself, why Dickens was determined to take Nelly Ternan as mistress while risking his honor; for sexual satisfaction only? I don’t think so. Apart from Nelly’s charming beauty, I believe he needed a partner who understood him, with whom he could discuss his working life and writings. Plus, Nelly was closely related to a world that was so fascinated Dickens: theater.

About Nelly – It is so ironic, that a woman, who once had a great influence towards a great man, must be kept hidden for centuries, scrapped from histories. Even until now, no one knows the exact life of Ellen Ternan. Historians and biographers could only do detective works and deductions, but could never (at least ‘till this day) reveal the whole mystery. Nobody was sure of Nelly’s feeling and aim when she decided to accept Dickens in her life. I think both Nelly and her mother were fascinated and flattered at first, that a man of such importance paid attention to her. They must have thought it’d be a better future for her, for she could never expect a better husband, not with her theatre background. But Nelly was used to adventurous life in theater, and so living secretly and anonymously might have distressed her. Poor Nelly, I only hope that whatever happened in her last years, she have had once happy moments with Dickens.

Claire Tomalin has done a good job in this biography. She must have been through tons of researches and even ‘detective’ works to reveal the life of Ellen Ternan. Her writing is engaging, and although this is the first time I have read biography, I could quite enjoy it. Four stars for The Invisible Woman! Now I only wish the movie would get to Indonesia very soon!


I read Penguin paperback

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