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widowed bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, Osgood departed to England to trace Drood’s trail, that perhaps he could get Dickens’ unpublished piece on Drood which will be an added value to the original (unfinished) book his publishing company would like to print; before the Harpers and other pirate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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