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

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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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