fiction, review

The Shell Collector

36957532463_91281909daHope springs eternal, no matter what happens. Or, rather, no matter how little or even no possibility there is. The eight short—sometimes quite long—stories making a list in The Shell Collector drive home, instead, a bitter fact that it is often so pointless to have any hopes at all. Why? Because life is just the way it is and what actually happens is not what you want to happen. This is not pessimism. This is reality, in a way. The unpleasant one, though. What you should do is merely to get over it. Move on. Do something else, if you still have energy even to use your brain and think. Why does it sound so bad? Not really, if you succeed in moving on and having another hope to cling to.

Anthony Doerr’s 2002 collection will definitely shred the reader’s heart into pieces with its beautifully merciless pieces of prose. However, due to my incapability to summarize and tell all of the eight stories, I think I’ll settle for writing briefly three which could truly shake me personally. So Many Chances was the first among them. You could say it’s the most pessimistic one, especially when somewhere in the middle of the story a mother says:

“Life can turn out a million ways, Dorotea […] But the one way life will not turn out is the way you dream it. You can dream anything, but it’s never what will be. […] The only thing that can’t come true is your dream.”

It might sound so annoyingly hopeless, as if peope do not have to bother to hope at all. But the narrative gives readers the reason when Dorotea, the said mother’s daughter, is being let down by the fishboy she likes—and whom she thinks returning her immature feelings—as he’s gone without a word. She also has to feel the same disappointment when her father turns out to be working as a cleaning man in a boat as he has been before, and not the shipbuilder he has told her to be. Thus, their family’s moving to the seaside town is something pointless and obviously unnecessary.

The second to spin my head around was For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story. It seems to remind us of our jealousy toward others, when they appear to be a lot better than us, achieving bigger things than us, and doing something we can only dream about that we start to feel so small and useless. Rosemary is a short, rather fat girl who is absolutely nothing like her sister Griselda—tall, slim, having achieved big in volley. Her irritating envy drives her almost off the edge, not telling their mother when Griselda has gone without saying anything with the metal eater stopping by to hold an accentric show in their town. She doesn’t even say a word to their mom when Griselda sends postcards from around the world to tell them where she is and what she is doing with the metal eater. Rosemary doesn’t want their mother to know, not merely because she doesn’t want her to worry a bit about Griselda, but also because she’s angry that her sister can do as she please while she’s stuck in that town, doing nothing better than having a boring job and caring for their mother till the end of her life. Is life fair? Definitely, she thinks it’s not.

And the last one was July Fourth, a hilarious story unlike any other in the collection. It looks like it wants to tell the reader that there’s still hopes and optimism even if you’re doomed to failure in every direction you’re walking to, but not in an emotionally wrenching way. A group of British men challenge a group of Americans to fish and get the biggest fish possible in both continents. While the Brits have always been successful with their feat, the Americans do not get a single big fish, only bad luck and disappointment. But they do not give up. The deadline is the fourth of July, their own independence day, so they rush off. The determined efforts they’re making through the entire story can surely make readers both laugh at their innocent optimism and amazed by their unrelenting hard work.

Anthony Doerr has a unique style of storytelling. His sentences are not something ordinary, not only do they provoke profound emotions and melancholy, but are also capable of expressing the characters’ hidden feelings and thoughts in thorough detail. Even the plot of each story is extraordinarily structured, with complexity of a narrative full of agony and pessimism but also a voiced elaboration that urge the reader to be optimistic despite the little amount of it. All in all, this collection is about small miracles in the midst of difficulties and pain of life. And that storytelling style of Doerr’s can really represent this theme through and through. Reading it, readers will only get the feeling that life is just the way it is; sometimes there are too many troubles and unexpected things that it’s so pointless to have any hopes at all. Nevertheless, it’s also worthwhile to entertain a little bit of optimism inside our heart.

The Shell Collector might be a pretty heartbreaking bunch of stories. It dashes and raises your hopes at the same time. It’s beautiful and painful at the same time. And, either way, it’s still worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Old Man and The Sea

old-man-and-sea-2There are only a small boat, an old man, a wide, seemingly endless sea and nothing else. Ernest Hemingway could have created a boring piece unworthy of reading time we try so hard to spare, but The Old Man and The Sea is worth so much more than that. With Hemingway’s deftness in narrative building and the character’s thought-provoking, sometimes funny monolgue, the 1952 classic proves to be a work bigger than its size (at least, the size of my copy). It’s simple but deep and complicated in what it wants to deliver, it has only two human characters but their presence says more than their number, and its conclusion is all but you need to face the fact that life is not what you think it is.

The Old Man and The Sea tells the story of an old fisherman named Santiago who has been through eighty four days without catching a single fish that he is dubbed salao, the worst form of unlucky. But he is far from being disheartened, instead, the bad days only spur him on to go and set sail again on the eighty-fifth day, with what fishing gear he has and no one keeping him company. The boat trip seems to go on as usual and he does what he normally did. He does wish to catch a big fish, that’s what his aim, but he never thought that he would manage to bait a very huge marlin. He is certainly not prepared for it, and he tries with all his might to handle the shocking catch while navigating the wild blue sea at the same time. It’s obviously not an easy task to beat such a large animal and bring it home, especially when it seems to stay stubbornly strong despite the hook stuck inside its mouth and drags the old man along with his boat over la mar. With his only self and his equipment, Santiago has to face the challenges that lie before him before everything he has started ends well as it should. But, will it?

“But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

The Old Man and The Sea is about struggle and hard work, about dreams and hopes that never cease to flare, about dogged perseverance in trying to achieve our aims. But it is not, unfortunately, about getting them easily. But that’s what Ernest Hemingway wants the reader to see. When Santiago is already halfway toward the end of his taxing journey, fate is suddenly playing tricks on him and he has to wrack his brain, take on patience, and keep calm and sane. Reaching dreams is not a piece of cake, there will be challenges, obstacles, and twisted roads our eyes fail to see laying before us. Determination and patience are not the only qualities, we have also to be smart and emotionally intelligent, and Santiago has shown us he has those. He also shows that, when everything goes wrong and doesn’t end the way he wants it, he still has the humility to accept it.

As a whole, The Old Man and The Sea is merely a simple kind of prose, with conventional, novelistic structure and a lonely man talking to himself almost throughout the plot. But the story is dense and focused and Santiago is a marvelously strong character. Hemingway doesn’t waste his time describing too much; he makes the introduction fast and precise, inviting the reader to the boat trip immediately afterward and follow the character fighting his fight and keeping his chance even if it’s only small and dim. The description of events at sea and the continous monologue cleverly suck the reader into the prevailing situation and make them see, crystal clear, what it’s like to struggle almost to the dying point and end up with merely half success. They result in us vaguely feeling troubled and hurt, unable to accept what reality serves us and yet resigned to acknowledge the truth. The entire story, however, doesn’t leave us hopeless, because Hemingway seems to point out, somewhere in the heart-warming conclusion, that there will always be hopes no matter what.

Though sad, this masterpiece of Ernest Hemingway is really encouraging instead of the opposite. It gives us hopes and reassurance that our belief and hard work will never waste in vain. It might not be a grand creation of a narrative, but it has a punching effect on the reader. More than that, I think it will stay long-lasting as well, as it has always been.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Go Set A Watchman

One might wonder, what was Harper Lee thinking when she started to write Go Set A Watchman? Did she intend to write a story about racial discrimination and segregation? Or a story of a man who tries to use his reason, rather than to act heroically, in the time when race is an issue capable of dividing a country into two? Whatever it was, what I’m pretty sure is that she couldn’t have been thinking to make an angel out of him when she wrote this book like the one she had in To Kill A Mockingbird, for this was the first manuscript she finished before she finally switched direction and wrote the later, phenomenal one.

The story opens with Jean Louise Finch coming home to Maycomb County to spend her two-weeks yearly vacation. The county is not only her home, it is where she spent her childhood, where her father taught her (and her brother Jem) justice and equality. Until then, her father, the well-known, heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, is her idol, her rock, her role model. Everything she knows about humanity, about what’s right and what’s wrong, she learns from Atticus. But one day, she finds an appalling pamphlet in their living room, of which content is about supporting racial segregation and discrimination, defying the idea that black people are equal to the whites. It breaks her heart to discover that the pamphlet is her father’s, and that her father and boyfriend, Henry Clinton, are together in an effort to “keep the black people in their place”. She feels betrayed, hurt, resentful. It is at this point that she realizes her father is not someone she knows anymore.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a hero of justice and equality, defending against all odds a young black man accused of raping a white girl, whom he’s certain is not guilty of anything of the sort. But his character suddenly becomes controversial with the release of Go Set A Watchman, chided and hated. Here in the “lost manuscript”, he is described as racist and supporting segregation, believing that Negros are inferior to the white people in every aspect. There is no explanation, I think, for this huge gap between the two characterizations other than that they are two totally different persons: the Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t hesitate to act heroically for the sake of justice, while the one we encounter in Go Set A Watchman is a man who tends to err on the side of caution and use his logic to solve the racial problems eating away his part of country as he sees fit. If we would just stop and ponder over Atticus’ argument when he has a clash with Jean Louise in his office, we will see that he actually tries to be realistic, considering Southern black people’s lack of capacity at that time for them to be granted political right to vote. So, if To Kill A Mockingbird is a body of idealism, then Go Set A Watchman is an embodiment of unpleasant reality. What makes To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as its version of Atticus Finch, long-lasting and much beloved is that people like to dream and won’t give up hope whatever happens. While the reason Go Set A Watchman, along with the cruelly realistic Atticus Finch making appearance there, becomes inevitably unpopular is that people don’t like being slapped in the face by the hand of reality.

Truth to be told, I found Go Set A Watchman a bit lacking. It’s raw and not properly worked on. Harper Lee spends 1/3 of the book just to make space for the character of Jean Louise to describe herself: her attitude and behavior, her opinion, her way of thinking, so on and so forth. Only after that comes out the real problem, what makes her relationship with her father a brittle one. Even at this point, Lee doesn’t care enough to elaborate the conflict more for the reader to understand, providing merely a quick flick into Atticus’ horrible fault and nothing else. And then, after a terrible shock on Jean Louise’s side and some more flashbacks, the plot glides fast to the final confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus where Atticus is given only a little room to explain himself while Jean Louise has so much to pour out her anger and idealism. The road to the conclusion is even faster and unconvincing. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just too fast to believe. What makes it still bearable is definitely the characters: they are all flawed and human.

Overall, Go Set A Watchman is an imperfect yet intriguing work. It has flaws here and there. I think To Kill A Mockingbird is so much better written than this one. However, I like the way Lee describes the racial issues in this book: it triggers our sense of humanity and yet forces us to see the issues from two different points of view.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has been booming for over two years now, and yet it seems unlikely for the book to see its echo die anytime soon. Labeled as a thriller/mystery novel, it surprisingly does not have lots of thrills this kind of book needs and, unfortunately, the mystery encasing it only lasts for the first part of the story and then dissolves mysteriously into thin air. So much like Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, this Flynn’s third work of such fiction focuses more on its drama and the psychologically disturbing characters employed to twist its already winding narrative. It does have a mind-blowing idea of mixing marriage and murder, in a very unusual yet very real way, but calling it pure crime fiction wouldn’t feel comfortably right.

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, is gone and no one knows where she is or where she goes. There is no clue or trace left to lead to her whereabouts, but there are some horrible, convincing evidences of violence and aggressive attacks on Amy before she is, presumably, being kidnapped. The police wastes no time in getting up and investigating the case, throwing suspicion at Nick in the process. Nick insists he is innocent, unfortunately all the evidences found say the opposite, and he doesn’t have an appropriate alibi to prove that he doesn’t kidnap or kill his own wife. Moreover, his negligent demeanor undeniably mirrors the state of guilty he must be in, showing that he doesn’t care, and is even happy, if his wife is gone missing or dead. With more and more proofs, the police finally arrests him and gets him awaiting for trial. But then, something strange happens and the trial has to be canceled. Nick cannot feel relieved, though, because he must be forever glued to his guilty status and will never have the free life he fervently desires.

I would say that the two main characters here are the main attraction of the book. Amy and Nick are not, basically, normal characters by fiction standard. Throughout the story, the reader can see that Amy is everything that Nick is not. Even the subtle description of Nick being an average man while Amy is an above-the-average woman leads us to the fact that Amy is more than Nick in everything: smarter, brighter, richer, and frighteningly, more hateful, more vengeful, more selfish, and more insane. It turns Nick’s insecurity even lower, rendering him suffering a crisis of confidence not only in front of his wife, but also within himself. It is no wonder then that Nick feels like he gets stabbed right in his male pride and dignity and eventually, when it’s already too much for him, runs to some average young woman who can match him in everything.

So this is where the problem lies, the spot that, in my opinion, gets the brightest light so the reader can see it crystal clear. The conflict between men and women is what actually drives the whole narrative—the wrecked marriage, the cheat, the murder, the mind-boggling scheme. Men have a certain standard of how women, physically and characteristically, should be. And when women fail to meet that standard, or marvelously go beyond that standard, they will not have it.

“[And] the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even

pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be

the woman a man wants them to be.”

—Amy Elliot Dunne

This book, with all its idea, characters, and storyline, vehemently tries to fight against the pattern of fairy tales. I noticed that at some point Amy really mocked how women usually behave in romantic fiction books through her voiced narration, making me raise my eyebrows both in agreement and tame disapproval. However, on the other hand, Flynn also seems to want to create criteria for perfect men through Amy’s demand on Nick to be a “loving, doting, caring, understanding, faithful” husband. Alas, eventually, all we are forced to see is how people are trying so hard to be the ideal, and how exhausting and brain-consuming it can be.

Divided into three parts, Gone Girl is told from two different, changing points of view. The story unfolds in a very deceptive, frustrating, overlong narrative, with all its misleading clues and distractingly convincing evidences. Well, at least for the first part of it, for then the reader is entertained with a sucking marital drama and psycho characters. Flynn deftly leads the reader through her puzzling, twisting initial plot without so much as a little clue until we arrive just at the first page of part two. Such a shame, the most mysterious part of the book is also the most boring one. It was really a struggle to finish it. It wasn’t until the end of it that I could completely enjoy the whole storyline, albeit I had to lose the exciting thrill, for all of the mysteries seemed to have been answered already. Starting the second part, every strange description, every enigmatic sentence, seems to dissolve itself and leaves the reader able to guess what they will find next. However, though all the excitement seems to end there, finally seeing everything through Amy’s honest lens and looking at what truly inside her head is are very much tensely enjoyable. But there was something that bothered me quite much: why did Nick have to realize his wife’s way of thinking all of a sudden after the first half through the book? After all those clues? Why the suddenness? The plunging ending Flynn sets to conclude the entire story also left me unsatisfied. I almost hoped she would have prolonged the third instead of the first part. To me, it’s just a little too fast.

All in all, I must say that Gone Girl is a fabulous psychological crime drama, but not a proper thriller/mystery novel. I adore the magnificent idea it has, but I’m left unenthralled, even now, by its overly long plot and awkwardly executed ending.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Clean Sweep

While I’m still so far away from going on with Kate Daniels series, Ilona Andrews’ Clean Sweep has satisfied a little bit my thirst for their other works. It’s turned out quite unsatisfying, though, in some ways. Firstly published for commercial purpose at the end of 2013, it was originally a weekly free short story posted on Andrews’ official website, being worked on in the middle of their other projects and hectic familial life. I’m not really sure, however, if it’s the reason why Clean Sweep turns out flat to me, for I always believe in their talent for writing. It might have been just me who didn’t feel the click, but I seriously didn’t find it as exciting or even interesting as any Kate Daniels novels.

Dina Demille, a young girl running a Victorian bed-and-breakfast down in Avalon Subdivision, is no ordinary girl. She has a unique magic power and she is, too, the magic itself. On one light summer day, a dog has been murdered. It dies in the strangest fashion anyone can imagine. As an innkeeper, Dina knows that she’s supposed to keep neutral and stay out of it, but it’s been the third murder in the subdivision and she senses that what is to come will be even worse. With the help of Sean Evans, an ex-military newly arrived in their neighborhood, Dina sets to investigate what actually happens and who the perpetrator is. Their investigation into the stalker and its dahaka wreaking havoc in their peaceful territory leads them both to the dirty linen tightly kept by one of vampire families of the Holy Cosmic Anocracy, House of Krahr. The coming of the vampires to the Earth, with a definite goal to capture and arrest the dahaka, stirs things up. Dina has to protect and tend to Lord Soren, an injured vampire knight, and give sanctuary to his Marshal nephew, Arland. Things get more complicated as the neighborhood becomes painfully affected by the damage done by the dahaka, so Arland is forced to reveal what problem his family has. At the end of the day, Dina, Sean, and Arland have to work together to fight the enemy who is dangerous enough to kill them all.

The main character of Clean Sweep, the heroine here—Dina Demille—can be said to be a little bit like Kate Daniels. I might have been just imagining things, but throughout the reading I was quite sure that Dina is as tough and sarcastic as Kate. She’s also that kind of independent lone wolf who’s trying as best she can to refuse anybody else’s help, yet so determined to help others. Unless you want to take Dina’s physical appearance into account, then that will be a different case. Thankfully, Sean Evans is nothing like Curran Lennart. He is some kind of shapeshifter, yes, for his character is a werewolf, but he is not that rich, bossy alpha male who leads a vast pack of were-animals and carries a heavy need to be obeyed. Sean is more of a loner, a wanderer seeking always adventures. Odd as it may seem, but he is still looking for his true self, the true place where he should belong to. He’s confused, uncertain, quite troubled inside. As for Arland, I have to say that I didn’t quite catch his whole character. The Marshal of House Krahr is described as dashing, charming, and protective, but that is all. There is nothing, I’d rather say, special about him, not the way I see it anyway.

Interestingly, as much as their descriptions are quite out of my “expectation”, the characters making appearances in Clean Sweep are very literally unusual. There are not only humans or humans with magic, but also out-of-the-box werewolves and vampires. Both are described coming from other planets in the universe, arriving on Earth through a gate of some sort. Even the vampires here are not some blood-thirsty undead. They are cosmic soldiers with carnivorous nature, and yes, they are common human beings. It felt so strange to read such a mind-boggling description, but oddly enough, Andrews can explain it all the way through the narrative so clearly that the reader won’t find it difficult to understand. The same applies to the world-building. The Andrews seem to have committed to create something unusual, something that the reader may not find anywhere else, but their world is not hard to catch on to. It even looks magically simple to read. If there is one setting description I didn’t quite get, it was Baha-char. Perhaps I just couldn’t follow the road path of the market. Well, putting everything aside, I have to regretfully say that I am so disappointed by the run of the story. I don’t find it interesting to follow. It’s so dull and didn’t catch my attention at all. I even had to read it with full force in order to finish it. The opening scene is not captivating either, not inviting enough to drag me through the whole plot. If it was not for Andrews’ signature sarcasm scattered over the dialogues, I don’t think I could endure the storyline, however fast the pace is.

Overall, I have to say that I don’t really like Clean Sweep. The idea is okay, but the whole plot is just beyond my expectation, in a bad way. The narrative is still typically Ilona Andrews, and so is the main characterization, which is a big problem for me. I had hoped that Andrews would’ve come up with a different kind of person when it came to a different story, but my hope proved to be broken into pieces.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Interpreter of Maladies

Indonesian edition’s cover

How does loneliness affect you? How will you deal with it? Can you interpret it? Jhumpa Lahiri, in her own way, has done it in Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection revealing several different embodiments of loneliness, and of alienation. It is not wrong, I should say, to think loneliness and alienation as maladies, for the two things are indeed what’s gnawing at us most. And Lahiri can cleverly describe those feelings through characters and simple narratives. I wouldn’t say that Interpreter of Maladies is a masterpiece, but it is a showcase for her literary ability to capture and transfer a seemingly belittled problem, which is truthfully never unreal in anyone’s life, into words.

The book consists of nine short stories, all of them are pretty well narrated. However, I won’t deny this, only four of them really captivated me, holding me hostage all through the few pages. In A Temporary Matter, the reader is presented with a married couple who seem to regret deeply the loss of their baby. They have not talked to each other for months and let silence invade their previously-full-of-passion home. The way Shukumar, the husband, describes it, his wife Shoba seems to be the one who becomes so distant after her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But beyond that, he cannot help but to admit, though only to himself, that he has lost his love for her far before that happens. Later on, he finds out that Shoba shares the same feeling for all this time. The question of love is also present in the story entitled Sexy. It shows the reader the contrast between a woman whose husband is having an affair with another woman and a woman with whom a man is having an affair. Craving for love and attention, Miranda doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation to develop a relationship with a man who is already married. Here Lahiri conveys how loneliness can secretly sneak its way through people’s hearts and make them craving for something that results in others being treated unfairly. But loneliness can come in any form, bringing with it toxic feelings we cannot run away from. Depression and alienation are what poisonous to the immigrants in Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and Final Continent, forcing them to develop a new habit and cope with social and environmental challenges that are so strange to them. Being isolated in loneliness doesn’t seem to harass them enough, and they still have to do what any immigrant should do: fitting themselves to the puzzle.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories about lonely people, those who are far away from home and those who are isolated in the society, and even in their own relationships. Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter had caught my attention instantly the moment the two appeared in a kitchen scene. Both were so silent, as I read it, creating an atmosphere so cold and unfriendly that they might as well be not a man and his wife. They were so out of reach, but the revealing narrative helped me understand their characters: dishonest, disloyal, distant. However, of the two, Shoba is the most attention-gripping to me. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to women more than I can to men. Shoba is a complicated person, her silence hiding more things than what we can guess through the reading. Her depression and disappointment do not show in her behavior nor in her attitude toward her husband, but in the hidden decision she’s made in silence, without even the reader knowing it. And, perhaps for the same reason, I feel sympathy for Miranda. I know she’s in the wrong, partly, for another woman’s ruinned marriage. She is so weak at first, falling easily into passion and hope of a true love, which happens to be concealed by mere lust. But then her sense of righteousness forces her to realize that she’s being unfair to that other woman.

There are some other interesting characters in Interpreter of Maladies, but I’m afraid I’m not capable of elaborating all my amazement for them. One thing for sure, though, they are portrayed so strong and fit each narrative they inhabit. All the stories tend to be ordinary, easy to read. They have no twists nor turns, no surprise, and even no emotional atmosphere such kind of stories should have. They all, I’d rather say, seem so flat. But, and I think this is the most important thing, their meaning feels so poignant, conveying the sense of loneliness and alienation in every possible way. Some stories end up cliffhanging, and some others are concluded in a bitter way. Oddly enough, that’s magical to me although I don’t think the narratives are quite engrossing, nor the storytelling is exceptional. However, the fast pace really helped me in enjoying and finishing them without substantial difficulties.

Seeing how flat all the short stories are written, yet how varied and deep they are, I can only say that I feel undecided whether or not I like Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri knows very well how to tell of, and talk about, loneliness, the one thing that keeps lurking within everybody especially those who are alien to their surrounding. I just wish it could be better than it already is.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Yearling

Indonesian edition’s cover

Sometimes, a book is so hard to devour, not because it’s very complicated nor using a too florid language not all readers can take in, but because it makes us think hard. It makes us want to run away because the world is too cruel for us to live in. It makes us realize that living in idealism is such an impossible thing because what we need is what we eat, not what we love and cherish. That’s pretty much what I felt when I read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Pulitzer Prize winning classic. Reading it was like swallowing a bitter pill, unpleasant and so difficult. But, I have to say, that’s why it makes for a good read, and a great work as well.

It talks about the Baxters living in 1800s’ Florida. They’re a farmer family, relying heavily on their crop production and game for food. With his Pa and Ma, Jody lives on the Baxter Island in the middle of a dense forest full of wild, predatory animals. But it’s not only bears and wolves they have to deal with, but bad weather, severe winter, storm, flood taking turns to blast them all year. And that’s not to mention their fierce, bad-tempered, drunkard but helpful neighbors who always get them into troubles and dilemma, leaving them with a restless relationship with their closest relatives. But, of all the ordeal they have to face, Jody’s domestic pet is the hardest. Flag, a yearling Jody finds in the woodland when he and his father go for a hunt and takes into his care, is at first so gentle and docile. But the bigger it grows, the bigger the trouble it brings. Flag becomes very wild and uncontrollable, eating the family’s plants and crops, robbing them of their food to survive. Penny, Jody’s father, has been so patient and understanding about the young animal and its troublesome presence. But their lives now are at stake. They cannot live with another cropless season, and they need to, have to survive. This is no longer about having and loving a pet, or even about caring for a living creature. This is about survival, about doing everything to stay alive, including killing our beloved one. This is about how life goes.

The Yearling is actually a simple story with simple characters. However, there are certain complexities in them. Jody Baxter is a childish, spoiled boy, getting too much love and trust from his father. But he’s also brave and a hard worker, eager to learn anything and bear any responsibility. He’s also lonely and a loving person, hence the need to have something to love and pet, to ease his loneliness and need of friend. And once he loves something, he will do everything to keep it and not share his love with something else, not even think about anything else. But beyond all that, he’s only a child, an inexperienced, innocent child. His character, more or less, is the reflection of his father’s. Penny Baxter is also a gentle and loving man, and a hard worker, too. He’s portrayed as understanding and strong-willed, but he can also be annoyingly stubborn and firm. He’s physically small and short, but he’s as strong as the Forresters, their raucous neighbors. And those raucous neighbors are the most interesting characters of all. They are a bunch of loud, drunk, coarse, rude men. Ma Baxter even describes them as having a black heart. They’re mean and cruel in some ways, but they’re also helpful and friendly. Sometimes, as I read through the narrative, they are quite forgiving. Most of the times they are disgusting, but they have their own white sides. It was their characters that stuck me to the pages when I started to feel like I almost fell into boredom at some point along the book. They truly kept my interest.

This book has a gripping narrative, unfortunately the plot doesn’t seem to have any direction. All the events, all the problems and their solutions are told one by one, without being overlapping nor woven neatly into one whole story. They seem to stand on their own, segmented parts put into cubicles. One thing comes after another, and then another, and then another until the storyline arrives at the point where Jody has finally to sacrifice his beloved pet. It’s not like one story as a whole, it’s more like LEGOs with bits arranged together into one shape. Luckily, it has stunning characterizations. As simple as they might be, they are still portrayals of real people, ones that we can deem so close to the reality. The circumstances they bring also picture what truly happens around us. Rawlings describes them in great detail and very vividly. They are one of the factors that boost up the atmosphere so it feels so strong and utterly absorbing. I was so caught at the end of the book, which is very touching and sad and emotion-draining, though doesn’t feel right in my opinion. However, this book is still amazing in how Rawlings delivers a humanist message and creates such an imaginative, believable setting.

In conclusion, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is a pretty great work of classic literature, such a shame it lacks the nice plot and an exciting ending. But I can say that I can absolutely take the message in, and quite agree with it. The Yearling is a book that leaves you thinking, trying to make of the world.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

And the Mountains Echoed

Indonesian edition’s cover

Humanity is a very complex issue. What’s right, what’s wrong, it’s hard to decide. I’ve been a witness to Khaled Hosseini’s proving it in The Kite Runner, and now again in his latest work, And the Mountains Echoed. It’s a splendid book with numerous, neatly overlapping pieces of narrative and various human, unsettling characters. Through the many stories inside it, Hosseini once again invites us to understand the nature of human beings, and of being a human.

Those stories begin with a piece of narrative, where Saboor, an old poor man, brings his younger daughter Pari to Kabul with him. He tells his family that he will be only doing labor for a rich man in the city, and that Abdullah, his oldest son, doesn’t have to go with them. But Abdullah insists, and even though Saboor has already warned him, he refuses to get back home. So they depart together, Abdullah and Pari riding on a cart while Saboor pulling them. Abdullah thinks he’s only keeping his father and beloved sister company along the trip, but once in Kabul, he discovers the ugly truth: that his father is going to sell Pari to a rich childless couple to get some money for surviving the severe winter ahead of them. But it’s only a tiny piece of story among many others forming the entire course of events. Readers will soon find out that Pari’s heart-wrenching story actually begins with Nila and Suleiman Wahdati’s complicated, empty marriage, and that their chauffeur Nabi plays a very big part in it. It will also be revealed, later on, that the terrible ordeal Saboor’s family has to deal with at that time is not the only one, evidently seen in the difficult life Parwana, his second wife, has to lead. After the second half of the book, the storyline gets even more complicated with a story of Pari’s later life in Paris, Abdullah’s refuge in America, and of how a middle-aged surgeon named Markos Vavaris makes an effort to connect them via Abdullah’s daughter.

The threaded stories are woven together by the characters inhabiting their crowded space. It is quite impossible to elaborate all their portrayals one by one, but there are some main “actors” who deserve to put under the spotlight. I know the whole story of And the Mountains Echoed centers around Abdullah and Pari, but the fate befalling them will not be realized without the role of Nabi, their uncle. Out of love and ego, he comes to Saboor and suggests that he sells one of his children to the Wahdatis. Nabi is not a mean person by nature, and he is a very kind man and brother, but his desire to do everything for the one he loves has driven him to decide something so cruel and unacceptable. What he’s done hurts Abdullah so deeply, especially because the boy is very vulnerable and afraid of losing his beloved one. Abdullah may not look affected much by the loss of his sister, especially when the narrative shows that he can go on with his life, but deep down he’s not the way he is anymore. On the contrary, Pari doesn’t seem to realize what happens to her, for her life has taken her away from her childhood memories. Nevertheless, she is still described as mentally weak. Though very smart, she is not as determined as her mother, Nila Wahdati, who dares to fight anything and anyone in her restrictive society. But Nila is a very intricate character, too, charming and pretty, yet so lonely and mournful and emotionally unstable. She deems her marriage to Suleiman an escapism, but in it she cannot find happiness, either.

Every character Hosseini describes in And the Mountains Echoed seems to doom to weaknesses and damaging selfishness. They are heartless, merciless people without them realizing it. It is so hard to judge them, because they are all humans, and humans live with mistakes. What so amazing about them is that they are so deeply and clearly portrayed, bearing evidence of Hosseini’s indisputable talent for creating soulfully many complicated characters. But that’s not it. Hosseini is also skillful in not only writing, but weaving stories. The intertwining pieces of the narrative seem to be told at random, without considering where each ends and where each begins. But if you peruse them carefully, they’re actually written in order, meant to run smoothly and nicely to reveal the one core idea Hosseini intends to deliver. One story is connected to another, and another until they’re braided in a certain, beautiful pattern in which we can see the whole meaning. This model seems so ambitious, and is truly well executed, but the result is not really satisfying. There are some stories which I deem unnecessary, not having any significance in forming the storyline. They’re like loose threads in the pattern, not even worth notice. And, as a consequence, the atmosphere shrouding the narrative doesn’t feel as strong and poignant as that of The Kite Runner. Reading And the Mountains Echoed is, in my opinion, quite easy. It doesn’t need your extra energy, and won’t make you drained of emotions.

Overall, And the Mountains Echoed is actually a wonderful book, a collection of touching, marvelously told stories. All the characters are also amazingly described, inhabiting a space of narrative that’s cleverly woven. But there’s something missing, and without it this book feels a bit less.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Reflected in You

Indonesian edition’s cover

I was so caught in Sylvia Day’s Bared to You that it would be impossible not to read the next number in her Crossfire series, Reflected in You. To say that it’s better than the previous one wouldn’t feel right, but, on the other hand, I have to admit that it has qualities I deem magnificent: unpredictability and meanderings of a storyline. Horrendous, upsetting sex scenes are strewn all over it, a bit too much to my taste, but it has already been the characteristic any erotic romance has. As always before, its atmosphere emanates emotions and jealousy, and smells heavily of lust.

Reflected in You continues the story of Eva and Gideon where it leaves off. It opens with they arguing about their time together, ending with Gideon keeping an eye on her through a female bodyguard. Upset and irritated, Eva avenges it by putting a male bodyguard beside him. It may end their arguments over spying on each other, debatably out of concern for respective safety, but it doesn’t end the tension between them, with their never-ending fights and their sexual solutions. The real problem starts when Eva meets her ex-boyfriend, Brett Kline, a rising-star rock band lead singer, and stupidly returns his kisses in front of Gideon. The blazing rich man then punishes her with sex, the scenes being narrated making her seem like, if you’ll excuse my French, a slut rather than his significant other. The overuse of sex to express something unsaid also appears when Gideon has to avoid Eva for seemingly no reason and makes her think that they’ve already broken up and he comes back to Corrine. Up to this point, the narrative seems to me merely showcase two childish people with fervent desire for sex, not that I’ll blame it, looking at the genre. However, the conflict starts belatedly to feel interesting when Nathan Barker, Eva’s half brother, is found dead and Gideon comes under suspicion. The atmosphere suddenly turns from lustful to a little bit thrilling, and the author cleverly denies the reader the clear answer.

As the story gets more twisted, Sylvia Day describes the characters of Eva and Gideon in an even more twisted way. Eva seems more jealous, maniacal if I may say so. She has every reason to be jealous, but her overreaction and manner make her look shamefully ridiculous. I personally don’t have any respect for her, and her willingness to stoop so low as to give in to Gideon’s rough sexual lust robs her of the strong, determined character she should have. As for Gideon, I can thankfully say that his character develops better. He may seem so quiet in some ways, unwilling to express what’s inside his mind except through his sexual prowess, but his change in action and behavior is very much intriguing. His mood swing is also attention-gripping, though not in a pleasant way. I cannot say I adore his character, but at the very least he’s not annoying. Day describes him greater than she does in Bared to You, I think, daring to make him look mean, antagonist, and truly dangerous.

Though basically it is still an average erotic romance book, Reflected in You brings up something fresh with it. I never though it could be twisted in a tangle of murder and jealousy. Despite its sex-strewn narrative, it has a storyline no reader wants to leave off, so compelling and nicely flowing. It has more twists and turns, more intricacy, more intrigue. It is something more than what we read. The emotions show more clearly and feel stronger, in spite of the fact that Gideon is portrayed more silent. The core idea of the story is still characteristically romance, but its side elements are more interesting. The second half of the book serves the reader with a bit of “suspense”, which somehow reminds us of a crime novel. The murder of Nathan Barker really makes Reflected in You richer and more colorful, although in the end it seems a little bit detective-wanna-be. The thrilling atmosphere is so dense and, oddly enough, it can somehow fit the entire second half narrative where the case starts. However, I still have an objection to using sex as a problem solution, a means to measure one’s love and seriousness. I think it’s just normal for an erotic romance to have vulgar sex scenes strewn all over it, but that doesn’t mean that it has to deliver such ideas above. Sometimes a book is an entertainment, and sometimes it’s an inspiration. And when it inspires the reader to even think the wrong way, then it can be dangerous.

All in all, Reflected in You is pretty much like what I think Bared to You is, a mere romance book, nothing more. I wanted to look at it differently, what with its fresh intricacy and character development, but the ordinary basic idea and Eva’s hatred-triggering portrayal got in my way. I can only say that I don’t really like it, nor hate it.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Bared to You

Indonesian edition’s cover

The book industry is currently being peppered with erotic romances. Not that the genre has never existed before, but I always have a feeling that we are now overwhelmed by it. I’m not into it, and I don’t know anything about it. But the hoopla brought me to trying to read one of its products, Bared to You by Sylvia Day. First published in 2012, it tries to bring up BDSM theme, which is so highly favored these days like you wouldn’t believe. Only it fails in some ways, leaving the reader wondering if it is truly what it claims to be.

The story is about Eva Tramell, who has just moved to New York and got a new job. In her workplace, she meets the handsome, sexy, dark and dangerous Gideon Cross. The man happens to be the owner of the building in question, unabling her to run for cover after he blatantly declares his fervent desire to get her into his bed. But lust at the first sight happens, as always in any kind of romance, and Eva cannot deny the fact that Gideon’s handsome and sexy figure haunts her everywhere she goes. Gideon keeps chasing after her and approaching her in any way possible to get what he wants, while Eva keeps running and resisting Gideon’s strong sex appeal. But she terribly fails to do that, so they agree to have sex with no strings attached, without any bond tying them. Problem: Gideon loses control, and he never loses his control. That goes to show that there’s something more in their relationship, even though it is so subtle that not any one of them realize it. However, slowly they start to feel bound to each other, and it’s just about time. But they’re so afraid of taking a further step, looking at what happens in their pasts and the trauma they both have to bear.

Eva Tramell is the embodiment of a pretty, sexy, strong career woman of today’s America. Her quick temper and jealous nature make her look a little bit childish, and her insecurity is unmistakable. It’s so normal, I think, to have such quality since most women have the same problem, be it in reality or in common romance novels. I will not say that her character is so usual, neither will I say that she’s so different from other romance heroines I’ve encountered in love stories so far. I can only tell that her character is very much annoying, making the reader feel not even one iota of sympathy for her. Her childish manner and upsetting jealousy are so unbearable. And I really wonder why many romance writers I know like to couple a woman like Eva to a man as stubborn as she is like Gideon Cross. And his character is even more common than I think Eva’s is. A handsome, sexy, gorgeous, intelligent billionaire, Gideon reminds me of any “romance man” I know of, at least so far. Therefore, I don’t think I will be talking about him further. What becomes my interest here in Bared to You is the character of Cary Taylor instead, Eva’s bisexual friend. Not only that he is a bisexual, but also he is a very troubled, damaged person. I like how he is described unable to decide what he really wants, confusing one thing with another, and plunging himself into an uncertainty of sexual taste. Taylor is definitely an interesting, quite memorable character.

Saying that all romances, and its sub-genres, are just the same would be too cruel, for I myself haven’t read enough romances to say so. But, to be honest, I don’t think Bared to You has offered anything new, nor been distinctively different. The plot, the characters, the love story, the whole narrative are all so typical. The fact that it’s bringing up BDSM issue doesn’t help any as well. Reading it only gave me a feeling that I read a romance, a typical one, that’s it. However, putting that feeling aside, I have to admit that Bared to You has a few good qualities: an intricately difficult relationship between the main characters, heartwrenchingly troubled pasts, and a superb style of storytelling. I can say that I enjoyed the book, not in a way I usually did other romance books, but in an unexplained, emotional way. I was drawn into it, unable to get out until I finished and closed the book. This is a new, strange experience to me. I’ve never felt quite like this before when reading a romance. It must have been Day’s smashing style of writing, or something about it. What so unfortunate is that Bared to You implies a very unacceptable idea: when you have a problem with your significant other, turn to sex. Making any comment on this would be very ridiculous because it’s a romance, an erotic romance, but I can’t help thinking that it’s a very narrow-minded notion, as if sex can solve everything, not only our unruly sexual hormone.

In conclusion, Bared to You is nothing but a romance book with many typical aspects, yet inevitably gripping. I have nothing more to say.

Rating: 3/5