It was clear, right from the very beginning: this was unlike any other book I’d read before. SUNFLOWER is a fever dream, violently romantic, lush andIt was clear, right from the very beginning: this was unlike any other book I’d read before. SUNFLOWER is a fever dream, violently romantic, lush and crazy and demanding and bewildering and beautiful. Its language follows that dream logic, the metaphors swinging every which way, every mundane act elevated to hyperbole. And it’s dizzying collective of characters?
There is a woman, quiet and too-beautiful, and the two men who love her—one, a good-for-nothing lover hands long open to be granted her wealth, the other, an Álmos-Dreamer [a long line of lovers who have killed themselves for mostly unrequited love.] And, indeed, Andor Álmos-Dreamer kills himself for Eveline—but when Eveline rushes to his cooling corpse, he wakens. Of course he does. There is also Mr. Pistoli, a Casanova now firmly middle-aged, and all the baggage of his past loves, past marriages—three of them, his wives gone mad. Mr. Pistoli is in love with Miss Malvina Maszkerádi, the feisty, determined-spinster. Miss Maszkerádi is in love with a tree, and would like to stay that way, thank you very much.
Ah, but this is the best I can do, for now: Read SUNFLOWER. Read it over weeks and months, it changes every time you return to it, and that is never a bad thing for something so charged with life and language and the strangest ways people decide to live and love. Read SUNFLOWER, read, read, read. I know I will again, and soon, hopefully soon....more
Our Victorine is a strange one. She’s a bright-eyed adolescent, rapt and giddy with the secrets her body has just begun to disclose. And everything isOur Victorine is a strange one. She’s a bright-eyed adolescent, rapt and giddy with the secrets her body has just begun to disclose. And everything is hyper-eroticized, every brush with the world summons an arousal—it’s nearly ridiculous. Everything is sex! And not even necessarily a prelude to intercourse, mind you, but to a new and different heady sensation awakening within her body.
"As she had lain for those few moments on her back, half naked, caressing herself, waiting for male co-operation, she had been, perhaps, neither good nor evil, just an anthropological specimen."
The Alice in Wonderland-like distortion to the burgeoning sexuality of Victorine works in its favor, convinces the reader of its credibility. Even when our proto-nymphet glances against possible threats—a bum! a creepily obsessive older brother who is nonetheless painted as those sensitive, be-lacy-hankerchief-ed souls—she comes out unscathed, because her wonder protects her from fear. Her preoccupation with how her body reacts makes everything fun, even harmless....more
It’s such a dinosaur. Cranky, snooty, stuffy, pedantic, often condescending. It’s a manual. For intelligent reading. Very textbook-y, very fundamentalIt’s such a dinosaur. Cranky, snooty, stuffy, pedantic, often condescending. It’s a manual. For intelligent reading. Very textbook-y, very fundamental. Very practical. Like some invisible ruler cracked against my keyboard-clobbering knuckles, like a pesky voice in your head.
It’s like having tea with your cane-thumping retiree-professor of a great-grandfather. Him demanding why you aren’t wearing hose, and will you please stand up straight? You bide your time, you promised you’d keep him company. And then, hours later, you realize you’re growing fond of the old coot, you can’t help but enjoy the starchiness. And there are rewards, there are gems your heart could ping with, the occasional moments of, egad, tenderness. Just imagine Gramps lecturing you on all the misreading you’ve committed, giving you precise directions on how to analyze a given book’s title, teaching you how to skim the right way. And then him suddenly going quiet, when you’ve mustered the courage to ask about fiction—him quiet and then, and then: “We do not know, we cannot be sure, that the real world is good. But the world of a great story is somehow good. We want to live there as often and as long as we can.” And you both reach for your cups of tea....more
I needed something not as emotionally consuming. What better book to read next than a French comedy about a suicide shop? Because that’s how I roll, kI needed something not as emotionally consuming. What better book to read next than a French comedy about a suicide shop? Because that’s how I roll, kids. It’s short, simple, with a delightful premise, and a charming cast of characters—the Tuvache family who’s owned The Suicide Shop for generations, all of them named after key suicides; and the black sheep of the family, all sunny and blonde, greeting clients “See you soon,” instead of “Goodbye forever.” Ah, and all the people that want to die. Heh. Something might just be wrong with me, but there’s a gleeful liberation in being caught laughing at a book that so clearly says “suicide” on its cover....more
I don’t have the energy—or the patience—to rationally talk about those bedamned disappointments right now. HowSo many disappointments in me right now.
I don’t have the energy—or the patience—to rationally talk about those bedamned disappointments right now. How to say that the prose had me rolling my eyes more times than it made me breathless? How to say that I didn’t feel as though Van Booy respected his characters to give them room to grow—and not just mope for the purpose of displaying the author’s dubious skillz with the language? How to say that I am certain that a chunk of the book could have been ruthlessly chucked out, because that would make this better? How to say that this could have been about love, but it wasn’t? How to say that this aimless novel made worse by the most egregious usage of deus ex machina I’ve read in recent years? [Doesn’t mean that if you’re novel’s set in Greece, ye have to use good ol’ Poseidon’s fury, dammit.]
I want to pull out all the spoilers here and say that there’s this girl, and she’s French and young and beautiful. She goes to Athens, because that’s what lost French and young and beautiful women do. In Athens, she meets a George. And then she meets a Henry. And then Henry meets George. And things get weird undercurrent-y, like Henry saying, “I will take care of you, George, you’ll never be lonely again.” And me laughing. And then an earthquake comes out of nowhere and kills Rebecca—just when she tells Henry that she’s pregnant, just when Henry and Rebecca have to decide on something and stop sightseeing, at least. And me going WTF DUDE? That decision taken away from them by a random earthquake—yes, earthquakes are allowed to be random in real life, but, good lord, they have no place in literature if all they do is launch an unnecessary soul-searching shiznit and gah and gah and gah. And then and then, yeah, Henry breaks down, and George moves away, and then Henry and George meet again, and George is happy, and Henry isn’t, and a lot more blah, and then, and then, Henry brushes hands with this stranger and da-dum, is it happily ever after post-novel?
What strange creature are you? What manner of sorcery, Christopher Boucher? So very strange, with its own dream-logic and its own contortions of languWhat strange creature are you? What manner of sorcery, Christopher Boucher? So very strange, with its own dream-logic and its own contortions of language. It’s a world built on symbolism and puns and metaphors, and everything still makes sense, and it still manages to be affective. Maybe Kevin Thomas’ damned effective and accurate and so very right comic-review will help do the defining?
How the hell do you accomplish a book like this—it’s a baffling and bewildering accomplishment. How to make it so heartwarming, constructed as it is out of the absurd? A 1971 Volkswagen for a son. A narrator without a name because he sold it for a couple of hours—here, time is currency. Men are killed by renegade Heart Attack Trees. Tennis racquets get depressed. Stories are surgically removed from one’s person—amputated, more like it—and we see the amputee shuffling from the recovery room to discover that the life he thought awaited him, the woman he thought awaited him, was made of nothing but his fictions. Your own rules, your own standards of rationality. How do you do it?
It’s playful, it’s inventive, it’s clever. But it’s got heart. It does test my patience whenever Boucher decides to expand and elaborate on his already cluttered vision, when he’s got more than enough reason to calm down and tell the story that he really wants told. But it’s okay. It was fun. I had a lot of fun. And yes, the gimmick, yes, it’s there—but the heart’s bigger, definitely bigger. And that’s what matters more, at least me....more
I hesitate to describe Alexander Yates’ debut novel as surreal. Sure, among others, there’s a retired fighting cock who likes to smoke cigarettes—andI hesitate to describe Alexander Yates’ debut novel as surreal. Sure, among others, there’s a retired fighting cock who likes to smoke cigarettes—and who happens to be the sidekick of one meth-addled taxi driver turned inept kidnapper—but, you know, this novel feels strangely home. Its strangeness so familiar but compelling nonetheless. Its strangeness I’ve realized to be so patently Filipino. [Obviously, it is not uncommon to find a feral rooster smoking Philip Morrises in this glorious country. Ahem.]
Is this novel an accurate representative of my country? Does it matter? Heh. But, you know, like all works earnest, I think Moondogs lends an honesty rarely seen, rarely tried—especially by authors technically strangers to the land/culture/people whose stories it dares tell. A factor is the palpable affection to place. Another is the fact that Yates deals with people—in extraordinary circumstances, sure; some of them with supernatural capabilities, yes—but the novel steadfastly holds on to its characters’ emotional and psychological arcs.
But let’s begin with the camp and the cray-cray. Because it’s fun. And this novel is a lot of fun. Ahem. The aforementioned rooster and his owner, who opens the novel in a fine ka-blam entrance worthy of artsy-grainy films:
A man and a rooster exit a taxi idling on a crowded street. The man is short and thin, and the rooster is green, and the rooster belongs to him. The taxi belongs to him as well. He’s wearing a fresh shirt, the blood all washed out, and his polyester slacks shine a little in the afternoon light. He’s too young to be balding but is. His mouth is a rotten mess, owing to bad hygiene and a shabu habit. His name is Ignacio. He and the rooster are villains.
Oh, yeah, there is also an actor-turned-politician—which is, in all seriousness, one of the most common slashie occupations in this country:
Charlie Fuentes stars as Reynato Ocampo, the hardest cop in the country, maybe in the whole damn world. The one and only Mr. Tough Knocks, the Dirty Harry of the Wild Wild East, Old Snaggletooth himself. They’ve all been to movie houses to watch him stick up for the unstuckup for, fixing the nation one dead criminal at a time. They’ve all seen him press Truth, his famous shitspilling pistol, into the foreheads of men who deserve it.
Too awesome for words, especially when you realize that Charlie Fuentes is a composite of every actor who’s decided to put his brusque good looks on campaign posters, to use his easy charm to lull legions of fans into committing his name to a ballot. [Having paid more than my usual attention to the last election dude: the speeches here, how Charlie pounces on drama and vote-mongering? So sweetly real, haha.]
And, dear god, Task Force Ka-Pow, a small, merry band of special operatives who happen to have superpowers and are, thus, truly shitspilling themselves? There’s a shapeshifter, there’s a man who specializes in magic tricks [only, ya know, realer and deadlier], and there’s the group’s official shit magnet—if a bullet’s meant for a teammate, it will always find its way to this poor guy’s chest. And then, of course, there’s Efrem Khalid Bakkar of the Boxer Boys of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who happens to shoot anything, anyone, from any distance—and making that shot count.
Yes, several times, the novel’s energy comes close to collapsing into itself—this reader flipping pages in a mad dash to figure where the hell I was, when the bleeping shit I’m in actually took place—and the cast lead seemingly disparate lives for most of the novel [although they eventually gather into the spectacle of this novel]. You follow all these characters, superpower-ed and otherwise, and it can be overwhelming to do so; there were plenty of opportunities for Yates to tighten his narrative, or at least his telling. But, demmet, I flipped pages, didn’t I? The fun I was experiencing overshadowed any confusion that I’d suffered.
Mucho characters, mucho energy. But it’s a wonderful contrast and complement between these larger-than-life characters and their more quiet counterparts. There is Monique, US Embassy bigwig-slave, dealing with the pressures of her job, adapting to a culture she’d only experienced very young, and trying to appease a family [especially her “trailing spouse”] itching to get far, far away from this sticky place and its penchant for banana ketchup.
And, you know, at the center of the novel is, after all, Benicio Bridgewater, a man forced to confront the Philippines in all its mad glory, hand-in-hand with the kidnapping of his estranged hotel [and other shady deals]-magnate father. It is Benicio who must reconcile hurts of the past—including the death of a much-loved mother—and even faces off with them in the present. His father’s womanizing ways? The prostitute in his father’s hotel room who, still a stranger the night before, had given him a hard-on. The insistence that he is not his father, god no? See Benicio rubbing shoulders with the country’s political elite, all their whims and caprices, their dangerous slyness, their sheen—the power they convince him he possesses. Moondogs is, essentially, Benicio Bridgewater’s journey. Appropriate, pun-ish name, and all that. Something needs to shake him up, and, yes, by this novel’s lyrically calm conclusion, this poor boy has been shook hard.
But no one is simply larger-than-life, no one is simply a—sorry—a Muggle. The novel insists on digging into these people, uncovering the humanity beneath their assumed roles. And, we realize, along with them, that no one is who they seem. Secrets have been deliberately kept, and, sometimes, we even follow the characters discover things about themselves that they’d rather not discover, or hadn’t even considered. And that’s where Moondogs really hits the mark for me.
The novel—for all its focus on special operatives with superpowers, on the glitz of actors-turned-politicians, on the spectacle of a kidnapping carried out by pseudo-terrorists—insists on grounding itself on questions about family, about home, and how the places we find ourselves in influence our very identity. That’s the earnestness, that’s the bigger risk.
Its realism may be playfully skewed, with comic book tropes turning camp and vice versa, but this book is all heart, with a keen sensitivity to emotional narrative regardless of the spectacles. And yes, it’s so rare to see a novel about the cray-cray capital that is Manila (and I say that with much fondness) as engagingly, as sensitively—as inoffensively, haha—as Yates has crafted.
Beyond being bruhos and token expats and mainstays in seedy-sensational Manila, these are people, ya hear? People who apologize through locked doors, people who keep boxes full of returned letters, people who are sick and tired of “food cooked in vinegar and soy sauce . . . [and] spaghetti with sugar and hotdogs”—people who, dammit, would like to figure out what home means exactly, even for just a single clearest moment, even if through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle’s viewfinder.
Oh, and that cover? I want that on a shirt....more
Upon finishing this book, I scurried to Twitter to announce what an “amazing and disquieting book” it was, and that it left me “awed and scream-ish,”Upon finishing this book, I scurried to Twitter to announce what an “amazing and disquieting book” it was, and that it left me “awed and scream-ish,” and even thanked the author Ransom Riggs for letting me read a book that cobbled together a story [that also hinted at greater possibilities] from a seemingly disparate collective of photographs.
It’s been more than a week ago, and I’ve discovered, settling down to write this, that my opinion has pretty much changed—a vision that seemed so inventive, now seemed like a pastiche of fantasy and coming-of-age tropes; characters that seemed so distinct, I could now only remember by their peculiarities, because, after all, that’s what Riggs’ shorthand is all about; even the found and assembled photographs suffered my doubt: What I then felt was so essential to the story became, possibly, too convenient to creating the world of the Peculiar Children, even the children themselves.
Okay. I bought this book on impulse. Of course. Aside from being very creeped out by that cover [almost always a good thing], I was intrigued by the experiment on form hinted by the sparse jacket copy, and by John Green’s praise—as some of you may have noticed, I live in a magical realm where most books are sold in the store shrink-wrapped, and in this particular instance, I was too lazy to tear it away. So, yeah, I essentially didn’t know what it was about, nor had I ever heard about this book.
The story is simple enough, though the first third of the book will have you following the tracks predicted by the wildly speculative judge-y voice in your head. The first chapter itself, about a grandfather who tells stories to his grandson, big fish stories, and not even that among the most horrific, the Holocaust—there are stories about, say, a little girl who couldn’t help but levitate that they had to wear leaden boots, else she’d float to the sky.
You’re lulled into thinking that this book will be a tug-at-your-heartstrings-then-step-on-them book about passing down stories, about a growing boy’s decision to refuse to believe them, about an old man’s silence.
But it’s not, although it tries to keep coming back to that, particularly the consequences of our narrator Jacob’s decision. But not as impactful as I would want, not as solid an elaboration. This book is not the book you think—you hope—it is in Chapter One. Neither is it the book you dread it’s going to be in the next handful of chapters—rich kid being all outsider-y and shiitake. And then Jacob sees his grandfather’s mangled corpse, and you wait for the adventure to begin, its grief-rage drive.
But, no. You wait some more, and then you realize you have to settle for a Jacob Portman turned into this placid sponge who just accepts everything—the fire that springs from a girl’s hand, someone’s brother dead and untouched on a bed, a boy you cannot see.
There is so much wonderment in this book, and I responded to that wonderment. But Jacob, I realize now, remained unfazed. The vision may exude its influences not very lightly, but I appreciated it, I liked it a lot—mostly because Riggs displayed that his strength as a writer lay in atmosphere. But the characters? The secondary characters, their personalities all but erased—not unlike prodigies known only by their field, not unlike comic book mutants known only by their mutations, not unlike strangers known only by whatever disease has afflicted them? Our lead, our narrator—upon whose shoulders rest the success of this book and those of the books that will follow, Jacob Portman who is responsible for the reader’s experience? Zip.
I wonder if it’s not just the placidity. [Nor his inability, I realized, to see, What is wrong in this picture?, hur.] Perhaps a factor is this book’s problem with tone—a problem I’ve discovered I have with certain books marketed for young adult readers: a reluctance to commit to tone. It’s like the author wants to talk of all the Big Fucking Deals of Life, then pulls back because of restrictions of the genre [or, if you prefer, the marketing label]. I dunno.
* * *
I am the first to admit that I am fickle as hell. Life, too, throws way too many variables to influence opinions, to tint experiences, even to doubt the veracity of one’s emotions then.
I find this whole internal shebang re Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children to be notable, because it happened so freaking fast. I liked it, then, yes, but I knew I had reservations—but I persisted on liking it. And, usually, by the time I post, I admit that: That, yes, I know this has flaws, but I don’t care, I like it a lot.
I liked this book then, I did. And I still remember powerful scenes—a snippet of Jacob’s grandfather’s life, a boy having memorized in detail a day in the life of a town frozen in time, a decades-kept photograph let go because someone else needed to say goodbye.
Will I read the sequel? The rest of the books? I most probably will—there is simply too much promise, and I am truly intrigued by this world. Am I being contrary, yet again? Hah. Will I change my mind a week from now? Ugh. So. There. Something to brood about. Brood....more