Literary detectives are different from you and me, those haughty geniuses with photographic memory who navigate a crime scene with laser-like precisio...moreLiterary detectives are different from you and me, those haughty geniuses with photographic memory who navigate a crime scene with laser-like precision. Because they are masters of detection, we the audience are often left scrambling in the dust, unable to make sense of the mystery until the genius detective deigns to explain everything to us. So it’s quite refreshing when I encounter a mystery where the problem-solver is as clueless as the average reader. In fact, Atty. Jack Knox in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Window at the White Cat is a true bungler, prone to moments of clumsiness and self-injury.
It's a little weird, writing this post months after having read the book and having given my copy away, but my personal need to chronicle my reading life is compelling me, so here we go.
Naermyth by Karen Francisco is a take on post-apocalyptic YA that combines the tropes of the genre with uniquely Filipino references. In this world, the creatures of mythology suddenly emerge and lay waste to most of civilization. In the Philippines, these are the creatures parents used to invoke to strike fear into children's hearts, such as the aswang, sigben, and the manananggal. Only pockets of surviving and resisting bands of humanity continue to exist, including a fort in Manila that is protected by the so-called Shepherds.
The Shepherds venture to the aswang-infested territories of Manila to find surviving humans and lead them to relative safety. One of the most efficient and competent aswang-killers among this ragtag group is a girl that answers to the name Aegis. One day, she finds an unconscious man who is about to be attacked by aswangs and saves him, only to find out that this man has absolutely no recollection that the end of the civilization has occurred.
So far so good, right? I was initially interested in reading this book because of the premise. A sustained novel of this genre from a Filipino author has been a long time coming. I was ready to experience some intricate worldbuilding, a spunky heroine, and copious amount of Filipino mythology thrown. All requisite boxes are checked. However, I found no pleasure in reading it because the first person point of view, the dialogue, and the plot twists struck me as utterly unconvincing.
The earliest obstacle for me was the use of the 1st person POV. We see the world from Aegis's eyes and we are led to believe that her experiences with death and violence has hardened her into a jaded person that keeps her emotions to herself. And yet, throughout the novel, she ends up shouting at people and wordvomiting at the slightest provocation. The strange connection that she feel with the man with the amnesia--named Dorian--is alluded to over and over again. For someone who keeps her cards so close to the vest, she sure talks a lot.
Comparisons with The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins inevitably crop up. Mind you, I read the THG series a couple of months after Naermyth, so my dislike doesn't stem from unfair expectations I may have heaped upon Francisco's novel. Collins managed to grip my attention from the very first chapter by using punchy language that smartly reveals Katniss's laconic personality and sustaining it for an entire trilogy. This is quite a feat considering that FIRST PERSON NARRATIVES ARE HARD.
An untrustworthy narrator can destroy all the groundwork the writer has done and makes the story topple like a house of cards. Naermyth illustrates this quite clearly. It's easy to lose the tension because you already know what the most important person in the scene is thinking. Making it work requires judicious editing and making sound decisions on what to say and what to leave out. Speaking of leaving things out, all the characters are invariably given chewy mouthfuls of exposition to advance the story. There are effective ways of conveying the details of a world--Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass did this admirably--and an inexpertly rendered exposition can destroy the promise of an interesting fantasy universe.
These elements may have been easy to overcome in my head if it wasn't for the inclusion of a clumsily handled, overwrought, and entirely unnecessary romantic (triangle?!) subplot. I get that this is another trope of the YA genre, but every time the action grinds to a halt for the sole purpose of having Aegis, Dorian, or River (he's some guy, don't ask) talk about their feelings, I wanted to curl up into a ball and never see the sun again. And I don't want to spoil the story but let's just say that the fate of the world ends up hanging in the balance unless it is saved by ~The One~.
There were interesting and pleasurable elements. I like how certain Filipino supertitions are woven into the story and the sort of road trip to Pampanga's diwata-controlled territories is easily the most interesting part of the novel. If only the characters were given more nuance and more narrative real estate was freed of certain tired plot points, the obvious amount of work that has gone into the research and worldbuilding would have shone through. For me, Naermyth was unconvincing from the get go and never quite managed to make me change my mind.(less)
A novel filled with parodic exuberance and tongue-in-cheek humor often runs the risk of archness to the point coldness, becoming too intent at skeweri...moreA novel filled with parodic exuberance and tongue-in-cheek humor often runs the risk of archness to the point coldness, becoming too intent at skewering the ridiculous to actually carry a human center. L. Zamora Linmark's Leche sidesteps this trap by grounding the chaos of his setting with a fallible and searching viewpoint character, a balikbayan named Vince who wins a trip through a Mr. Pogi beauty contest. Through his incredulous but largely game eyes, the readers navigate the crooked sidestreets and gridlocked roads that make up life in 1990s Philippines.
Vince descends into an Aligherian hell from the first scene as he takes in the cacophony of voices, smells, and personalities in a Manila airport. He then interacts with a gaggle of personalities not unlike the Italian nobility that populate Inferno and Purgatorio--from the iconoclastic director Bino Boca to the distressingly effervescent fictional(?!) Kris Aquino. The rugged man who ferries him to the various sights of Manila is even named Dante. Linmark makes these parallelisms overt throughout the novel. But Leche also has much in common with another work of literature to use an epigraph from The Divine Comedy--the eponymous J. Alfred Prufrock from T.S. Eliot's landmark modernist poem.
Much like Prufrock, the inaction and ennui that Vince feels through much of the novel is a response to a wide range of anxieties and hurt that he has experienced in his life. While Prufrock's trauma comes from the unexpected assault of war and modernity, however, Vince's come from leaving his country as a child to build a life in a new one. The novel also intersects Vince's diasporic identity with that of his queer experience. I like that being gay is not the definitive aspect of his character--in fact, you can say that it only ends up complicating his already fraught relationships, not only with his friends and loved ones but also with his two countries.
This novel was slow burn for me. The din generated not only by the characters but also the setting, humor, and writing style can overwhelm a reader who is not expecting it. It took a while to warm up to Vince's character, but the final pages that take him on a jeepney ride out of Manila (and into Paradiso, perhaps?) ties up all the disparate parts of his identity, including his relationship with his deceased grandfather, and allows his story to end somewhere quiet, mournful, and beautiful. It is a wonderful meditation of the question that emigres often grapple with, whether one can ever truly go home.
Notice how I haven't yet mentioned how this novel is a veritable stew of postmodernist narrative tools, the most obvious aspect of Leche. Vince's sightseeing is punctuated by postcard messages, excerpts from tourist books, interview transcripts, even an extended scene from a Bino Boca movie extravaganza. A postmodern homecoming novel about a balikbayan is not new (hello there, Ilustrado). I decided to focus on the novels more affective qualities to demonstrate that formal inventiveness is not enough to create resonance. Leche checks off as many literary references as Ilustrado (read: a hell of a lot of them), but I argue that they do not distract from the characters' fiercely beating hearts.
Diaspora stories have become a staple of Philippine fiction, thanks to our historical and economic realities. Because this experience fractures so many of us, much of our literary real estate is invested in collecting the broken pieces and gluing them back together. Leche's foray into the diaspora archetype shows that some of the most emotionally rich places exist within the jagged edges that we are trying to smooth over. Let us go then, you and I.
This novel was a pleasure to read through and through. I especially loved the lilting tone, as well as the laugh-out-loud dialogue she peppers through...moreThis novel was a pleasure to read through and through. I especially loved the lilting tone, as well as the laugh-out-loud dialogue she peppers throughout the story. There’s a lot of tension and excitement, and DWJ never hesitates and playing out genuinely distressing–even downright scary–events in the lives of the protagonists. And while many of the characters are larger than life, they are also incredibly warm and lovable. I’m only sad that there isn’t another DWJ story specifically set in Caprona.
So I love this book, but I'm kind of glad that I never read it when I was younger. I would have been enamored by the utopian brilliance of this make-b...moreSo I love this book, but I'm kind of glad that I never read it when I was younger. I would have been enamored by the utopian brilliance of this make-believe world of academia.(less)
Tai: Why should I listen to you, anyway? You're a virgin who can't drive. Cher: That was way harsh, Tai.
I wonder how many people begin Emma with the movie Clueless as their point of reference. This revelation pegs me as an irredeemable child of the 90's, it's true, but the contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen's novel by director Amy Heckerling provided a level of accessibility that would've never existed had I entered the text cold. The lives of gentlefolk in a small English countryside is hardly something I can relate to, but conjuring up images of a young Alicia Silverstone traipsing around Beverly Hills prepared my expectations for a ridiculous, over-the-top romantic plot peppered with insight and comedy. While I loved the movie as a young kid, the novel itself is a surprise as an adult, the humor so fresh and razor-sharp two centuries after its first publication.
Emma Woodhouse is the darling of Highbury, heiress of her father's estate, and--in her own mind--an unparalleled matchmaker. She's young, rich and precocious, certain that she will never marry and therefore committed to pairing off the people she loves in a tidy fashion. Everybody in town defers to her except for the gentleman George Knightley, Emma's brother-in-law. He is constantly unimpressed with Emma's insights about romance, because underneath her seemingly altruistic intentions lies the heart of a spoiled young girl.
Meeting the equally frivolous girl named Harriet spells disaster for them both, once Emma decides to give her a makeover and marry her off to someone "respectable." The problem: Harriet's social stature is too low to be able to catch a gentleman. Emma's coaching inflates her ego so much, however, that she refuses the proposal of a thoroughly sincere man whom Harriet actually likes, thinking she can do better. A series of mishaps rock their little cul-de-sac when a young man Emma wanted to pair up with Harriet ends up angling for her instead and the dashingly mysterious yet flake-y Mr. Frank Churchill catches Emma's interest.
You sometimes forget that Austen can be absolutely scathing in her depiction of her own characters. Emma is the least self-reflexive character among Austen's heroes but most of the story is told through her point of view, a triumph in the realm of the unreliable narrator. She's not stupid by any means, but she's so naive and already assured of people's love and high regard that until the very end, she never questions her own judgment. The way her constructed illusions crumble around her near the end of the novel is also handled superbly, the emotional fallout so vivid despite the lack of showy displays.
The minor personalities throughout the story are small gems of characterization. Mr. Woodhouse the hypochondriac lends great levity with his non-sequiturs and so does the talkative Miss Bates. The subplot featuring the beautiful Jane Fairfax, a smart, together young woman (at whom Emma is jealous) makes a wonderful counterpoint to the trivialities of Emma's preoccupations. The way their conflict is resolved at the end is testament to how Emma grows up throughout the novel, earning the reader's respect in the process.
I've been having Austen in the brain recently, owing to writing this post and an article by the Los Angeles Review of Books about her place in English Literature. Because of her subject matter, it's easy for people to dismiss her work as merely focusing on trivialities but books like Emma showcase her unerring capacity to size people up free of any justifications, uncovering manipulations, anxieties and true emotions underneath the sheen of gentility.
In my quest to read more non-fiction this year, I went ahead and bought this book which I've been hearing about for a long time. As someone who gorges...moreIn my quest to read more non-fiction this year, I went ahead and bought this book which I've been hearing about for a long time. As someone who gorges on police procedurals on a regular basis (let me tell you about my feelings for Idris Elba's Luther one of these days), the subject matter is right up my alley.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a series of long form essays by journalist Mary Roach that tackles the adventurous (after)lives of corpses that are used for scientific research. From the long-standing and ghoulish tradition of bodysnatching for medical schools to the relatively recent educational facility called the "body farm," Roach examines not only the mechanics of corpse-related experimentation, but also the ethical and practical implications of doing such work.
It took a while to get used to the conversational writing style; I expected some sort of journalistic distance in the POV but it ended up being a first-person narrative. I can understand why people might find it tiresome, but I think the authorial presence is a nice counterpoint to the subject matter itself. The moral implications of what humanity does to corpses and what it tells about us can get very alienating, so Roach's persona works well as an incredulous stand-in for the reader.
A great deal of research was obviously involved in the project, often discussing historical precedents and the follies scientists often go through in order to prove their hypotheses. Did you know that Thomas Edison designed an apparatus which aimed to prove that the soul is made up little bits of "etheric energy?" Now you do. Roach does a good job in sketching out the personalities of those who work in this kind of research, often relating episodes of inadvertent humor in the laboratory.
While I would've liked a little more in-depth detail, I understand that this book is aimed to be a cursory look into a branch of science that has often been overlooked for the sake of propriety. I found the sections relating to organ donation and people's intense emotional reaction to it particularly fascinating. Roach takes great pains to emphasize that society's hang-ups regarding the dead has nothing to do with our deceased loved ones. It's the sensibilities of the living that are often in turmoil.
Recommended only for those with a strong stomach because believe me, things can get pretty graphic within these pages.
Mystery is a genre that has always been close to my heart, and I have been very much invested in discussions regarding the dearth of crime and mystery...moreMystery is a genre that has always been close to my heart, and I have been very much invested in discussions regarding the dearth of crime and mystery fiction from Filipino authors. Batacan’s novel about two Jesuit priests and their quest to find the murderer and mutilator of young boys in the Payatas Dumpsite is a relative bestseller, consistently read and reviewed in different blogs through the years. But it’s also a bit a of an outlier, unique in its position as the only Filipino novel so far that I believe follows the convention of a proper mystery novel.
Books like Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister and Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado feature elements of crime in their plots but they’re entirely different literary animals. You can’t say they’re following the conventions the likes of Agatha Christie or Patricia Cornwell have cemented within the genre. What I’ve been wishing for from the Filipino publishing world is a concerted effort to churn out solid, pop-y crime novels that are both accessible to casual readers but are also rich with decidedly Pinoy sensibilities.
I don’t think that’s an impossible feat at all. Smaller and Smaller Circles shows that it can be done, and despite its shortcomings as a novel, I still maintain that it’s the kind of book that everyone who’s Filipino and loves book should read. It can be nice gateway to more productive discussions, and hopefully, more Pinoy mysteries.(less)
Ilustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres--murder mystery, satire...moreIlustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres--murder mystery, satire, interviews from The Paris Review, everything but the kitchen sink. Miguel Syjuco's brassy debut novel turns on its head the first accusation thrown in the face of every expat writing a novel set in the Philippines: "Just how authentic are you?"
Reveling in the flimsy divide between the true and made-up, Syjuco names his protagonist--a listless, wannabe writer in self-imposed exile--after himself. Aldrin of FullyBooked.me points out that other postmodernists like Auster and Safran Foer have created protagonists that they have named after themselves, but this device takes on a more political dimension here. Miguel Syjuco's surname, after all, is a potent one; his own father is a incumbent Iloilo congressman. It practically invites speculation and chismis, since the novel's Miguel also comes from a family of politicians. Could (and should) the reader conflate Miguel's ambivalence about the burgis class he is a part of with the writer's own views? The book brazenly invites these types of questions and more.
Syjuco crams in a distressing number of conceits here, everything from the complicity of the moneyed elite in the sorry state of Philippines, the inherent vacuousness of "intellectual" conversations during book launches, the increasingly grotesque bread and circuses orchestrated for the consumption of the masses. Ilustrado mocks postmodernism even as it wallows in it, going through the techniques like a checklist: bricolage, metafiction, black humor, irony, intertextuality, pastiche. One is tempted to make jokes about having more tricks than a hooker.*
But while accusations of bloat is a fair one, this novel is most certainly not a gimmick. Some parts were handled clumsily (like Avellaneda's blog commenters and the entire length of Miguel's misguided infatuation with a girl he met in a bookstore) but there are layers within these techniques, becoming clues that lead to a final, mind-bending revelation.
It's not quite as journalistic as I expected, the stories often have some editorialized comments regarding morality. But once I got over that, I found...moreIt's not quite as journalistic as I expected, the stories often have some editorialized comments regarding morality. But once I got over that, I found it pretty enjoyable. A bit of probably unintended hilarity with the juxtaposition of cheerfully bucolic 1960s Manila with the grisly crimes told hire. Knifings at ice-cream parlors and hooligans fighting over bowling competitions. You couldn't make this stuff up.(less)
I violently hated this novel in its first 300 or so pages and only came to tolerate (and even mildly like) the story as it wrapped up its final thread...moreI violently hated this novel in its first 300 or so pages and only came to tolerate (and even mildly like) the story as it wrapped up its final threads. I state this at the very beginning in order to establish that I am emphatically not the target audience for this novel, but it doesn't mean that John Irving's brand of fiction will not work for you. My sister is an Irving fan, and she was the one who convinced me to give him a try. However, the novel that she likes (Hotel New Hampshire) apparently has sad stuff in it so I tried this one instead.
A Widow for One Year follows novelist Ruth Cole during three seminal periods of her life, from a summer in 1958 with her mother's affair and subsequent disappearance that unmoored her as a five-year old, a trip to Amsterdam decades later when she becomes witness to a crime, to her life as a widow and mother years later. Revolving around her is a solar system of characters that often interact with chaotic results. These include Ted Cole, philandering father and successful children's lit author, Eddie O'Hare, mediocre novelist who lives his entire adult life in love with Ruth's absent mother Marion, and a well-read Dutch cop who ends up falling in love with Ruth.
Literally every other character in this story is a white upper middle class novelist, with various degrees of successes. They all "summer" in the Hamptons. They play squash in between bouts of lovingly depicted infidelity. Two characters reunite during a book reading at the 92nd St. Y. Ruth does research for her next novel by exploring the sex trade in Amsterdam. There are so many barf-worthy affectations that I've wondered whether the entire novel is a highly opaque parody of soft-spoken, public radio-supporting, well-traveled East Coast intelligentsia and Irving is just waiting for everyone to notice. My reaction as I flipped pages can be summed by an animated gif of Judy Garland gaily singing "I don't caaaare."
Embedded into dubious plot points are instances of clear-eyed and beautifully rendered imagery, including the multiple photographs of Marion and Ted's deceased sons, brothers that a young Ruth never met. The novelistic pastiches are also credible, particularly the excerpts from Ted's creepy children's stories. The least convincing ones come from Marion's detective novel (of course), which is characterized as commercial fiction but is much too inert and ponderous to be one.
The most interesting character ended up being the Dutch cop that became entangled with Ruth through a series of highly spoilery events. It probably helps that he is parachuted into the slow-motion train crash of Ruth's familial relationships and he functions as someone who grounds her through all the chaos.
Speaking of trainwrecks, a lot of pages were used to talk about Eddie O'Hare's sad and ineffectual life. I want to get back the hours of my life reading those pages. I understand that Eddie is depicted as an inherently buffoonish figure, but I also resented how the narrative is trying to make me sympathetic towards him from the moment he becomes attracted to Marion as a teenager up until he decides to transfer his capped affections towards an adult Ruth. Gross.
This novel is a mess, sure, but messy novels aren't usually a dealbreaker for me. However, A Widow for One Year is an unwieldy collection of tropes that left me aggressively apathetic. Maybe this brand of narrative irony just isn't for me.(less)
The writing is very compelling and the entire book is a study on great 1st person POV but I don't quite now what to make of this story and its philoso...moreThe writing is very compelling and the entire book is a study on great 1st person POV but I don't quite now what to make of this story and its philosophy, to be honest. Maybe I need to read more westerns to be able to get the nuances.(less)
The first time I read it, I had the same preconceptions on what the story ought to be: A novel about a literary agent in Manhattan trying and failing...moreThe first time I read it, I had the same preconceptions on what the story ought to be: A novel about a literary agent in Manhattan trying and failing to find love, peppered with witticisms and ultra-hip whining, drinking of cosmopolitans, et cetera. I actually became a little annoyed when I found out that Girl’s Guide is actually not a full novel so much as a collection of loosely connected narratives. The stories takes us through the lives of these urbane individuals who weren’t immune to heartbreak, cancer, and professional ennui, despite their perfect haircuts and their perfect vacations. But I ended up reading this book again over the years, and I found that I take away something new from it every time. The very last story is my favorite one, and makes reading the whole book actually worth it. It makes a gentle mockery of people looking at self-help books to get them the love of their lives, while at the same time acknowledging the in these modern times, a girl just really wants someone who can help her with the answers.(less)
Murder Must Advertise is a wry commentary on the inherent ridiculousness of the advertising business, and how people twist themselves into a state for...moreMurder Must Advertise is a wry commentary on the inherent ridiculousness of the advertising business, and how people twist themselves into a state for ten words’ worth of ad copy. Dorothy L. Sayers really uses her experience in the business to great effect, articulating how frantic and potentially soul-crushing the job is. Add a little business about cocaine trafficking and you have a plot that’s surprisingly modern and gritty for a Golden Age Mystery.
First, how much do I love the setting? Wimsey makes me wish I’m a 1930′s copy writer in London. The tempo of office life, from the gossipy typists to the ornery layout artists, rings true. I laughed at the different office shenanigans, which included office-bonding in the form of a rousing cricket match! Not that I can tell whether a cricket game is rousing or not.(less)
I know that one of the reasons I responded positively to this was because it reminded me of reading Umberto Eco in college. This book suffers from the...moreI know that one of the reasons I responded positively to this was because it reminded me of reading Umberto Eco in college. This book suffers from the fact that it was marketed as an intellectual thriller when it simply should've been targeted towards those afflicted with college nostalgia. This has more in common with Gilmore Girls than The Da Vinci Code, WHICH IS WHY I LIKE IT. The beginning has whiffs of bestseller boilerplate but it has acute things to say about the futility and nobility of scholarship.(less)
I've always held this notion that there is such a thing as missed connections when it comes to novel-reading. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin is one...moreI've always held this notion that there is such a thing as missed connections when it comes to novel-reading. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin is one such book for me--it is a deeply moving story in many ways, but I think its effect would've been more profound on me if I had read it when I was younger. Which means that the fault is mine and not the novel's, of course.
Giovanni's Room is a novel of claustrophobia, of physical smallness and emotional suffocation. The title refers to the rented Parisian room that an American expatriate named David shares with a bartender he meets at a gay bar. He is a typical example of the young, disaffected Americans who traipse around Paris in the post-war period, but his life takes a turn the moment Giovanni strikes a conversation with him. Passion is ignited in an instant, but while their mutual attraction is acknowledged and consummated early on, their happiness is far from assured.
David becomes increasingly ambivalent with their relationship, eager to leave Giovanni and reunite with Hella, a woman he had contemplated marrying before his affair. Marrying Hella, in his mind, will reassert his control of his destiny and turn him back to the normal, middle class life he was expected to have. He is torn between the conventional world and Giovanni, who expects David to stay despite the hardships, poverty and their increasingly volatile relationship. Their small room then becomes a metaphor for the the constricted, alienated lives that gay men are forced to inhabit during the 1950s, a state that is as much internal as it is societal.
The first thing that I noticed is Baldwin's prose and the way he framed the entire novel as a sort of reminiscence. The first-person POV put me off from reading this years ago (I was in my "third person POV only" phase, don't ask) but it succeeds in taking hold of the main character's inner life. A great tragedy that occurs later in the story is stated up front, but you still get a little winded as it begins to approach. The characters, while far from perfect, are so deeply human that you can't help but feel for them anyway. Not because they're necessarily good people, but because the world they live in condemned them to unhappiness from the start.
While this story didn't destroy me like I expected, I'm still left trying to unpack the ending in my head days after finishing. And I think that is where the greatest virtue of Giovanni's Room lies. It's a story that can't help but affect you--whether you sympathize with the characters or not, whether you agree that their fate is as inevitable as Baldwin leads you to believe.