A couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, IA couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, I still don't think that was hyperbole. Using the milieu of New York City in the middle of the Gilded Age, historian-turned-novelist Caleb Carr pits the emerging phenomenon of the serial killer against the pioneers of what would become criminal profiling in this fascinating example of a historical thriller.
At the center of the story is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an engimatic alienist--early word for psychiatrist--who is attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders targeting boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. He faces challenges from all sides: notorious proponents of morality are unwilling to accept the existence of boy prostitutes (or any form of homosexual trade) in the first place, and policemen of the time are violently opposed to any form of scientific inquiry into the criminal mind. With the help of a young, reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt, Kreizler creates a small team of intelligent and determined proto-profilers who gather material and pyschological evidence in order to create the portrait of an urban predator.
Moneyed journalist John Schuyler Moore is the narrator for the entire novel, chronicling his inclusion to the team as well as his long-standing history with Kreizler and Roosevelt. They are joined by Sarah Hamilton, a secretary in the New York police department who has her eyes on a more prominent role in law enforcement, as well as the Isaacson brothers, talented Jewish detectives who feel marginalized and underused in their current positions.
I require a lot before I'm able to completely buy into an extended 1st person POV, especially when it comes to historical fiction. The diction and inner life of the narrator must be just right, or else I start to disbelieve or distrust what they're saying--a dealbreaker for me. The Alienist, however, is pitch perfect in terms of the rhythms required from a profiling-focused mystery. Though not strictly "intellectual" in the way, say, a Perez-Reverte mystery is, there is still enough meat here to engage the mind even as Kreizler and team deal with copious amounts of legwork throughout their investigation.
Much like the early seasons of Criminal Minds may seem ponderous compared to other types of police procedurals, the tension here isn't on the action, but in the steady accumulation and discovery of the serial killer's history, pathology and motivations. The final confrontation is almost an afterthought, in fact, and I did feel that the scenes by end with their attempts to understand the killer become overlong and unnecessary.
Things this novel made me do:
- Look up "Knickerbocker" on Wikipedia, resulting to lost hours reading about New York as a former Dutch colony. - Use Google Maps to search for the crime scenes mentioned. - Re-indulge my years-old Anderson Cooper-triggered fascination with the Vanderbilt clan. - Trawl the internet for photos of young Theodore Roosevelt. Attractivess: affirmative.
So yeah. Thoroughly satifsying, an exemplary specimen of the mystery genre. Carr wrote a sequel to this, though conversations with a friend who has read it made me very leery of reading it. I just don't want my good opinion of this book tarnished. Is that weird? Anyway, I feel that I'll be coming back to this book when I need some comfort reading.
"Hindi ka tuturuan ng librong ito kung paano magsulat. Buhay ang gagawa n'on" - Ricky Lee
Sana maraming bumasa ng Trip to Quiapo, kahit walang balak ma"Hindi ka tuturuan ng librong ito kung paano magsulat. Buhay ang gagawa n'on" - Ricky Lee
Sana maraming bumasa ng Trip to Quiapo, kahit walang balak maging scriptwriter o manunulat. Magkahalong manual ng screenwriting at collection ng iba't ibang anekdota at materyales na konekatdo sa Philippine Cinema, bumuo si Ricky Lee ng isang sincere at kahanga-hangang larawan ng industriyang pinaglaanan niya ng buhay sa mahigit tatlumpung taon.
Importante ang librong ito hindi lamang para sa mga cinephile kundi para sa mga naghahangad ng isang oral history tungkol sa Pinoy Cinema. Marami akong nakuhang insight tungkol sa paggawa ng kwento, at malamang ay babalikan ko uli ang librong ito kung sakaling magbabalak akong magsulat uli ng fiction.
Gamit niya ang pagpunta sa Quiapo bilang simbolismo ng iba't ibang paraan sa pagbuo ng script--madalas na masalimuot at puno ng magkahalong saya at sakit. Isa-isa niyang pinaliwanag ang mga elementong bumubuo sa pelikula, tulad ng story line, sequence treatment at 3-act structure at kung paanong ang pagsunod o pagsuway sa mga kumbensyon nito ay nakatali sa magiging pagtanggap ng audience. Nagsama rin sya ng mga sample ng script mula sa mga pelikulang nagawa na upang ipakita kung paano na-translate ang kwento mula sa pahina.
Malawak ang nararating na impluwensya ni Lee. Nakatrabaho na niya ang ilan sa pinaka-importanteng direktor ng kanyang panahon (Bernal, Brocka, Diaz-Abaya, at marami pang iba) at patuloy pa rin syang sumusulat para sa cinema at TV. Nagawa niyang mag-likom ng napakaraming ng mga interbyu at sanaysay mula sa iba't ibang direktor, producer, at scriptwriter, na para bang who's who ng industriya. Isang pagsilip na hindi nabibigay kung kani-kanino lamang. Makikita din ang kanyang partisipasyon sa paghubog ng bagong henerasyon ng mga scriptwriter, sa pamamagitan ng kanyang mga workshop at lecture. Ang mga estudyante ni Lee ay nagiging mga haligi sa entertainment industry.
Ang tunay na yamang makikita sa librong ito ay hindi nagmumula sa kanyang instructions tungkol sa structure ng isang script. Maraming librong gumagawa nito nang mas malaliman at mas detalyado, ngunit namumukod-tangi si Ricky Lee sa pagbibigay ng tunay na estado ng industriya ng pelikulang Filipino. Hindi strikto at standardized ang moviemaking sa Pinas, madalas nahahatak ang scriptwriter sa iba't ibang direksyon. May isang nakakatawang anecodte si Lee tungkol kay Mother Lily (producer ng Regal Films) at ang kanyang pagiiba-iba ng isip tungkol sa isang project.
Hindi rin sya natatakot pag-usapan ang mga mapapait na naging karanasan niya at ng ibang mga manunulat. Walang pagkakaiba ang ngayon at nakalipas na industrya--mahirap paring maging scriptwriter sa Pilipinas. Marami kang iiyakan, at hindi mo masisigurado na ibibigay ang nararapat na iyo. Kung iisipin hindi lang paghihikayat ang binibigay ni Ricky Lee. Warning din ito. Writing for the screen is not for the faint of spirit....more
Bodies pile up fast and easy in Andrea Camilleri's The Terra Cotta Dog but I understand why readers would consider the series to be on the lighter endBodies pile up fast and easy in Andrea Camilleri's The Terra Cotta Dog but I understand why readers would consider the series to be on the lighter end of the mystery spectrum, straddling the genres of cozy and the grittier police procedural. For one thing, Inspector Salvo Montalbano thinks more deeply about about literature and anchovy dishes than the criminals he has to deal with in his hometown of Vigata, a fictional town situated in Sicily. The story is also bouyed by the humor, often derived from Montalbano's filthy wisecracks at the expense of his friends and co-workers.
This second installment begins with an uneasy rendezvous between the inspector and a notorious mafia operator. From there, a series of seemingly unconnected events occupy their little police station--from a baffling robbery at a supermarket, the suspicious accident of an ornery old man, to the discovery of a forgotten murder scene that dates back to Italy's Fascist period.
I don't really want to reveal too much because the freewheeling narrative turns are what makes the book thoroughly engaging. Camilleri builds upon the world he has set up in The Shape of the Water and leisurely provides it with depth, notably through the reminiscence of Italy's none-too-heroic World War II experience. The gag about Montalbano's phobia towards promotion also never fails to make me chuckle and I'm more than okay with them milking it. Minor characters and their quirks shine here--most notable are the buffoonish Catarella, the ambitious Mimi, and Montalbano's long-distance long-suffering lover, Livia.
The final mystery that Montalbano pursues may seem trivial for some given the amount of action present in the first half of the novel, but his obsession with the 50-year old death of two young lovers says so much about his character. He is a romantic who dons the coat of a cynic for work everyday. He is exceptional as a detective, a bloodhound through and through, yet sometimes the reader gets glimpses of a philosopher.
I haven't yet decided if reading this novel at the height of summer in the Philippines was supremely prescient or foolhardy. The first few chapters ofI haven't yet decided if reading this novel at the height of summer in the Philippines was supremely prescient or foolhardy. The first few chapters of this novel are alienating in their bleakness, approximating the aridity of a soul so far from grace. Graham Greene's prose sucks out all the oxygen from the story, leaving a nihilistic parable suspended in time.
The Power and the Glory is ostensibly grounded in a historical event. Set in the 1930's, it dramatizes the period when a wave of revolutionary fervor led to the persecution of Mexico's Catholic Church. Priests are hunted down--either forced to renounce their vows through marriage or executed. Graham Greene creates what is a essentially a man-on-the-run thriller here, as an unnamed character called "the Whisky Priest" struggles to elude capture in the countryside of rural Mexico. He is chased by a bloodhound simply known as "the Lieutenant," whose desire to annihilate the old, corrupt ways propels this all-consuming vendetta.
As characters go, the Whisky Priest is one of the most affecting characters I have ever encountered. Morally weak and changeable, he is hardly the example of noble martyrdom. In the time of plenty, he took advantage of people's veneration by indulging in drink and other proclivities, even fathering a child. Cosmic payback is upon him, however, because in a cruel trick of fate, he is now the last symbol of his religion for miles around. Mortal danger doesn't entirely cure him of his vices, yet he is unable to leave the people behind, so thirsty are they for rituals he had once taken for granted: confession, Communion, Mass.
Graham Greene seems to be one of those writers who are entirely consumed by overarching themes, so much so that his characters' specificity wilts in the face of them. The Whisky Priest is not simply an alcoholic clergyman who has fathered a child, he is the embodiment of every human frailty experienced in the 2,000 years of Christendom. Which goes to show great a writer he is that despite this absolutism--perhaps even because of it--The Power and Glory is wonderfully compassionate, nuanced, and dare I say, ecumenical.
A Catholic through conversion, Greene had once answered the question of his choice by saying, "I had to find a religion to measure my evil against." Redemption, therefore, lies not in its majesty but in the capacity for self-negation, needing the basest of circumstances to show its ultimate strength.
Reading this was tough going, and even during the most dramatic sequences I feel that some of the profoundness in the Whisky Priest's musings became lost on me. Greene never makes things easy for the reader, from beginning in medias res to refusing the recognizable categorizations of Virtue and Sin. Definitely a lot of things to unpack here, but so worth it.
Angelo Suarez was 19 when The Nymph of MTV first came out, the product of a young poet already comfortable with wordplay and surreality and the enviabAngelo Suarez was 19 when The Nymph of MTV first came out, the product of a young poet already comfortable with wordplay and surreality and the enviable assurance that what he has to say will be heard. His debut certainly earned a splash, garnering praises from the likes of Ophelia Dimalanta (who wrote the foreword Nymph) and Cirilo Bautista, giants of Filipino poetry--this collection inevitably winning a Palanca Award. More than technical brilliance, however, Suarez's poems exhibit a deep accessibility of feeling and a sensuality that belies any assumption of inexperience.
Many of the poems are incantatory in nature, inviting the reader to mouth or even shout the words out loud, engage in the sensory pleasure of speaking words and phrases. There's a great deal of irreverence and humor here, but also earnestness, a well from which anyone who was once young, once in love, once enthralled by the streets of UST-adjacent Manila can tap. The strongest poems for me are the ones about love, with Suarez making connections between body parts and heavenly bodies, not terribly original, sure, but very poignant in the way he employs them here. An example:
i've seen the moon change phase to the form of your eyelid a drowsy brow, or the sleek contour of your cheek--now waxing full to the pale of your nape, your shoulder's shape, your face a lotus on an ocean of muck.
I'm not very experienced in critiquing poetry in the least but I really respond to Suarez's poetry. One of my favorites is "Constellations," where Suarez uses unusual typography in a way that I feel goes beyond gimmickry. I also love the constant invocation of rain and flood because really, that is a world any poet from Manila should mine. If you're looking for a good to introduce yourself to Filipino poetry in English, I think The Nymph of MTV is a good way to go.
*On a more trivial thing, I really REALLY love the book design. The orange of the cover really pops, and the photos used on the cover embodies the elements in the poems. The typography is also fantastic across the board....more
Magisterial is the word the comes to mind when talking about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel in its literary treatment of Henry VIII's infamous right hand man, Thomas Cromwell. How else do you characterize such a work that takes on not only the entire genre of historical fiction, but also one of the most fiery flashpoints of British history? The novel reframes centuries of received knowledge about a a series of events--Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon and England's subsequent break from the Catholic Church--but the real selves of the people involved are paradoxically so opaque to contemporary minds.
Mantel disrupts so many narrative conceits from the get-go, doing away with the gauzy dialogue and sumptuous interior decoration porn that is the staple of historical fiction. The reader goes so far into Thomas's point of view that it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between what he is thinking and what he is actually doing. Even during highly elaborate scenes in court, the narrative thrums with the tension, not only because of Cromwell's capacity for ruthlessness but also because an entire kingdom's way of life hinges upon a single document from Rome.
Beyond the scandalous lives of powerful people, however, the novel also tackles the cultural shift that society is facing as the Medieval Age gives way to the Renaissance. The tension between intellectual/capitalist class and the religious class for the allegiance of the English people plays out in violent ways that mirrors the turmoil at the very top of power.
The novel ends in a necessarily unsatisfying note, since the story flows into Mantel's next novel Bring Up the Bodies. I haven't read it yet but an avid fan of history will be aware that it will cover the moment when shit proceeded to get thoroughly and profoundly real. That said, I still found Wolf Hall to be a staggering piece of literature....more
I read this while laid low by a bug and let me tell you, nothing will cure you (ha!) of self-pity more than the knowledge that your physical malady coI read this while laid low by a bug and let me tell you, nothing will cure you (ha!) of self-pity more than the knowledge that your physical malady could be much, much worse. Preston manages to inject a remarkable amount of suspense in scenes that are essentially getting in and out of biohazard suits while sporting a cut. Definitely not for the weak of stomach, since the description of how the Ebola viruses ravage the body is thorough and unflinching....more
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.
Conrado de Quiros is among the country's most articulate and widely-read political voices. His weekly column called There's the Rub consistently causeConrado de Quiros is among the country's most articulate and widely-read political voices. His weekly column called There's the Rub consistently causes pundits and politicians to either lionize him or accuse him of persecution. To put his influence in perspective, he is one of the very first people who called for Noynoy Aquino to run for the presidency, writing "Noynoy for president" in August 2010, following the death and funeral of Former President Corazon Aquino. Noynoy was not even contemplating the bid at this point, but the phenomenal outpouring of grief during Cory's funeral and the call of people such as de Quiros snowballed into a movement and eventually became the state of Philippine politics today.
Tongues on Fire do not contain materials from his columns but are either speeches or longer essays that are not necessarily political in nature. However, many of the pieces allude to different administrations--from Marcos to Macapagal-Arroyo--and the scandals and indignities to which they have subjected the country. De Quiros is a political animal and it shows, with even speeches about the Boy Scouts of the Philippines containing jibes about corruption. In one essay ("A real book"), he talks about well-meaning friends and usiseros telling him that his talents can be better showcased in other ways, since writing about Philippine politics is an ultimately doomed endeavor. He blithely tells them to get lost.
I vaguely remember buying this book during a previous Manila International Book Fair (I can't remember which year) because I've enjoyed his columns and wanted a more thorough experience of his writing, but I sort of left it languishing unread until this month. It's interesting to read it with a degree of distance from the issues he had alluded to, including his very vocal criticism of both Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Judging with the luxury of hindsight isn't fair, but I wish more effort was made to tweak some of the pieces so that they achieve greater universality. Tongues on fire, the speech from where he took the books title, referenced not only GMA's support of WTO-GATT but also Eminem and Limp Bizkit, for example. If Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" contained references to General Lee or other personalities of the Civil War, it wouldn't have the same resonance it has today.
Still, de Quiros is a highly engaging writer. The most interesting parts for me occur in latter pieces, where he talks about his past as an activitist during Martial Law and his subsequent disillusionment in the Leftist Movement. He overuses rhetorical devices such as parallelism and repetition whenever he lapses into polemics but when it comes to narrative, he is spot-on. He injects seemingly mundane subjects and anecdotes with a lot of sardonic humor.
There is a lot to learn about fearlessness here, especially from his recollections of his younger self. He is an example of a Filipino who has lived his life as passionately and fully as possible, enduring through all the vagaries of Philippine politics. One of the main things he rages against is a sort of apathy and despair that drives Pinoys to give on their country. We are a product of colonialism, corrupt government, and sheer bad luck, it's true. But history has shown the Filipino's capacity to rise above benightedness for a cause that is bigger than themselves. The trick, he says, is not simply to be willing to die for democracy, but to live for it....more
I really struggled with this. There are so many signifiers of things that I love--ornery old men, literature, quaint seaside towns--but while there isI really struggled with this. There are so many signifiers of things that I love--ornery old men, literature, quaint seaside towns--but while there is some charm to it I found almost the entire book to be mawkish and pandering. I'm going to interrogate my own reactions in the next couple of days, though, because God knows I've loved some mawkish and pandering shit in my life.
I suspect it has something to do with the writing. A lot of the dialogue functions only as a delivery vehicle for exposition, and the prose just lies there on the page and expects literary references to act as substance. I like intertextuality as much as the next pomo nerd but this is kind of like that one person who mistakes their ability to quote The Simpsons with having an actual sense of humor, to paraphrase NPR's Linda Holmes. ...more
Nostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines' most renowneNostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines' most renowned novelists, Charlson Ong. With references to Marlene Dietrich, John Coltrane, Old Binondo, World War II, dogfights and summary executions, his foray into the mystery genre results in a symphony about the constant push and pull between the old and the new, the artful and the brutal.
The story begins with an iconic noir image: the beautiful woman in a red dress. Rather than a seductive shift, however, singer Laurice Saldiaga was wearing a red cheongsam when she died in the upstairs apartment of the Blue Angel, a decrepit jazz bar in the middle of Chinatown. A Hokkien-speaking mestizo policeman named Cyrus Ledesma is brought into the investigation because of its delicate nature, even as he comes to terms with his own dodgy past. He encounters a list of people with motives and opportunities to kill Laurice. The implication even goes as high up as the Mayor of Manila himself, Lagdameo Go-Lopez.
I have always harbored the belief that the way to make cities real is to write about them. Charlson Ong succeeds in making this true with this novel, vividly sketching the melancholy, grime-filled streets of Chinatown in my head, using mellifluous turns of phrase to conjure up the perfect mood. I had trouble with the 3rd person ominiscient style in the beginning--I'm used to mysteries that are either in 1st person or the very tight, 3rd person POV of a single character--but it manages to lay out the inner lives of all the people who somehow intersect with the doomed jazz songstress. Particularly poignant are the memories of Antonio Cobianco, owner of the Blue Angel, whose fondness for Laurice and the bar puts his innocence into question.
There are elements of the supernatural here, with old houses haunted by spirits and two characters who see ghostly visions, but they do not detract from the logic of the mystery like I initially feared. They add a lovely gothic dimension to the story, in fact, emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of memory and the uncomplicated acceptance of the Chinese-Filipino worldview when it comes to the unexplained.
Suspects attempting to deflect blame or harboring their own suspicions complicate Cyrus's search for the truth, with bursts of violence throughout the story culminating into a satisfying horserace of a climax. The crucial thing for me was whether to final conflict would be satisfying, and I have to say it was--very reminscent of the over-the-top confrontations in Pinoy action movies but elevated by Ong's gorgeous prose. I found the denouement and the last two chapters dragging, however.
If Charlson Ong ever decides to write more of these, I'm definitely buying. You can hear him talk about this novel in a podcast by DZUP's Quadro Kantos, with download links here. I highly suggestion listening to it because they also played songs which they dubbed as the soundtrack of Blue Angel, White Shadow....more
Let's get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbeOriginally posted on my blog.
Let's get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.
There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.
But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets' Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.
Also woven into the narrative is the theme of father-son relationships. Within the rarefied confines of academia, both Tom and Paul are ultimately seeking validation from father figures that seem to only convey their affection as it is related to history. I'm all about tender masculine relationships so those parts were really up my alley.
The authorial decision to structure the novel as a thriller, I think, ultimately hurt the story. Had Caldwell and Thomason emphasized the coming-of-age and nerdy mystery aspects while softening the mortal peril, it could have been a more satisfying read. It's in books like these that you can really detect the bald commerce of the book publishing industry. The Rule of Four clearly earned a lot of money my attaching its name onto Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (published one year before) but it also suffered when it comes to cultural esteem because of it. If it had been edited and marketed as, say, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, it could have attracted the kind of readers who are interested in atmosphere and academic scholarship, rather than readers looking for zippy thrillers with Vatican conspiracies.
I guess I like the idea of it more than its reality, which happens often enough. The Rule of Four has acute things to say about the futility and nobility of scholarship which really hit home for me and my own college experience. During those short years, you are put into this very unnatural environment where a missed term paper feels like the end of your life. It's a time when all the learning opportunities are there for the taking and you have all the time in the world to pursue all that you want to know. But of course, youth is wasted on the young....more
Something peculiar happens to stories when they are housed in the same anthology, especially when an overarching theme orOriginally posted on my blog.
Something peculiar happens to stories when they are housed in the same anthology, especially when an overarching theme or rubric comes into play. Aside from the sensibilities of the editors informing the curation process, the stories themselves cease to become autonomous units of narrative. Difference in writing styles become sharper by contrast, premises are either reinforced or disputed by the stories that come before or after it.
In Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology Volume 6, editors Nikki Alfar and Kate Aton-Osias continue the annual tradition of gathering short fiction in with a speculative vein, with works of publishing newbies mingling with those by seasoned, award-winning authors. Kapres, supervillains, galactic warship captains, and (alleged) cannibals are among the archetypal characters featured this time around. The stories that stand out for me explore the unease that is often overshadowed or glossed over by the flashier aspects of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
"Carpaccio (or, Repentance as a Meat Recipe)" by Arlyn Despi, "The Bookshelves of Mrs. Go" by Charles Tan, and "Hollowbody" by Crystal Koo all possess a quiet, almost mundane style of storytelling that belie the uncanny and disturbing themes that they tackle. I hesitate to say more for fear of divulging too much and ruining the experience but I was really taken by the careful way these stories build up and how their endings, particularly Koo's subtle but sharp last scene, provides more questions than answers.
Jay Steven Anyong's "Lament of the Counselor," while disappointingly short, is a funny, off-beat take on the local myths of which I would like to see more. Danilo Madarang, marriage counselor the supernatural, explores the trials and tribulations that come of inter-species (inter-spiritual?) dating. His patients include diwatas bickering with their human husbands about children, the future, and different expectations within their relationships. However, I doubt Margie Holmes ever had a counseling session that included the sentence "I didn't let you carve your initials in my inner thigh for nothing, you insensitive beast!"
The steampunk (clockpunk?) story "On Wooden Wings" by Paolo Chikiamco is a deceptively simple one about a young girl engineering a set of mechanical wings. Buoying the plot is its setting, an inventive and elaborate alternate Philippines with a consolidated Muslim sultanate in the South successfully resisting the Spanish Invasion and a floating academy moving across the islands of Mindanao. The additional tension between The Philippines That Is and The Philippines That Could Have Been adds a level of metacommentary into the story. A wonderfully detailed analysis of the story's post-colonial implications is available on the Silver Goggles blog.
My favorite in the collection is Eliza Victoria's "The Storyteller's Curse," about a writer receiving a gift that he never really wanted. This is the kind of formal ambition I really admire, juggling the different tropes of horror and metafiction to create a tight, tension-filled story. It has one of those double plot setups that can be challenging to maintain, but Victoria does it masterfully here. The convergence of the two narratives leads to a climax whose implications are as horrific as they are intoxicating. It has subtle nods towards the style of writers like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, using gothic elements to tackle issues of artistic creation, survival, and choice. The last line was a sucker punch in the gut the first time I read it.
Very small nitpick, but I dislike the title quite a lot. I feel that it reveals too much and misleads the reader at the same time? This comes down to personal taste, however, and such a small quibble at that.
Some of the stories in PSF 6 feel incomplete, acting more as scaffolding for big ideas than fully fleshed out narratives. But the biggest disappointment for me is the very first story, Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez's "The Big Man." I realize that I may be a minority in this (the story won a Palanca, after all) but I don't think the story offered anything new or transgressive aside from transplanting a mythological creature and placing him in a contemporary setting, this time a kapre named Bolado de Makiling entering the NBA.
The elements that make it unique fell flat for me. It's fiction masquerading as non-fiction--using the sports article as its format--but it doesn't have the kind of verisimilitude and rigor I expect from pastiches. It also relies heavily on the reader's ability to recognize real-life people, places, and organizations to provide the needed tension in the story, which doesn't bode well for people who either don't know or care who Noli Eala or Tim Duncan are. It becomes very exclusive that way, making a clear demarcation between people who can recognize the references (by accident of interest, generation, or what have you) and people who don't.
I think the story also missed an opportunity by not interrogating the obvious wish-fulfillment and neo-imperialist aspects if its entire premise. Bolado's star lives and dies according to international validation, and the outcome of his NBA career is presented as a national tragedy. But why is it so important for a Filipino to play in the NBA? I am uncomfortable with the idea that the legacy Bolado ultimately leaves to future Pinoy basketball players is the hope that, one day, they too may get scouted by the Atlanta Hawks. Not to mention the entire subplot of basketball coach Norman Black braving the wilds of Makiling to scout for a player strikes me as having problematic whiffs of Kevin Bacon in The Air Up There.
(Bet you never expected that reference, huh? I'm so uncool.)
Despite some stumbles, PSF 6 succeeds in presenting a varied landscape of current SFF writing in the Philippines. Having read through 3 of its 6 volumes, it impresses and delights me that the Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology continues to offer stories that push the boundaries and definitions of Filipino writing.
(Disclosure: My review copy came from Charles Tan back in August, whose work I praised within the piece. All the opinions presented here are my own.)...more
2008 can be considered a high watermark for the Philippine novel as Jose Dalisay, already an established name in Philippine letters (as well as column2008 can be considered a high watermark for the Philippine novel as Jose Dalisay, already an established name in Philippine letters (as well as columnist, academic, and untiring blogger), came close to bagging Asia’s most coveted literary award.
His quirky hybrid of a novel, Soledad’s Sister has been a literary triumph even before seeing print. It is included among the five shortlisted novels for the first ever Man Asian Literary Prize. Beating other English-language works from much more robust literary scenes like India and China, the Jury calls Soledad’s Sister, “a work of warmth, humanity and confidence."
The story begins with a casket arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Charmed by Dalisay’s dry wit and tongue-in-cheek imagery, we follow a series of mishaps that causes the body labeled “Aurora Cabahug” to take the place of another Filipino OFW, one Filemon Catabay, in the tarmac, much to the annoyance of his family. To add to the confusion “Aurora” isn’t even the corpse’s name, having borrowed it from a younger sister, very much alive and singing her heart out at a karaoke in the far-flung town of Paez.
Snagged into this confusing web is the unlikely hero, a has-been cop whose faint affections towards Paez’s songbird compels him to take on the duty to drive the grief-stricken Rory (the live one) to fetch Soledad (the dead one) and bring back to their hometown.
What happens after is a sort of morbid road trip, two people going through a long and lonely journey through the countryside. For the younger sister Rory, fetching her sister’s body is a filial duty, compounded by guilt for taking all her sister’s sacrifice and hard work for granted.
The exiled cop, SPO2 Walter Zamora, however, it is his time to go back to the city he once called his home, the bustling and often dangerous Manila. His return brings back memories of infidelity and betrayal, a botched kidnapping rescue, and a young girl who disappeared from his life at a 7-11.
Oh, and the body is stolen on their way back.
Dalisay himself has dubbed this tale his, “glorious mess of a novel,” and in many ways, it is. The story itself touches upon many narrative tropes and conventions, turning them over their heads in ways that are often surprising.
Take Walter Zamora, the cop, one of the stock characters in every Filipino action movie. Fernando Poe Jr. or Erap Estrada has never played a policeman quite like this, however, he who prefers the company of an undemanding cat rather than human contact and who considers answering crossword puzzles the highlight of his week.
Throughout the story we catch glimpses of his young, more reckless self, probably with the trademark swagger of an action hero. But the man facing Rory is already a tired gunslinger, resigned to oblivion in Paez.
Rory Cabahug, the karaoke singer is a character described with much warmth and compassion,–a certain zest for life. She prefers Karen Carpenter to Edith Piaf and is unapologetic about it, but at heart, she is a vulnerable girl who suddenly finds herself acutely alone in the world. She will need to find her own strength to live a life that is not chained by duty, the way her Ate Soledad’s existence had been.
If there is an aspect to the story that comes short, it has to be the ending–it loses some of its steam and finally putters off to uncertainty. In the beginning, there has been teasing suggestions of a crime novel, but there is no dramatic final revelation about the culprit or the repercussions of the crime. Soledad’s gruesome fate in Jeddah is only disclosed to the reader as an omniscient aside, bearing no significance for the living. Even a Johny-come-lately carnapper’s entry to the story seems to simply make a point about the randomness of life rather than anything more substantial.
Ridiculous side trips and all, however, does not deter from the fact that the accolades have been deserved. The story never runs out of twist and turns, examining pertinent and often sensitive issues like the Philippine Diaspora, crime and corruption without sinking into sermons or invectives.
Cynical yet still hopeful, audacious as it is fumbling, it is a sincere ode to our own glorious mess of a city, of a culture, of a country. Everything is left to the imagination, with only a quiet but steely optimism. Ironic for a novel that starts with a dead body in an airport.
With age, it becomes harder and harder to encounter books that end up being life experiences. My reading predilections prett(Originally posted here.)
With age, it becomes harder and harder to encounter books that end up being life experiences. My reading predilections pretty much solidified themselves between the ages of seventeen and twenty, when the access to an extensive university library--and amazing used bookstores--exploded my literary horizons. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is one of the recent exceptions, a book that I will forever remember in a haze of sun-kissed melancholy.
The novel begins in the middle of World War II with Charles Ryder, a military officer who has been ordered to commandeer a rundown English estate and turn it into a logistics headquarters. Brideshead Castle carries a more profound meaning for Charles, however, because it was the site of his youthful bliss and heartbreak. The narrative then looks back to his early days as a student in Oxford in the 1920s, where he meets a luminous young man named Sebastian Flyte, whose family owns Brideshead.
Young Charles becomes enamored not only with Sebastian but also by his fascinating, sophisticated, and very Catholic family. The Marchmain household is made up of the matriarch Lady Marchmain, the infamous and exiled Lord Marchmain, the rigid Bridey, the society girl Julia, and the precocious Cordelia. Their familial tumult and intrigue ends up consuming Charles' life as he watches various members of the family grapple with the concepts of faith, redemption, damnation, and love.
Full disclosure, I firmly believe they were together. In fact, the desire to prove to myself that there is a romantic relationship between Sebastian and Charles made me pore over the text of Brideshead like it's the Zapruder film of gay literature. To wit, one of the earliest sequences pertaining to Sebastian:
On a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine – as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together – and we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.
"Just the place to bury a crock of gold," said Sebastian. "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember."
There are also other throwaway comments, including Sebastian casually wearing Charles's dove-grey tie, Charles sneaking up into Sebastian's room in Oxford when they were encouraged not to see each other, and Charles saying when asked about love, "[Sebastian] was the precursor."
People act as though all it took for Evelyn Waugh to include gay content is his own whimsy, as though homosexual activity wasn't decriminalized until 1967, as if Britain's judicial history doesn't carry the taint of destroying a brilliant writer over allegations of immoral acts. Early in the 20th Century, the novelist E.M. Forster shoved the manuscript of Maurice, a novel about a gay relationship, into a drawer with a note to himself that said, "Publishable, but worth it?" To trace the history of LGBT literature is to wade through a morass of coded language, and I feel that overlooking this aspect of Brideshead is an exercise in cultural myopia.
Viewing the story through this lens adds an emotional weight to the story that would've been absent otherwise. Sebastian's slow unspooling and eventual self-destruction happens despite Charles's support and affection. He becomes so consumed by his incapacity for redemption in the eyes of his religion that he eventually destroys his relationship with the people he loves. His inability to save Sebastian is Charles's first heartbreak, but the Marchmain's and Brideshead ends up following him into adulthood when he ends up falling in love with Sebastian's sister Julia.
Evelyn Waugh had built a reputation as one of British Literature's most blistering satirists, writing novels that skewer the vacuous, extravagant lives of England's glamorous set. My earliest experience of his work is a black comedy titled A Handful of Dust, a novel with such heavily lacquered irony that it ended up alienating me. Brideshead Revisited exposes a much more vulnerable Waugh, and he ended up disavowing the tone with which he wrote it.
According to him: "It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."
As sad as I am that he had ended up thinking so ungenerously of this book, I understand where he is coming from. Brideshead seems to come from a place of great longing and nostalgia, not only of a bygone era but also of a society in which the middle-class Waugh wanted to belong. Despite the trappings of upper-class venality that decorates the novel, however, it is also one of the most profound interrogations of faith that I have encountered, not exactly and apologia, but not an indictment either.
It is interesting to pair this book with another written by a friend of Waugh's, the also Catholic Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory is about the resilience of faith and hope amidst a landscape of privation, while Brideshead Revisited posits the question of whether spiritual purity and grace is possible in a society of excess. Waugh doesn't really answer this question, but the way he began to search for it was something that spoke to me beneath the dazzle of Art Noveau architecture....more
(I forgot that I've written this review way back in 2007! Young!Me is quaintly embarrassing. I don't have enough critical distance from this, but I su(I forgot that I've written this review way back in 2007! Young!Me is quaintly embarrassing. I don't have enough critical distance from this, but I sure hope I've improved as a writer.)
I’ve been reading a lot about Britain lately, or at least novels set in Britain and its former colonies. The Impressionist traces the life of Pran Nath, a boy with British and Indian blood, with his attempts to survive the societies that are alternately seduced and repulsed by him. He assumes different guises throughout his life: first, as the son of a wealthy Brahmin, then as Rukhsana, a eunuch-to-be in the crumbling Kingdom of Fatehpur, then as the adopted son of Scottish missionaries named Bobby. Finally, he assumes the identity of a dead man, giving him the opportunity to leave India for the rarefied life in Oxford. His final metamorphosis takes him to the deepest jungles of Africa, the darkest reaches of the British Empire. The novel is about the complete dissolution of self, gender, race, and culture, an anti-Bildungsroman.
“…Bobby is too intrigued to be offended. What do wogs smell like? Is there a typical English smell?… Face buried in burra mems’ smalls and burra sahibs’ dirty shirts, he finally puts a name to it. Rancid butter. With perhaps a hint of raw beef. The underlying whiff of empire.”
The premise itself has an amount of seduction to it, probably one of the reasons I picked up the book in the first place. Throughout reading, however, I could definitely sense an unevenness of tone. It seems as if the author couldn’t decide if it would become a piercing social satire or a dreamy tapestry of exoticism. Personally, I think he excels more in satire. The mixture may be a conscious decision, but even as Hari Kunzru occasionally manages to marry these elements exquisitely, it more often produces a discordant rhythm.
The one aspect that really resonated for me was the theme of miscegenation and how those who are born Anglo-Indian are anathema for both empires. As if the mixture of blood implies a possible weakness in their respective armors of superiority. Also interesting to note is how many of Britain's empire-building projects–military, bureaucratic, even scientific endeavors–are not treated as a product of a rational society, but more as a collective neurosis. Perhaps I can discuss this at a later time, preferably backed up by anthropological texts.
For all the novel's faults, Hari Kunzru does know how to turn a phrase. Many scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, with many of the jokes made with deadpan delivery, a parody of the tone that Rudyard Kipling and the likes used to employ. And while Pran Nath himself is hit-or-miss depending on the identity he inhabits, the reader is drawn by his bumbling opportunism, as well as his despair at never fitting in....more
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 mysteryMystery 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....more
Midnight's Children is told entirely in First Person POV by Saleem Sinai, a man scrambling to commit his life’s narrative to paper as his body starts to deteriorate and come apart. “Life’s narrative” is a difficult thing to qualify here, however, since Saleem himself is so cosmically entwined with India that his recollection spans three generations’ worth of familial and national histories. Saleem constantly intrudes upon the narration, offering glimpses into the future and editorializing the events for both the audience and his lover Padma. It's practically the definition of postmodern literature: fractured, subjective, and confusing. It upends the conceit of the bildungsroman, which focuses on the life of a single individual as he grapples with history. Here, the individual IS history, and he shapes it as much as it shapes him.
Assigning a rating for this book is a process fraught with indecision for me. It’s true that I struggled for a substantial part of my reading and I still feel that the novel’s earlier attempts at distancing itself by sheer virtuosity–while understandable–has been excessive. But the ending came at me like that pickaxe into a frozen lake that Franz Kafka speaks about. So is this a 4 star or a 5 star book? It is such an in-your-face and mouthy narrative that confronts ingrained (Western) notions of how novels should be. ...more
Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books wi(Originally posted on my blog)
Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books within it, but I am also unfamiliar with other iterations, whether on TV or in the movies. (Except for Justified. Is that a Western?) John Wayne for me is nothing but a name that personifies the cookie-cutter Hollywood Hero. My only way in is country music and... that's about it.
It's also a genre that seems so heavily nostalgic for the geographical and historical specifics of the United States to the point that it lionizes episodes of systematic institutional violence such as Manifest Destiny, the uprooting and genocide of Native Americans, and so on. So I guess it's appropriately ironic that my first foray into the Western is a novel written by a Canadian writer. (Though to be fair, he is a current resident of Oregon according to Wikipedia.)
The premise of Patrick deWitt's Booker-nominated novel The Sisters Brothers is as simple as it is thrilling: notorious siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired by an Oregon bigwig called the Commodore to travel to California and kill a man. What transpires is an archetypal roadtrip story, except the protagonists are on horseback
Violence and deceit amidst the California Gold Rush of the 1800s is its backbone, but this novel has a distinct comic melancholy to it. Crucial for this thematic high-wire act is the first person narration of Eli Sisters, the half of the team that outsiders consider as the lesser. The odd poetic turns of phrase here and there stand out sharply from Eli's mostly plain narration of their tasks. Eli is also prone to some philosophical brooding as he questions the ethics of their job and how they can get out of it entirely. Is cruelty an inherent trait for an assassin? Or can a man who kills people for money still live with some sort of moral code?
Eli's thoughts also turn to his relationship with his brother. There's a sort of pragmatic ruthlessness in Charlie that makes him seem opaque--he seems to only allow humans to live as long as they are useful to him or not in his way. He also dismisses Eli's questions about their profession as stemming from squeamishness. But events within the novel clearly show that Eli can wield violence just as deftly.
I remember giving this novel four stars on GoodReads immediately after finishing it, thinking the plot mundane and not at all remarkable. But The Sisters Brothers managed to do something bizarre--it stayed with me for so long that several songs I have listened to over the past couple of years have become stained with its color. Take, for example, this song called "Right in the Head" by M. Ward.
Another song that has become part of my internal mixtape for The Sisters Brothers is "Blood of Angels" by Brown Bird.
I also find myself thinking about certain scenes at random moments. The plot of The Sisters Brothers is quite simple, but the starkness of these characters' lives stays regardless. I guess I am not immune to the romance of the genre after all.
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 skeweriA 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.
Eliza Victoria is at her best when her stories unfold with an almost dispassionate reserve, the measured cadence of her sentences like a steady strideEliza Victoria is at her best when her stories unfold with an almost dispassionate reserve, the measured cadence of her sentences like a steady stride of a predator approaching. I like how this collection slowly coalesces into an examination of collective violence, delusion and hysteria, sometimes called folie a plusieurs. I was ambivalent about this theme when it emerged from the first story titled "Needle Rain," but slowly the notes started building upon themselves, reaching a satisfying crescendo of wtf. ...more
Donna Leon writes lushly about a Venice in regal decay, with the urbane and likable Commissario Guido Brunetti as her main character, yet it was not uDonna Leon writes lushly about a Venice in regal decay, with the urbane and likable Commissario Guido Brunetti as her main character, yet it was not until 158 pages in (halfway through the novel) that the crime the good detective was supposed to investigate even occurred. This, I think, encapsulates everything I found frustrating about Through a Glass, Darkly.
I waffled between giving this book 3 or 2 stars on Goodreads because it really wasn’t an awful book. But as a mystery, it completely reneges on its promises. It’s as if the writer simply wanted to write a travelogue with Brunetti as the main character telegraphing his thoughts on the dangers of nuclear waste and its effect on a historical city such as Venice. The crime here is an afterthought.
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 foundIt'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 here. Knifings at ice-cream parlors and hooligans fighting over bowling competitions. You couldn't make this stuff up....more
The rare noir story that isn't all about nihilism, despite its dark edges. Mosley knows the parameters of a hardboiled mystery world so well that he iThe rare noir story that isn't all about nihilism, despite its dark edges. Mosley knows the parameters of a hardboiled mystery world so well that he is able to reframe it to accommodate a detective that is as much in peril in a white world as in the underworld. The language is also topnotch....more
My personal assessment of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad changes each time I think back on it. Sometimes I think it's a trifling thing, made up of airy stories that don't really have any staying power beyond the act of reading them. Other times certain passages simply haunt me. I change my mind even further whenever I read other people's reviews of it, especially since time and winning the Pulitzer seems to have turned some people into dismissing Goon Squad and its importance. But after hearing Slate's Audio Book Club Podcast discussing the book I think that I can comfortably put a stake in the ground: I love this book.
The buzz surrounding this novel originally came from its stylistic inventiveness and subject matter. It is series of loosely interconnected short stories that track the lives of several individuals across space and time. Many of them, like Benny and Sasha, are heavily involved in the music industry while others are more tenuously so. People pop up and disappear all throughout, turning the entire novel into a a treasure hunt of sorts as you try to discover what happens to character that you care about. Time is the goon that the title refers to, a shadowy figure that roughs you up and beats you down when you least expect it.
Marcel Proust is cited as one of its thematic inspirations, and there is indeed a heavy blanket of nostalgia encoded in each story, even in the last one which is set in the future. Egan uses pauses as a weapon or a bridge, an idea that becomes overt in the famous Powerpoint story. My favorite one is set in the safari, where Egan uses the omniscient narrative POV to in the style of the 19th century classics. A vacation in Africa, the narrative a freewheeling camera that jumps from character to character, peeking into their futures and finding them eventually torn apart by the steady march of time. While there are some moments of humor and even great absurdity (the one that featured the PR expert and the genocidal despot is particularly hilarious) but they generally act as a counterpoint the feeling of doom that hangs over most of the characters.
"I wanted to be too cool for this book but I really, really wasn't," I wrote over a month ago but it wasn't the coolness that really bothered me. It's the implication of sentimentality and buying into the brand of tragedy that Egan is trying to sell me. I still feel sad for these people despite knowing that they have created their own personal hells out of the illusions they have constructed around themselves and each other. I agree with the Slate podcast when it says the thing that Egan grapples with in this novel is the divide between hype and transcendence, which in many ways is a metacommentary on the kind of notoriety that Goon Squad has earned.
People go through life with their own agendas but there is still a layer of sadness over these small acts of self-interest. I'm not entirely certain that they are deserving of my sympathy, but I feel it for them anyway....more
By this time, writing about The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins means contending not only with the three books that make up the trilogy, but also the multi-tentacled industry that has emerged from it. It is also no hyperbole to say that the books have had a transformative effect within its genre. Since the publication of the first book in 2008 "young women in dystopias" became a dominant form, with a phalanx of similarly pitched YA series coming at its heels.
The Hunger Games is part of a rarefied group of fictional works that have achieved peak cultural penetration, complete with Hollywood movies, fashion lines, and theme parks. People who don't care about books have heard of it. Even my mom has read the books.
(Though she has also read all The Lord of the Rings novels plus The Hobbit, and is in the middle of the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire, so it might just mean that I have a lot less geek cred than my mother.)
Every year, all twelve districts send two adolescents to the Capitol where they are locked inside a combat zone and forced to fight to the death. The Games is partly a tool that the oppressive government uses to terrorize the districts and partly a televised Olympics-style event that they use to entertain the populace. What for Katniss Everdeen is a simple battle for survival ends up becoming a perilous political struggle that she must navigate together with her District Twelve ally, a baker's son named Peeta.
I decided to write my thoughts on the trilogy as one blog post because I read the entire series in a single three-day tear. Because of this I've never viewed the individual books as autonomous units, which I think colors my assessment of them. For one, I seem to be much more satisfied with the way Mockingjay ended than the people I know who had to wait a year after reading Catching Fire. I also saw the second book (for better or for worse) as merely a bridge that ties The Hunger Games with the monumental events in Mockingjay.
I can't imagine having to wait for a year for a book. The last time I experience that was for Harry Potter and I haven't even read the last book yet.
Estimates put the word count for all three books at a little over than 100,000 words each. One of Suzanne Collins' greatest achievements is how she successfully managed to convey a complex and high-concept fictional world and create an iconic main character using the sparest language possible. In the episode where they discussed the movie adaptation, the panelists in the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour praised Collins for having a brutally efficient writing style. "Every chapter is built toward the final sentence… that is genetically engineered to make you turn the page," says panelist Glen Weldon.
People may evaluate her prose and consider it too spare and unliterary, but I disagree. I was often amazed at the amount of backstory and worldbuilding the narrative manages to convey without relying on paragraphs of exposition. Collins also resists the temptation to break away from Katniss's POV in order to give use the big picture information that she has no way of knowing, something to which even its movie version has succumbed.
Suzanne Collins has the narrative discipline of a hardboiled mystery writer, with a laser-focused obsession in creating a singular set of eyes with which to see this alien world.
My praise for the trilogy is turning out to be a litany of temptations that Collins successfully resists. It would've been so easy, for example, to stack the reader's sympathy in her favor from the beginning. Katniss is emotionally forbidding even within her inner monologue, making harsh emotional judgments of her mother in very first chapter. There are people such as Haymitch and Peeta for whom she cares, but she never fully trusts them.
By the end of the book she doesn't manages to cultivate a maternal instinct, nor does she learn to "love herself". She ends up like the young soldiers who come back from wars, profoundly changed and somewhat broken by her traumas.
The idea of dystopia that exists in books such as 1984 had to undergo multiple philosophical and socio-political transformations in order to accommodate The Hunger Games. Dystopian novels* in the age of totalitarianism through the Cold War were preoccupied with the complete subsummation of individual thought. On the other hand, the Capitol in The Hunger Games has a more pragmatic view of mass control. Through their methods, individuals with seditious thoughts are defanged by their lack of agency, and that the full brunt of their brutality must be selectively doled out in order to be effective.
Collins' novels also have a more complicated relationship with broadcast media than the top-down propaganda dump of 1984. While the beginning of the narrative shows the Capitol in full control of its messaging through their handling of the games, they also end up creating the seeds of their own destruction. By putting Katniss and the other Tributes on television, they unwittingly give them a platform from which to enact their rebellion.
*These are different from Apocalyptic novels, by the way. Apocalypses like World War Z are about the breakdown humanity's structures and people's struggle to survive. Dystopias are about oppressive ruling systems that purport to have eliminated dissatisfaction by quashing dissent. While apocalyptic events may give rise to oppressive regimes, such as in The Hunger Games, social organization comes much later.
My favorite thing about Catching Fire is how well it illustrates the different texture of complicity among the people oppressed by the Capitol. Some districts, despite having their Tributes die once a year, are completely beholden to the system that they have created elaborate fictions to continue buying into them. The Heathers—I mean, the elites—have invested a gladiatorial magnificence to the Games that differs harshly with the way the other districts viewed it. These districts have as much hand in propping up the oppressive system as the Capitol.
The horrific display of game-ified carnage is the logical extreme of the reality show. For the television audience at home, it gives the illusion of emotional investment while overlooking the idea that these people are individuals who are being killed for their own pleasure. The wide chasm between the haves and the have-nots are not merely monetary in nature, it is the inability of the privileged to see the impoverished as human and therefore worthy of life.
The Tributes, like the gladiators of another all-encompassing empire, end up becoming singular individuals bestowed with superhuman glory, loved by the people they can only see as their oppressors.
A revolution novel, when it is honest about itself, would often read as much as a realpolitik manifesto as a heroic story of triumph against the bonds of oppression. This is because while our conception of the quintessential rebellion novel always comes with a gloss of tragic earnestness, real political struggles involve battling imaging strategies in tandem with armed struggles. Narratives such as Les Miserables, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and--dare I say it--Spartacus are about individuals or small collectives casting aside their yokes of oppression in order to selflessly carry entire societies into a better tomorrow.
Mockingjay sheds a harsh light into this imagery by having Katniss inhabit this idea of becoming the beacon of a revolution in the most pragmatic way possible. She may no longer be killing opponents in an arena for the enjoyment of television viewers, but Mockingjay still has her playing out a reality TV persona for an audience. Only this time her role is Freedom Fighter.
Mockingjay is not the kind of book that makes you feel good that the protagonists win the war. Despite all the deaths it took to defeat Voldemort in J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series, the end still came with the reestablishment of the status quo. It cost them seven books and a lot of bloodshed, but their long supernatural nightmare for Harry and the gang had effectively come to pass.
What is the prize for people like Katniss, Gale, and Peeta after the war? They can't even go home again, either literally or metaphorically. A new order emerges in the place of the old one, but these three people are such creatures of the previous regime that living a world they helped into existence is a struggle.
One day, we as a culture need to create a framework to address the current crop of Young Adult dystopias that are beyond the most simplistic and condescending talking points. Is it fair, for example, to characterize a book such as The Hunger Games as having "romantic" traits when 1984 has as much of a love story as it does?
This appeal comes not only from a desire to elevate the discourse but also from a desire to differentiate a good dystopian YA from a crappy one. While not perfect, I maintain that The Hunger Games succeeds in many literary fronts at once. It is a success when it comes to narrative storytelling, a nuanced thought experiment in political worldbuilding, and a compelling rebellion narrative. Not bad for a couple of books about teenagers....more
If you are a liker of comedy, you'd be hard pressed to find reasons to justify why Tina Fey isn't that big of a deal. She and Amy Poehler loomed large for an entire era of SNL, especially in Fey's role as head writer for nine years. Their generation of improv performers cornered valuable TV and movie real estate that used to be reserved only for standup comedians. She also wrote the screenplay of the totemic film Mean Girls, basically informing the vocabulary of every human being in possession of a Tumblr account.
Her schtick as an often hapless, often harried nerd thrust into the spotlight is belied by the ferocious intellect, drive and savvy that Bossypants merely hints at. I'm slightly apprehensive that my post about her 2011 memoir will speak more of her place in culture than the actual content of the book. But Fey herself also deftly anticipates that readers coming into Bossypants are most likely aware of celebrity, and may already have their opinions of her hardened beyond modification.
Every chapter is a mixture of straight up autobiography and riff-filled opinion. She talks about a childhood framed by rules and propriety even as she is drawn to certain oddball communities like theater clubs and lesbian frienship circles. She then traces her beginnings as an improv performer for Chicago's Second City troupe, to getting a writing gig in Saturday Night Live and eventually creating her own show. There are, of course, the requisite pit stops, including her brush with the zeitgeist through her Sarah Palin impression.
It would be easy to dileneate her narrative between childhood-Tina and adulthood-Tina, although I would contend that the difference is actually between her pre-fame persona and her post-fame one.
I enjoyed so many things about this book, especially her hilarious account of a typical but slightly askew childhood. She also has very potent things to say about being an anonymous comic working the improv circuit, including the transcendent moments and instances of pure bullshit. Even the advice and opinion-making rise above the typical, because Fey is a damn good writer. She is the one, for example, who taught me the meaning of a "dark joke." There is also an extended section about the difference between humorists (writers) and improvs (performers) capped by her brilliant declaration that, "If Harvard [Lampoon] is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam." (You can actually read that excerpt at The New Yorker.)
The parts that I find slight are things that Fey herself would most likely never change. One is the sort of anemic depiction of comedy (and SNL specifically) as a competitive, make-or-break environment. This is particularly disingenuous when there's practically an elseworld universe that seems to exist specifically to push back against the dominance of Lorne Michaels-anointed comedy in the upper echelons of Hollywood. See also: the Judd Apatow pod, the Christopher Guest pod, the Nerdist pod, the primordial soup that birthed Daniel Tosh.
Furthermore, her writing makes it clear that she has at least some feminist leanings, but is undercut by her reluctance to say critical things about her comedy roots. Her writing makes it seem like she existed in a workplace where a very pervasive boys' club mentality happens, but very few people actively enforce it. Having those two things be both true at once is kind of baffling. But I guess being an improv person means you don't throw fellow comedians under the bus.
Barring a less diplomatic picture of the comedy scene, I would have wanted her to double down on the more nerdy aspects of comedy in the vein of the Harvard vs. improv thing. It would've been a more interesting book for me if she delved even more deeply into theory while doing away with the extended riff on rude and incoherent internet commenters, which is frankly played out as a wellspring of humor. I would have also preferred if she waited for time to pass before writing about 30 Rock since she was clearly still in the eye of the storm while she was writing, and thus couldn't approach the experience with a lot of perspective.
This may seem that I have a largely negative reaction to Bossypants, but it's actually the exact opposite. I responded to the book on a granular level, and my nits come from the fact that I've come back to her writing multiple times after the first readthrough. The arc of her career is far from finished so I'm looking forward to another book in the future....more
Part of me wishes that I had managed to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was a lot younger, if only so that I could have had a more vPart of me wishes that I had managed to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was a lot younger, if only so that I could have had a more visceral affinity with the imagery that Jules Verne uses with gusto. There's always a thread of exuberance in his prose that typifies the most optimistic of colonial literature. This novel, however, has more emotional weight than the other Verne novel I've read, Around the World in Eighty Days. It tackles issues such as the overhunting of the oceans, the slave trade, and rampant capitalism. A chapter can start off as a breathless travelogue then turn on a dime and transform into a claustrophobic thriller.
The only struggle that I experienced came from "almanac fatigue," because Verne spends pages listing animals and plants that the characters see throughout the novel. The thorough descriptions of all the marine flora and fauna wears the reader down after a while, especially when you're anticipating the inevitable batshit crazy climax at the end. The tedium makes it even more glaring that the final confrontation lacks a true denouement.
Seen through the point of view of a French naturalist named Pierre Arronax, the story begins with a collective of seafaring nations looking for a mythical giant narwhal. Dr. Arronax is conscripted into an expedition and sails in a vessel named the Abraham Lincoln with his butler Conseil. There, he meets a Canadian harpoonist named Ned Land. Their ship spots what looks to be the narwhal and attacks it, but the creature damages the ship instead, causing Arronax, Land, and Conseil to be thrown overboard. They hang on to the back of the giant narwhal to survive, but then discover that it is not an actual living thing but a fantastical submarine called the Nautilus. They meet the sub's striking and iconoclastic captain named Nemo, who benevolently "hosts" them in his ship but the three of them are, in truth, his hostages.
Posterity will remember Jules Verne for creating Captain Nemo who, along with Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, looms over the popular imagination's image of the sea. Nemo is cultured and whip-smart, but there is also a hint of madness behind his eyes, something that gives Arronax a healthy bit of unease. Between extended episodes of under-the-sea travel and a rare furlough on a deserted island, Arronax and the others discover Nemo's disdain towards civilization, an enmity shared by his equally mysterious crew. Captain Nemo's final moments in the novel as he leads the Nautilus to a suicidal battle with a powerful warship is one of the most dramatic moments in literature.
My conception of Jules Verne has been colored by pop cultural depictions of him, such as his appearances in Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant webcomic and the hilarious disdain that a fictional H.G. Wells has for him in Paul F. Tompkins' The Dead Authors Podcast. I imagine him as the science fiction fanboy of the Belle Epoque who was entranced by technological bells and whistles and wanted to be bros with Edgar Allan Poe. It jives pretty well with the tone of his work that has long been regarded as inferior to high literature just because it is great fun....more