I first fell in love with Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night more than five years ago, a pleasurable read enhanced by the fact that the good friend whoI first fell in love with Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night more than five years ago, a pleasurable read enhanced by the fact that the good friend who recommended it to me knew my reading tastes so well. I'm not as well-versed in Young Adult fiction as I should probably be, but I connected with the airiness of Hardinge's prose, which painted a vibrant world teeming with humor and verve.
It's through this lens of great expectation that I viewed Verdigris Deep, her sophomore novel. A young adult urban fantasy set in contemporary London, it trades the sense of wonderment for something more brooding and unsettling, a stylistic choice that made me more disappointed than I probably would have had I picked up the book cold.
The story details the exploit of three friends named Ryan, Chelle, and Josh, who run into trouble on a fateful night when they decide to steal a few coins from a wishing well. Unbeknownst to them, the well is inhabited by a spirit that ends up cursing them. Their newfound "gifts"--telepathy, manipulation of electricity, and the ability to see London's literal underworld--are tools that are supposed to help them grant other people's wishes. But as with every fairy tale, thingsn are rarely what they seem.
Although the book is framed as the adventure of three characters, the action is presented solely through Ryan's eyes. He's much more thoughtful and reticent than his friends, and he idolizes Josh so much that he agrees to the initial mischief that causes them all of their troubles. I actually assumed that Josh was the protagonist at first, and was increasingly frustrated by his flippant meanness and recklessness.
The fact that Ryan is so passive in the beginning, coupled with his unquestioning admiration of Josh, also hampered my ability to sympathize with him. He just seems so removed from his own motivations that it was frustrating to read the three of them go through various adventures that essentially make things more catastrophic for themselves. Ryan, however, is saved in my estimation by a very involving sequence at the end of the book. During the final conflict with a surprising adversary, in he manages to assert himself and fully grasp the extent of his own inner strength.
Several elements stand out individually. Chelle's characterization has elements of poignancy that I didn't quite expect when she was first introduced. I pegged her as the comic relief early on, but her character growth dovetails nicely with Ryan's. On the writing front, the plotting for their wish-granting expeditions that turn horribly awry is taut with tension and a great deal of irony. The story also imparts a nuanced statement about evaluating friends and their impact on one's well-being.
Ultimately, this book ended up being not my thing. But people who enjoy a darker edge to their children's fiction will find a cleverly told tale in Verdigris Deep. At the very least, it will warn would-be thieves not to dip their fingers into the bottom of wishing wells.
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
With age, it becomes harder and harder to encounter books that end up being life experiences. My reading predilections pret(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
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expAmrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expecting a hybrid of introspective contemporary women's fiction and mundane surrealism, a mixture of Lorrie Moore's Self Help, Melissa Banks' A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and (yes) Haruki Murakami's fiction.
Ultimately, the novel aimed to do a bit of those things while failing at all of them simultaneously. The book stumbles at its attempt to dish out pieces of faux-philosophical faux-wisdom, while the romance-inflected "modern girl's quest for self-actualization" angle started at vaguely interesting and careened towards stultifying.
Narrated by a Tokyo office girl named Sakumi, the premise starts promisingly enough, as she details the life of a household that has recently experience tragedy. Sakumi's sister, a model and actress named Mayu, died of suicide before the novel begins and this loss hangs not only around her, but also around her mother and pre-adolescent brother. On top of that, Sakumi gets into a serious accident that causes her to temporarily lose large chunks of her memory. Her quest to piece bag fragments of her life becomes more complicated by the surprise arrive of Ryuichiro, a writer who used to be Mayu's boyfriend before she died.
The plot meanders sedately from that point on, eventually ending up with Ryuichiro and Sakumi having a relationship, in a series of event which I found frankly creepy. Sakumi's younger brother Yoshio is revealed to have clairvoyance, telepathy, and the ability to sense aliens. Sakumi, Ryuichiro, and Sakumi go on vacation to Saipan, where they encounter hippie vacationeers and the ghosts of World War II soldiers. All these events are narrated with such an infuriatingly flat affect. In the beginning I chalked up this flatness to Sakumi's brain injury and how her slowly reknitting memories make her feel removed from the world. But even conversations or events that would make other people's emotions spike at the very least seem to just flow over her like water.
On top of there's this weird thread of philosophizing throughout Amrita, about things that have been written about better by more insightful writers. Yes, life is short and must be lived to the fullest. Yes, family is important. Yes, love feels good. At one point Sakumi writes Ryuichiro a letter that spans eight pages and the main takeaway was: "In order to feel such a simple thing, apparently it's good for one to fall down and knock the memory from her head then struggle to retrieve it." She just summarized a 360-page novel.
It's entirely possible that I simply didn't Get It. But I'd like to believe that I picked this novel in good faith and was broken down by the plodding narration and uninteresting, one-dimensional characters. I'm also willing to to say that the problem may have been the narration because some people have apparently enjoyed Yoshimoto's previous novels and liked this one less. However, I don't feel inclined to pick another book from her until the far future. You led me astray this time, Michiko Kakutani blurb!
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 threadI 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....more
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
"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
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
It's a little weird, writing this post months after having read the book and having given my copy away, but my personalOriginally posted on my blog.
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....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
I do enjoy a well-characterized romance novel once in a while, and Mina V. Esguerra's No Strings Attached is a quick, one-day diversion that offers aI do enjoy a well-characterized romance novel once in a while, and Mina V. Esguerra's No Strings Attached is a quick, one-day diversion that offers a lot in terms of intelligent characterization within the short novella form. However, the main quibble I had with the story itself lies in the fact that it is too short.
The story is about Carla, a smart, professional woman who meets an attractive man named Dante during an office party. Sparks fly immediately despite their age difference (isn't it strange how this is only a concern when the woman is the one older?) but what was supposed to be a casual hook-up turns into something deeper and much more uncertain.
The plot reminded me of How Stella Got Her Groove back by Terry McMillan, which I read when I was in high school. I was initially wary of the premise when I read the book blurb because it implies that despite an enjoyable career and great friends, the one obstacle in Carla's life is turning 30 without having a boyfriend. This is not how the story plays out at all. I like that the initial affair was very casual and laid back, that there was no moral hand-wringing about having an extended fling. Not that the characters don't get to angst, but that's really the nature of a romance though, isn't it?
My problem is the inevitable final scene. I won't give away spoilers, but I thought that the conflict that surfaces between Carla and her friends weren't established convincingly enough in the story, and I wish more wordcount was used on that. What could've have been an affecting final scene makes Carla seem uncharacteristically bitter and prone to grudges. This then made the happy ending all the more abrupt and unsatisfying to me.
In romance novels, we all yearn for that heart-pinching scene like Mark Darcy telling Bridget Jones that he likes her just the way she is and getting rebuffed, but that kind of expectation set-up and reversal needs a lot of buildup. I don't think it was earned here. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the character interaction for the most part. And I particularly enjoyed Dante and Tonio a lot.
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.
Despite my fondness for British Golden Age mysteries (Christie, Sayers, Marsh), I have yet to find a more contemporary mystery writer that I really enDespite my fondness for British Golden Age mysteries (Christie, Sayers, Marsh), I have yet to find a more contemporary mystery writer that I really enjoy. To wit, Ruth Rendell is widely regarded as a master of the form, yet this manor mystery about a woman found dead in the woods left me cold (pun not intended). There's a certain amount of wit that I feel is lacking here, despite erudite nature of the story.
A Guilty Thing Surprised is a novel that features Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden investigating the murder of Elizabeth Nightingale, the mistress of a manor that only seems genteel on the surface. Suspects immediately crop up as a series of interviews reveal the victim's manipulative nature. The retiring husband, the worldly au pair, and the professor brother--each one has something to hide. The novel's title is from a Coleridge poem, alluding to a setting that involves many literary and academic preoccupations.
I don't know why but I found the investigation, which mostly hinges on witness testimony, that I feel is too innocuous and paint-by-numbers. The alibi structure Murder at the Orient Express was utterly engaging for me, but the similar strategy here isn't successfully executed at all. The final clue to the murderer's identity is certainly transgressive, but the expository nature of the reveal dampened whatever reaction I may have had about the facts.
I will have to examine my preference for older cozies at a later time, because it's something that has become more evident as I continue reading mysteries.
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
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 gorgesIn 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.
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.
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.
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.
A comment in an article from The Guardian characterized Christie's books as "the literary equivalent of sudoku" and I can't help but agree. I don't reA comment in an article from The Guardian characterized Christie's books as "the literary equivalent of sudoku" and I can't help but agree. I don't read Golden Age stories expecting to find nuanced, fleshed-out characters. They are mere parts of the mystery's architecture, designed to mislead the reader and confound their expectations. In this way, Murder on the Orient Express is a definitive success. I admired the clever set pieces, and marveled at the detail Christie wielded in order to make the plot work. My copy even helpfully provided a diagram of the car and the different cabins to orient the reader.
A happy exception to the flat characters of the Golden Age, at least in my opinion, is Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. By sheer accrual of the little personality traits Sayers endowed him over the years, Wimsey emerges as a fully formed character in his own right. As much as he's likeable, I don't think Hercule Poirot is as rounded a character. I can see though why he and the novels about him are still fiercely loved by Christie fans.
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.
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
Ilustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres--murder mystery, satireIlustrado 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.
I blazed through this book in a day and a half, and for the most part enjoyed it. Ollie is ditzy yet headstrong in the way cozy mystery heroines typicI blazed through this book in a day and a half, and for the most part enjoyed it. Ollie is ditzy yet headstrong in the way cozy mystery heroines typically are, but her role as a White House chef adds some interest in her characterization. None of the other characters are particularly fleshed out but they serve their purpose just fine and I get the feeling their personalities will be given more depth throughout the series. Plus one for the hilariously entertaining “villains” that put Ollie’s career in jeopardy, minus one for the tiresome and weirdly sanctimonious Secret Service boyfriend.
I don’t want to be the person who gripes about the nuances of cultural sensitivity in a cozy with recipes at the back, but I feel that there’s some regrettable depiction of admittedly fictional Middle Eastern countries here. Most glaring of which is a banquet scene where Ollie sees the wife of a king covered from head to toe and attended by several women. She asks who the other women are and is informed that they are the queen’s handmaidens. At this Ollie reacts with, “Handmaiden? What is this, the Middle Ages?” I know why it was done–the observation pointed to an important clue–but still. Reading that passage literally made me cringe.
Klosterman declares early on that he wants to confront two of the most egregious accusations hurled at heavy metal: that 1) it is frivolous and disposKlosterman declares early on that he wants to confront two of the most egregious accusations hurled at heavy metal: that 1) it is frivolous and disposable (therefore “not art”), and 2) it is offensive and dangerous. He argues that these two sentiments can’t both be true at the same time. Becoming a danger presupposes a potency that contradicts frivolity. It may not be elevating art but heavy metal mattered, particularly to the crop of hormonal teenagers of post-Reagan Middle America.
Every chapter starts out with a “milestone” date, which makes probably people assume that the book is going to be a linear narrative. Instead they end up with what The New York Times called a “part memoir, part barstool rant.” The dates are merely touchstones from which Klosterman can riff, using everything from garish album covers to committing ATM fraud in trying to explain why a musical genre that many people would rather consider an aberration meant so much to him.
And then we came to the part about the feminists. In the couple of months that yawned between finishing Fargo Rock City and writing this review, I’ve constantly thought about how I’m supposed to feel about Klosterman’s overwrought attempt at explaining away heavy metal’s tendency towards sexism and objectification. His defense is basically that that because hair bands were so baldfaced about their sexism, they somehow transcended their own objectifying tendencies and became commentaries on sexism. I mean, what? You can’t suddenly transcend sexism by becoming too good at it.
Few detective novels have managed to elicit a profoundly emotional response from me the way The Collaborator of Bethlehem had. For his debut novel, MaFew detective novels have managed to elicit a profoundly emotional response from me the way The Collaborator of Bethlehem had. For his debut novel, Matt Beynon Rees plumbs the depths of his experience as Time Magazine's former Israel bureau chief to create a compelling mystery set within the context of an extremely polarizing Israel/Palestine conflict. This unflinching but compassionate portrait of life in the West Bank gives readers who are only familiar with the region through pithy CNN headlines a deeper understanding of the people who continue to live in it and the conflicting forces that affect their lives.
At the heart of the story is Omar Yussef, and aging, ornery teacher at a UN Refugee School. He takes pride in his role as an educator, promoting intellectual curiosity and integrity as a defense against a world quickly spinning out of control. When a beloved friend and student, a Palestinian Christian named George Saba, becomes a scapegoat in the murder of a resistance leader, Omar Yussef risks his life to clear his name. He is then forced to confront the ugly realities that plague Palestine of recent memory: It has become a place where upright men suffer and justice takes a backseat to warmongering.
A quote from the novel:
Yet the gunmen thrived, they whose accomplishments and talents were of the basest nature, they who would have been obliterated had there been law and order and honor in the town. Perhaps Bethlehem was there town after all, and it was Omar Yussef who was the outlaw interloper here, peddling contraband decency and running a clandestine trade in morality.
While the society he paints can be unrelentingly bleak, Rees succeeds in infusing the narrative with glimpses of humor and wryly intelligent observations. He also mimics poetic turns of phrases in English to approximate conversations in the vernacular, something that I really liked. One of the most interesting assertions that Rees makes is his characterization of militias such as the Palestinian Martyrs Brigade as thugs who cloak themselves in nationalistic grandstanding and inflict suffering towards the very people for whom they claim to be fighting.
The novel also deftly touches upon issues such as the Palestinian diaspora, particularly of the Christians who have been systematically marginalized from the land of their ancestors. I haven't given much thought on the plight of the Christians in Israel, quite frankly, and this novel really brings home the way that they have suffered under the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The mystery itself is not the novel's strongest suit--the murderer's identity is obvious early on and the heavy foreshadowing drives it to the ground. However, a mystery set in a war zone like Palestine still raises some interesting questions for me. Classic detective stories rely on the implicit notion that once the mystery is solved and the criminal unmasked, the Law takes control and Justice inevitably prevails. Sherlock Holmes never had to deal with a criminal that got off based on a technicality. But how does a detective story hold up in a society where criminals themselves are the judge and executioner? I'm also interested in how Rees decides to portray Omar Yussef's detective career in the subsequent three novels.
I am definitely looking out for the next Omar Yussef title and I heartily recommend The Collaborator of Bethlehem to anyone looking for a gripping story that rises above the typical notions of crime fiction. Definitely a memorable read.
I found the mystery interesting enough, if a bit slow moving. The world Anne Perry paints fascinates the Victorian fetishist (no pun intended) in me,I found the mystery interesting enough, if a bit slow moving. The world Anne Perry paints fascinates the Victorian fetishist (no pun intended) in me, particularly the parts where the art of photography and transgressive theatre are explored. However, the moralizing tone the author uses when discussing issues like censorship was difficult to ignore. Had there been less pontificating, the final reveal wouldn’t have felt forced and uncomfortably pointed. The red herring is also kind of pointless–I would’ve liked if Perry took a quite interesting premise to a totally different direction.