Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Judging a book by its cover

When we were young, we were all taught to never judge a book by its cover. While this may be true figuratively, bibliophiles don't really subscribe to it. If you collect books, you'd want to see beautiful covers on your shelves, wouldn't you? And if you didn't enjoy reading the book, at least the aesthetics of the cover can serve as consolation.

Perhaps that phrase was just coined by the librarians in my school to make up for all their books with hideous covers. So when I started book collecting, I made sure to get editions with books that look fabulous in my shelves. (I know, I can be shallow.) Here's a list of my favorite covers from books I acquired recently.

Vanity Fair also released their favorite book covers of all time. Check it here. Judging from my choices however, I think I'm partial to subtle graphics and clear typeface on the covers. How about you, dear reader? What kind of book covers do you like?

Monday, June 29, 2009

The books that changed my life (4)

In 1998, Jose Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In that same year, Philippine bookstores stocked up on the novels of Saramago. And people started buying his novels, only to be put off by what seems to be an unpopular style of writing.

Aside from the long paragraphs, Saramago doesn't make use of full stops and other punctuation marks whenever these are needed. Also, character's dialogues aren't set off by quotation marks, and one has to pay close attention to determine which character is speaking. Just go over the paragraph below and try to discern the two people speaking to each other.
But all she said, in a natural voice, with no particular intonation, deliberately neutral, as straightforward as the four words she uttered, This book belongs to you, she took a long pause and added, this time putting greater emphasis on certain syllables, Let me rephrase that, This is your book. Confused, Raimundo Silva raised his head, Mine, he asked, Yes, it's the only remaining copy of The History of the Siege of Lisbon that does not carry an erratum, the only copy which still claims that the crusaders refused to help the Portuguese, I don't understand, Don't you mean you're stalling until you decide how you should speak to me, Forgive me, that was not my intention, No need to justify yourself, you can't spend your entire life offering excuses, I was only hoping that you might ask me why I'm giving you this copy without an erratum, a book with preserves the deception, that makes no attempt to remove this error of falsehood, the choice of word is up to you, Then tell me, why are you giving me this book, Too late, I no longer feel like telling you, but she was smiling as she spoke, notwithstanding a certain tension in the way she moved her lips, I beseech you, he insisted, returning her smile, and he was surprised to find himself smiling in such a situation.
Didn't you get a high just reading that? And notice that there's only one full stop in the selection, and the dialogues and all other clauses are set off by commas.

The first Saramago novel I've read was The History of the Siege of Lisbon, and it has remained one of my favorite books. It centers on a proofreader, who consciously alters a word in the history manuscript that he's checking, thus altering one of the key historical moments in the history of Portugal. Another novel that highly appealed to my Catholic sensibilities was The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which was a very engaging, albeit blasphemous, read.

Saramago's topics can range from the mundane to the political, which is something the Nobel Committee has a soft spot for. In The Stone Raft, a novel written at the time of Portugal's joining the European Union, the Iberian peninsula separates from the continent and travels across the ocean. Saramago also delves into romance and history in Baltasar and Blimunda, one of his more popular works.

The key to reading Saramago is to free up your mind and just read the text. Yes, the lack of punctuation may become tedious at some points, but it's the playfulness of Saramago's narrative that you eventually learn to love. His writing is lyrical and breathtaking, and you become immersed completely in the details of the story. Who says that we have to be bound by strict rules of usage and form to be understood?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Not your everyday magic

Once again, I now find myself anticipating the next installment of a young adult fantasy series -- Kathleen Duey's A Resurrection of Magic. I now have a theory why chapter books are very popular among young adults. Children and young adults are the only ones who can stand the agonizing wait. Most chapter books don't interest others at all. (Of course, there are exceptions. The fantasy novels of Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin have managed to have a devoted following.)

The first book of the series, Skin Hunger, might turn off readers who are used to plot lines heavy on the action and the suspense. And if you're looking for lovable characters who seem to get themselves out of impossible situations, then you might as well just re-read your favorite feel good novel. Skin Hunger is a dark and is oftentimes an uncomfortable one. Reading the first few chapters of the book might lead you to ask, "Where is all this headed?" as there seems to be no clear conflict that needs to be resolved.

But you know that patience, indeed, is a virtue. Further on into the novel, you realize that Duey is taking you to uncharted territory. In Skin Hunger, magicians have an evil streak in them; they've no qualms about letting their young pupils die of starvation. And, unlike other young adult novels, there are two very distinct plot lines in the book, and these seldom intersect with one another.

First you have the story of Sadima, a young woman who can converse with animals, a trait frowned upon in a time when magic has been prohibited. Sadima's birth is even an unfortunate one: a quack magician leaves her mother to die and steals from her family. When Sadima grows to womanhood, she sets off for the city and resides with two men, Franklin and Somiss. These two have taken it upon themselves to restore the glorious era of magic and wizardry. Eventually, Sadima falls in love with Franklin, learns to read and write esoteric songs linked with magic, and discovers the painful truth about the abusive relationship between the two men.

The second story line, which occurs centuries later, focuses on the first-person narrative of young Hahp, the second son of prominent businessman. In this day and age, rich families send their second-born sons to a "wizarding school." There's no Hogwarts-like atmosphere in this institution. It's inside a cavern with hundreds of dark, twisting tunnels and where wizards are anything but cheery. Admission also comes with a warning -- only one of them can become a wizard. All the boys are left to starve unless they find a way to conjure food magically; those who are able to do so are told not to help out the others. Two of their wizard teachers are Franklin and Somiss.

There are no solid magical elements that pervade these two story lines. In fact, you might wonder if people were better off not practicing magic altogether. But Skin Hunger is a very promising first book. The narrative is atmospheric. The way the chapters are organized may seem tiresome to some readers, since the stories of Sadima and Hahp occur as alternating chapters, with very little thread holding them together. Still, Duey has perfectly piqued the reader's interest on what could very well be a very satisfying read for young adults who are into dark fantasy.

Read this book if:
  1. You like darkly brooding characters.
  2. You've had enough of the garden-variety wizards.
  3. You just like them chapter books.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The wild things

I finally grabbed a copy of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. There may be only 9 sentences in this picture book, but it's one of the most beautiful books I've ever laid my hands on. Sendak's illustrations are so detailed and wonderfully rendered.

I'm not a big fan of picture books since I don't pay attention to illustrations that much, but I fell in love with all the lovable creatures Sendak has created. Also, I think that we all have a childhood experience similar to what Max had.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What's your favorite opening line?

Nothing grabs our attention than a well-written opening line. It sets the mood for the rest of the novel and gives us the motivation to finish the book in our hands. Every time I finish a book, I always make it a point to go back to that first sentence. Going back somehow gives me a feeling of closure. Here are some of the most fascinating and brilliant opening lines of books I've read.

From Moby Dick
Call me Ishmael.

From Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

From I, Claudius
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot," or "That Claudius," or "Claudius the Stammerer," or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius," am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled.

From 1984
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

From One Hundred Years of Solitude
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

How about you, dear reader? Are there any opening lines that are truly memorable?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You know you're in hell when...

  1. You're stuck in a traffic jam with no book to read.
  2. You're almost through reading a used book and then find out that the last few pages are missing.
  3. You're trapped in a library and it's absolutely pitch dark. Or, you're trapped in a library and you forget your reading glasses.
  4. The only bookstore in town closes shop and is replaced by The Gap.
  5. Ann Coulter starts a book club.
  6. People burn books during happy hour.
  7. Your favorite author is hanging out with Paris Hilton.
  8. Your favorite author is Paris Hilton.
  9. All your books now start with this sentence: "It was a dark and stormy night."
  10. Your books can suddenly talk and they hate you.
How about you, dear reader? Are there any similar scenarios that you can think of?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Not a book adviser

Man Reading by Georg Friedrich Kersting

When people discover that I'm a bibliophile, what pops out of their mouths is the inevitable question "What should I read next?" Well, I'm flattered when asked about this, as if people think that I'm an authority on books and reading. But the flattery lasts for about 37 seconds, after which the feeling evolves into frustration and bewilderment. The conversation that follows is something like the one below.

Friend: What should I read next?

Me: Hmmm... I don't know really. What are you into?

Friend: Oh, a lot of things. Fantasy, suspense, mysteries. That kind of stuff.

Me: What was the last book you really enjoyed?

At this point, the answer is usually any one of the following: The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Harry Potter books, the novels of Dan Brown, and, more recently, The Time Traverler's Wife.

Friend: Well, I really loved Twilight.

(Hearing this, I exert all efforts as possible not to cringe. But if you look closely, you'll see that my pupils have dilated.)

Me: Perhaps you should check out other vampire books? Are you familiar with any of them? Kostova? King? Stoker? Rice even?

Friend: Honestly, I'm not into vampire fiction, except for Twilight.

Me: Hmmmm... Let's eat.

Except for the last line, notice that all my responses were questions. Perhaps it's because I feel uncomfortable rattling off specific titles to my friends, as if telling them to read this and that. I hate it when people tell me what to read, so I certainly won't force any of my reading tastes on my friends. For what it's worth, I also have that same problem -- sometimes I couldn't decide what to read next, which leads me to ask . Should I finally give Rushdie's Satanic Verses a go? Can I stomach another round of YA fantasy novels? Do I resume reading all the novels of the Booker shortlist last year? The questions can go on and on.

I guess that's why I check a lot of book blogs every day, which is something that people looking for the next book to read should do as well. Book bloggers have their own wonderful take on the books they've read. And when two bloggers have completely different opinions on the same book, it makes you just want to read the book yourself.

Of course, there are sites such as Shelfari, Library Thing, and Good Reads, which serve as platforms for people to discuss what they've read and what they will be reading. Lately, two of my friends told me to check out these sites -- Whichbook and What Should I Read Next. I didn't follow the results I got though, but it was interesting to find out the titles they came up with when you input your preferences.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Finally got to Netherland

Certain topics in novels don't appeal to my sensibilities at all. Often, when the following themes are mentioned in the novel, I don't even bother to read it:

* Cricket
* 9/11
* Immigrants in NYC
* The American dream
* Despair, loss, and exile
* Trinidadian gangster who run a betting operation
* A character whose surname begins with "van der" (a la Serena van der Woodsen)

Joseph O'Neill's Netherland has all these, but it's one of the best novels I've read this year. Why then, you'd probably ask, did I pick this up in the first place? Well, it certainly didn't help that it won the Pen/Faulkner award and was named the best book of 2008 by the New York Times (with a glowing review by no one else but Michiko Kakutani). Also, when the shortlist for the Booker prize was announced last year, a lot of people raised hell because Netherland wasn't in it. O'Neill's novel was probably the most acclaimed novel last year. It was also compared favorably to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

I haven't read The Great Gatsby, but if it involves a man going through a personal crisis and forming doomed relationships with the people he meet along the way, then the comparison is merited. It's a beautiful book about Hans van der Broek, a financial analyst from London who gets transported to New York with his lawyer wife and his son. The van der Broeks were in NYC when 9/11 happened. It is this event that causes a strain in Hans's relationship with his wife Rachel. When Rachel decides to return to London, Hans is left alone in the hotel where they were temporarily relocated after 9/11. It is during this time that he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidad-born immigrant/gangster/philosopher who exposes Hans to a less-explored side of the immigrant experience.

Hans and Chuck meet at a cricket match, one where Chuck served as the umpire and mediated between two arguing players. They become inseparable after that. Eventually, Chuck uses Hans as an unofficial escort in his betting operation among other immigrants. While this mafia-like theme would be responsible for Hans's severing of their relationship, it is the element of the sport cricket that O'Neill uses to full effect throughout the novel. You don't need to have a thorough understanding of the sport though to appreciate the novel; O'Neill doesn't even go into its technical details. O'Neill uses the sport as a device: no matter how much immigrants force much of their culture into their American experience, they end up failing. In the same way that Americans never embrace cricket as a team sport, no matter how popular it may be in other countries. "It's not cricket," as the English would say when something goes against a social norm.

O'Neill romanticizes neither 9/11 nor the immigrant experience. The events of 9/11 proved disastrous for Hans's marriage, especially when Rachel expresses her strong views about America's reasons for going to war. The immigrant in Netherland is fundamentally complex -- Hans was born in Netherlands, moved to England, and transported to the US. This complexity adds a fresh perspective on how people view the lives of immigrants. When in New York, Hans can never claim to be a struggling immigrant for prosaic reasons: he's white, he's well-educated and successful in his career, and he doesn't come from a third world country. Nevertheless, the reader is exposed to the wide spectrum of the immigrant experience in Hans's everyday dealings with the people around him.

Netherland is one of the most intelligent and emotionally wrenching novels published recently. O'Neill's writing is both lyrical and vivid, transporting you across continents and differing timeframes. The reader may feel that he's holding one of those non-linear novels; O'Neill juxtaposes past scenarios into the present many times througout the novel. But this brilliant technique doesn't take away the rewarding experience of reading this textured, highly nuanced, and illuminating novel.

Read this novel if:
  1. You plan to read just one book this year.
  2. You've lived in another country.
  3. You're curious as to why some countries love cricket.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Random funnies

One-half of Speidi can read!

Check out this post on What the Book You're Reading Really Says about You. It's a gas.

This bookseller really hates his customers. Read the types of customers he has come up with.

Can books learn from movies? Apparently, yes. Check it here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Things I'd like to see more of

Books about zombies, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth Bennet -- I haven't read a single Jane Austen novel yet. I can't stand all that gossip. Hopefully, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will make me eager to read one.

Books about vampires that do not sparkle and actually have fangs -- I'm a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro. Naturally, I just have to get The Strain, the first in his horror trilogy about vampires in Manhattan.

Books about history that aren't boring -- I'm a big fan of books about World War II. Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which is mostly made up of anecdotes, provides a fresh angle on that turbulent age.

Books that explore issues relevant to people today -- Francesca Lia Block's Baby Be-Bop is one young adult novel that every teenager should read. The writing is fresh and urgent, and the controversial theme is unapologetic.

What I can do without

People who go out of their way to ban books -- A Christian group has sued for the right to burn Block's Baby Be-Bop in public. Check it here. Effing unbelievable in this day and age!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

This feels strained

The Strain, a novel written by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, disappoints. It feels so derivative that you might as well read (or reread) Dracula, Salem's Lot, I Am Legend, the graphic novel 30 Days of Night, and all the other apocalyptic novels out there.

I think that the problem lies with the collaboration itself. Apparently, Del Toro just made a 12-page outline for the novel, which was turned over to Hogan to flesh out into a 400-page horror novel. The result is a work that feels hollow and, even during its horrifying moments, annoying and familiar. We've all known the legend of the Vampyr (called the Strogoi in the novel) and we've read many novels that presented their own theories on how this supernatural creature came about. In The Strain, the head vampire is European, reached Manhattan in an airplane (similar to how Dracula came to the New World in a boat), and spreads his vampire virus/worm among people. Yawn...

The novel's beginning was promising though -- Flight 753 from Berlin mysteriously shuts down after landing, with all its windows closed and no movement whatsoever detected inside it. But when you're 50 pages into the novel and people haven't gone into the plane, you feel frustrated. And when they do discover the bodies, it's anti-climatic.

Del Toro has established a cult following with his movies such as Pan's Labyrinth (very, very good), The Orphanage (even better), and Hellboy (so-so), so you wonder why there's so few of his signature dark touch in The Strain. Was something lost in translation, perhaps? I'm not familiar with Hogan's work though, but his novel Prince of Thieves had good reviews. The narrative, however, reads like a screenplay. At times when Hogan and Del Toro attempt to delve into the minds of their characters, you just wish they didn't. These moments are just cheesy.

Because The Strain is just the first in a trilogy, Del Toro and Hogan definitely need to make the second and third books stand out from the already crowded genre of vampire fiction. There's an interesting future storyline that's hinted in The Strain though, one that involves New World Vampires warring with Old World ones. Finally something new! Let's just hope that this doesn't evolve into something like vampires vs. werewolves, or vegetarian vampires vs. the bloodsucking kind.

Read this book if:
  1. You haven't read Dracula or any vampire novel.
  2. You're sick of hearing about vampires that sparkle.
  3. You have 3 hours to kill.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Visiting bookstores

I wish we had our local version of Strand.

For a bibliophile, going to a bookstore feels like coming home. It's where we go to nest, happily contented amidst the pages and pages of bound paper that can be found in the shelves. In Manila, it wasn't always this way. More than 10 years ago, we simply had National Bookstore, the only reliable place to go to for paperbacks which were unfortunately shrink-wrapped. There weren't even chairs or couches for you to use while you browse. NBS was, and still is, a no-nonsense retailer. You don't go there to while away the time checking the shelves; you go there to get the latest novel of your favorite author, pay for it, and leave.

Sidebar: The helpful saleslady
A friend had this funny experience about asking an NBS saleslady if he can remove the wrap to scan the contents. The saleslady replied, "Sir, you can't do that." To which, my friend asked, "But how can I check if this book is any good?" "Sir, I'll just summarize it for you."

Younger generations of booklovers in Manila are lucky. They have PowerBooks, Fully Booked, A Different Bookstore, Bestsellers (a subsidiary of NBS), and the hundreds of Booksale branches. The bigger retailers -- PowerBooks and Fully Booked -- encourage us to spend hours and hours checking out their stocks, hoping that we would eventually purchase something after our visit. They have cafes where we can go to while we read; they have cushioned chairs and ottomans where we can rest our flabby butts; their books aren't wrapped in plastic; the staff is friendly and always willing to help you out (ummm... just as long as you know the exact title and author of the book you're looking for).

Sidebar: The absentminded guy from customer service
Two months ago I was looking for Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go in a recently opened bookstore in Greenbelt. I didn't see the book in their young adult section so I went to the customer service counter (which I seldom do), hoping that the book was just miscategorized.

Me: I was wondering if you have The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Can you please check your inventory?

Guy: Sir, The Night That Lets Go?

Me: No, The Knife of Never Letting Go. K-N-I-F-E of Never Letting Go.

Guy: Right. Lemme check, sir.

I see him type "knife never goes." I correct him, again, and finally he gets it right. Unfortunately, they don't have it but their branch in Rockwell does. So I asked for the book to be transferred and gave him my mobile number.

After 3 weeks, I received the following text message:
Sir, we are pleased to inform you that the book you have requested, The Killer of Never Letting Go, is available.

We book lovers know that bookstores are a business and that's why we patronize them. But it doesn't mean that we have to buy books every time. For one, books can be pricey, and unless you're a termite or a silverfish, there's no way you can live off of them. While we buy books more frequently than other people, we do take our time reading, scanning, and skimming several titles before we settle on that one book that we want to bring home. This book may just have come fresh out of the box or it may be an old one we've passed several times over during our past visits. It's something unexplainable really; sometimes, a book just speaks to us. We can scour every inch of the bookstore and leave without buying anything. None of the books spoke to us.

It's not unusual for me to browse three to four books in the bookstore for an hour and then deciding at the last minute to buy none of them. Or sometimes, when I'm in a buying mood, I get all of them. Less frequently, I buy a book that I haven't even scanned yet. It just happens. I guess going to a bookstore isn't automatically linked to buying books, which is something that doesn't sit well with booksellers. For us, it's more of the experience -- smelling the paper, touching the spines and feeling their weight, appreciating the artistic book covers, reading the opening paragraphs, and even just being in a place where people read. All these can be exhilarating and, sometimes, frustrating.

I think that one of the reasons bookstores aren't a thriving business here in the Philippines is that booksellers somehow do not understand the behavior of their target group -- the bibliophiles. And much as I'd like to offer my two cents' worth on why we buy books, I simply can't. I don't even understand why I buy books that I have no intention of reading whatsoever. Or why I'll go on a spree for several weeks and then end up with a self-imposed moratorium on buying books for several months. The saying "Don't judge a book by its cover" is something we book lovers laugh at. Good heavens, we don't want to splurge on something that won't look good on our shelves!

Also, another thing going against bookstores is that people have diverse reading preferences. Yes, people still buy several copies of John Grisham's latest thriller, Stephen King's latest horror novel, or J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. But any self-respecting bookseller would not just stock his store with mainstream pop bestsellers. We look for variety and sometimes, we're in the mood to sample something esoteric. This is why there will never be a financially successful bookstore that specializes in mystery/thrillers, horror/SF/fantasy, or young adult books. We don't want to be limited. Let's face it, we're capitalists.

It doesn't take much to please bibliophiles. Most of the time, we're just happy by ourselves. We seldom even ask for help from the staff. And unless we want to have a book reserved, we rarely go to the customer service section. When a bookstore closes shop permanently, we feel saddened and ask ourselves if we ever bought stuff from there. We rejoice when there are discounts and warehouse sales much like any other person, and we literally jump for joy when we receive discount cards. But in the end, bibliophiles are a different kind of consumer altogether. We're difficult to put into categories, in the same way that booksellers find it difficult to classify their stock into genres.

Note: This post is NOT a reaction to a bookseller's categorization of the people who frequent his bookstore. Check his post here. Frankly, I'm appalled.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

If your nipples could talk

The Secret Life of Peter Paddington, Brian Francis' debut novel, is precisely why I have no intentions of coming up with my own semi-autobiographical novel. My writing would never match the wit and humor of Francis's prose. I'm not even a big fan of gay, coming-of-age novels because I find them too formulaic (e.g., handsome, closeted overachiever coming to terms with his own sexuality). But this novel has restored my faith in gay fiction, however unlovable and repulsive the main character may be.

Yes, Peter Paddington isn't your typical 13-year-old protagonist. He's pushing 200 pounds, has pimply legs, has absolutely no talent at all, and has developed nipples the size of ripe cherries that could talk. He fantasizes about his handsome classmate and the mysterious Mr. Hanlan, one of the married guys he delivers the paper to. He doesn't have any guy friends at school and his best friend is Daniela, the foul-mouthed, Italian girl who lives across his house. When Peter finds out that Daniela has secretly started dating and plans to go all the way with him, Peter calls Daniela's parents and rats out on her. Daniela, unknown to her, has become Peter's fag hag.

One of the themes explored in The Secret Life of Peter Paddington is about the issues gay adolescents face during this difficult stage. Peter is obsessed about losing weight and the weird changes his body's going through. He detests his hairy legs and wishes that they were more tanned and hair-free like those of Andrew Sinclair, his secret crush at school. And when his nipples suddenly pop out and start talking to his brain, threatening to expose his dirty thoughts to the world, he covers them up with masking tape. In a way, this is Francis's tribute to every gay man's discovery that he's different from other boys, especially with how one's body responds to being around them.

This isn't a coming out novel. Peter never really comes clean about his sexuality. The closest incident to him being exposed was when his uncle sees him wearing his mother's clothes. His uncle, as hinted in the book, is also gay and never tells on him of course. Peter's parents remain clueless throughout the novel and for good reason -- he leads an uneventful life. And while he may find himself in difficult situations and awkward moments, these appear few and far between in the book. The book's humor lies in Peter's thoughts and the ridiculous scenarios he imagines. He fantasizes about being Brooke Shields, joining a beauty pageant, and having intimate encounters forced upon him. These are hysterical.

The Secret Life of Peter Paddington may be stuffed with stereotypes about growing up gay, but Francis doesn't dwell too much on them, often treating these as a given. Francis has also taken a risk using Peter as his novel's hero (Dan Savage, the popular columnist, even labelled Peter as "repulsive."). But this risk ultimately pays off. The novel is one of the most honest depictions of adolescence ever, and it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, for you surely would be able to relate with Peter's experiences.

Read this book if:
  1. You like your hero unperfect.
  2. You want to laugh your socks off.
  3. You're a chubby chaser.
Oh, by the way, Brian Francis is hot. Check out the adorable author below.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What's your poison?

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle has been on my wish list for the longest time ever. When I saw it in an obscure bookstore in Pasig, I just have to buy it. It's a good thing that it was on sale. (If you want to know where this bookstore is, just write me a comment. Their stocks are amazing!)

Most of us are familiar with Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is easily one of the best horror novels ever. Also, her short story, "The Lottery," is probably the most read in its genre. So naturally, you'd assume that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a ghost story or, at the very least, a gothic novel. Well, it's not. Although there's a pervading mood of menace throughout its 150 pages. Right from the start, you just know that something bad is going to happen.

The novel centers on the surviving members of the once-esteemed Blackwood family -- Uncle Julian and his nieces 28-year-old Constance and 18-year-old Merricat. These 3 have somehow become outcasts in town because of a dark incident involving murder. Eight years ago, most of the Blackwoods died while having dinner, apparently victims of arsenic poisoning by Constance. Constance gets acquitted of the charges and becomes a recluse, taking charge of all the chores needed in the Blackwood estate. It is left to Merricat, the book's main character, to go to town and buy the things they need every week. When Merricat goes to the town's store and cafe, people immediately start whispering and talking about how much they hate the Blackwoods, their money, and their murderous history. Merricat takes no need of all this, being the strong and willful young woman that she is.

When their cousin Charles decides to visit the family and stay with them for good, the Blackwoods peaceful existence is disrupted. Charles immediately wants to take control of all the family's finances and clashes with Merricat, who only wants her cousin to leave. As a last resort, Merricat sets the upper section of their house on fire. The fire provides a pivotal point in the novel, with their uncle perishing in it and the townsfolk chanting "Let it burn. Let it burn." And when the fire finally comes under control, people start throwing stones at the house, smashing windows and the Blackwoods' cherished china. Merricat and Constance stay hidden while all this is happening, helplessly watching the rape of their own home.

I don't really want to give away as to what happens in the ending. I don't want to spoil a really good thing. Jackson's writing is truly atmospheric; you get a sense that something is really not right between Constance and Merricat. There maybe too many unanswered questions about the narrative: how Constance got acquitted murdering the rest of the Blackwoods, what really happened on that fateful night 8 years ago, are Constance and Merricat really related, and what drives Constance to protect Merricat and vice versa. But somehow, all these are irrelevant; they take a backseat to the story of a family that is doomed by their past, their secrets, and the people around them.

People looking for a creepy read may find themselves a bit disappointed with the novel, especially when they've read The Haunting of Hill House. There are no ghosts and no direct reference on anything paranormal. But the book is one of the most enjoyable reads I've encountered lately. It's wonderfully weird, ultimately sad, and surprising in its twists. IMHO, Jackson is in her finest form here.

Read this book if:
  1. You want a fast but satisfying read.
  2. You're a big fan of dysfunctional families.
  3. You've been the subject of malicious gossip.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stop the paranoia

I've had enough hearing about A(H1N1). Stop sending those unsubstantiated text messages and chain emails. Maybe we can all just go on with our lives and, like, read.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cult horror fiction

If you've been to Booksale outlets in the metro lately, you'll get a pleasant surprise. Tucked away in one corner are horror paperbacks. And if you're a big horror fan (like me), you'll realize that these are the books you've long thought were out of print!

I spotted several titles by Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, Tom Picirilli, Brian Keene, and Graham Masterton. Too bad I wasn't able to see Ketchum's most famous works -- Off Season and The Girl Next Door. I did, however, got hold of the sequel, Offspring.

Many people would certainly question the literary merits of these horror novels. For horror purists however, these horror novels have achieved cult status. They explore sexual perversion, cannibalism, torture, and pretty much anything that's considered taboo.

I do hope that younger generations of horror fans discover the thrill of reading these books. The vampires, werewolves, and serial killers in the current crop of horror novels are wimps as compared with the monsters Ketchum et. al. conjure.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Have you read this?

Dear reader, have you read James Joyce's Ulysses? For a book that has appeared in almost all of the lists of best books, Ulysses has been seen as a "must read" by bibliophiles. Unfortunately, reading the book is a daunting task. The writing is heavily postmodern, and each page is littered with allusions.

I read Ulysses back in 1998, which was around the time Modern Library released its 100 best novels of the century and declared Joyce's doorstop of a novel the best book of the 20th century. I recall seeing it in a bookstore and deciding that, since I had way too much time on my hands back then, I'll give it a try. It also didn't help that it was the only copy left. (If you're a booklover, you understand how it feels to see the last copy of a book you're waiting for on the shelf. You just don't think anymore. You simply have to get it.)

The novel's plot focuses on one day in the lives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus - 16 June 1904. There's nothing really significant about this date; in fact, Joyce probably chose June 16 because of its insignificance. In the novel, you get to read how the two main characters argue with one another and go on with their daily activities (eating, walking along the streets of Dublin, teaching, and even masturbating).

As you can see, you don't read Ulysses because of the plot. You open its pages for the language. You rejoice in the genius and inventiveness of Joyce for being possibly the greatest novelist of his generation (or any generation for that matter). And contrary to what you might expect, the book is, in its own way, highly readable. The trick is to just read it page by page. Don't pay any attention to the allusions and all those literary devices if you're not familiar with them. (This is the same technique I used when I read Trainspotting.)

Apparently, people are willing to pay good money on a first edition of Joyce's epic. This guy here paid more than $400,000 on a signed first edition of Ulysses.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Riding the wave

From toothpastefordinner.com

I've started this blog about 4 months ago mainly just to share my views about the books I've read. Since that time, I made several posts about book reviews and pretty much about any topic that crosses my fancy.

I had no idea that keeping a blog would be very therapeutic. While I do have to set a few minutes of my time each day to gather my thoughts and write a post, checking out reader's comments in KyusiReader has become something to look forward to.

It's also fun to check out other book blogs and to see what other people have been reading. I may not have met other book bloggers personally, but I feel a certain connection to them. Our love for reading and books binds us.

I stumbled upon this post that discusses how book blogs can be categorized. Basically, I think it all boils down to readership and the purpose of one's blogs.

Blogs in the wave 1 category are the literary blogs -- the blogs usually cited in the mainstream media. These are the ones we check for news about the publishing world. Some of the wave 1 blogs I visit are The Literary Saloon and Bookslut.

KyusiReader belongs to the wave 2 blogs, along with thousands of blogs out there who have a small following. Like other blogs in my blogroll, KyusiReader provides a venue for bibiliophiles to talk about books, something like a virtual community.

One thing I noticed though is that book bloggers, well at least the wave 2 blogs, are the most open-minded and perhaps the friendliest people in the blogosphere. There's none of the petty quarrels and inane arguments that you usually find online.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A rant

Lipo typo

Is it just me or have you also been noticing more and more typographical errors in US books lately. In my trade paperback edition of Gomorrah for example, I've counted 8!

I'm not one to nitpick, but if I'm paying good money for my books, I'm expecting it to be 100% free from any error -- whether a typo or a grammatical one. Frankly, typos in books just reek of mediocrity.

It's bad enough that we see typos every day in the net (like in this blog occasionally), but at least the stuff we see online is free. There's nothing like reading a book that's riddled with typos to make any book lover start pulling out his hair violently.

Is the recession to be blamed for all this? Are publishers cutting on corners on their editorial processes? Does it really hurt to have one more pair of eyes go through the galleys just one more time?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Waldo's here!

One more reason to celebrate -- the popular Where's Waldo? series (Where's Wally? in the UK) is being made into a movie! Read all about it here.

I love the Where's Waldo? books. They're a great way to kill time. And they're also handy when you have uninvited guests and you just don't want to talk to them. Just let them go over the books and leave them for an hour.

The suits at Universal Studios better not eff it up. So, who do you think should play Waldo? Please, not Will Ferrell.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More reading backlog

For the past few weeks, I've been on a book-buying frenzy. Bookstores seem to have new titles on their shelves. This weekend alone, I bought 4 books which are now at my bedside table waiting to be wrapped in gauge 8 plastic.

I guess it doesn't help that most of the books I've been eagerly anticipating are now on sale. In the US, I believe this is the time when publishers release titles with bestseller potential.

The book that I've been desperately wanting to get my hands on is Rick Riordan's The Last Olympian. Think Harry Potter, but this time, the characters are not wizards but gods and heroes.

And I was surprised to find The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Reif Larson's much-acclaimed debut novel. The book is just too beautiful with all the illustrations along the margins.

Also, trade paperback editions of notable titles from last year are also being sold. I saw Netherland and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Naturally, I just scooped them up and headed to the cash register without thinking.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Archie finally chooses

A love triangle no more

At last, after several years of that Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, our hero gets down on his knees and proposes to -- Veronica! Read the story here.

Yes, Archie chose the rich, spoiled, bitchy, black-haird beauty over all-American, goody-two-shoes blonde, Betty. Apparently, not everyone is into blondes.

I think Archie made the right choice. Betty has all the makings of a Stepford wife -- perfect but dull. Betty, on the other hand, will grow old into a powerful matriarch of a big clan (a la Joan Collins in "Dynasty").

Do you think the comic book series has finally jumped the shark? So, dear reader, are you Team Betty or Team Veronica?