Thursday, December 31, 2009

The year in reading

2009 was a memorable year in books for me. Yes, it was a crazy, crazy year, but 2009 did have special personal highlights in terms of my love of reading. First, I started this blog this year. Then, there was this mention in BBC about my bookshelf project. I also became active in a book club this year -- Flips Flipping Pages. Finally, I came to know several book bloggers like myself who have a passion for books and reading.

Although I was only able to read 48 books this year, I did come across some truly wonderful ones. I usually come up with a list of the best books that I've read for the year. So for 2009, here are my top books (in random order) that I really, really enjoyed.

  1. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
  2. Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
  3. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  4. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
  5. The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant
  6. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  7. Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney
  8. Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni
  9. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  10. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Incidentally, here are the books that I absolutely detested:
  • The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
  • The Crimson Labyrinth by Yusuke Kishe
  • The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
So what's in store for KyusiReader next year? Well, I'm not really sure. I do plan on reading more classical (or non-contemporary) books in 2010, so let's see how that goes. But one thing's certain -- I'll always keep on reading! And I feel really good about 2010, the year of the Metal Tiger, since I was born in the year of the tiger myself.

How about you, dear reader? What are your best and worst reads for 2009? What are your reading plans for 2010? And by the way, allow me, the KyusiReader, greet you a...

Happy New Year!
More books, more reading, more blogging in 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lost in the city

I'm not one to go camping, hike through the woods, or climb the top of mountains. But after reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann, I wanted to pack up my stuff and explore the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon is one of those few places on Earth that captivate us with tales of the numerous indigenous tribes that live in it and of the exotic animals and plants that can only be found in this lush but hostile environment.

The Lost City of Z, even though it's a work of non-fiction, is captivating. It reads like a novel -- a thriller at that. David Grann's book looks at the disappearance of Percy Fawcett. In 1925, Fawcell went missing with his son and his son's best friend during an expedition to find an ancient civilization living in the heart of the Amazon which he called Z. Grann switches his narrative between the past and the present. In the chapters that explore the past, Grann presents Fawcett's brief biography, the trends in archeological exploration during that time, Fawcett's preparation and eventual exploration of the Amazon, and the efforts by many individuals to rescue Fawcett and his team two years after they've gone missing. The result is one riveting read, brimming with information about the Amazon and explorers during the early part of the 1900s.

As an amateur explorer, Fawcett was notably different from his peers. He asserts that advanced civilizations could fluorish in the harsh Amazon rainforest, despite the prevailing belief that it was impossible since the harsh conditions sets a limiting effect on human existence. I also thought he was a progressive thinker, especially when he feels that the Amazon's indigenous peoples are equal in physiology to modern humans. (Many people believed that tribesmen were genetically inferior to humans.) Ultimately, his dream of making his name a legend in the scientific community once he discovers this enigmatic civilization would be his undoing.

The Lost City of Z also appealed to the naturalist in me. It was exciting to read about the many maladies and diseases one can contract when exploring the Amazon. I was fascinated to read how explorers can easily contract malaria, dengue, and yellow fever because of mosquito bites, how gnats can make sleeping comfortable, how ticks attached to one's eyebrows can grow several times their size because they become filled with blood. It wasn't uncommon for a group of say, 100 men, to be dwindled down to half after several weeks in the Amazon. It really is a hostile place. Knowing this, I couldn't help but admire how indigenous peoples have become hardy to survive in this inhospitable place, often relying on herbal medicine to cure these diseases and learning to adjust to the harsh conditions.

Grann's research is evidently meticulous. He reads all relevant correspondences, goes to Brazil to somehow trace Fawcett's path, and manages to unearth a few interesting details about Fawcett's expedition. (One of which is that Fawcett intentionally communicated the wrong coordinates in his letters so that his competitors wouldn't be able to reach his city of Z first.) I immediately felt his investigative experience in this book. Come to think of it, The Lost City of Z is a mystery, an investigative thriller if you will. It attempts to find out what really happened in 1925 to Fawcett. Of course, I won't spoil the details in this review by saying whether Grann did figure out what happened to this trio of explorers. Read The Lost City of Z to find out.

Read this book if:
  1. You love the Indiana Jones adventure stories.
  2. You're fascinated about the Amazon and all the people and wildlife that live in it.
  3. You want to read a true-to-life mystery.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When organ transplants are in fashion

Neal Shusterman's Unwind brings up a lot of issues on pro-life versus pro-choice debate. It's a riveting young adult novel, despite this very controversial theme. In the future where Unwind is set, parents and adults can decide whether 13-year-olds have the talent, the intelligence, and the capability to go on living in society. If not, these children are set scheduled for unwinding -- a gruesome concept wherein their organs are harvested for other people. They still don't call unwinding killing though; they just say that these children will go on living, but in their separate body parts that end up in different people.

Unwind is chilling, and I loved it. Shusterman imagines a world where the government has proposed a compromise between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. Instead of allowing abortion and to pacify the pro-lifers, people are required to bring up babies until they are 13, and at this time, they decide whether they sign them up for unwinding or not. At the center of all this are three characters who have been chosen for unwinding: Connor, a street-smart 16-year-old who has been signed up for unwinding by his parents because of his unruly behavior; Risa, an orphan who is up for unwinding because of budget cuts in her state-operated home; and Lev, a 13-year-old, is a tithe, someone who has been brought up by his overly religious parents solely to be unwound.

I'd like to think of myself as neither pro-life nor pro-choice. But after reading Unwind, I realized that there's nothing good that can come out of ending the life of an unborn. Yes, people may say that abortion may be the best thing, rather than giving birth to unwanted individuals in a very harsh world, growing up bitter, angry, poor, and unloved. I think that's beside the point. We'll never know how these unwanted children would turn out. Yes, a mistake has been made by irresponsible individuals, but we can never correct that mistake by committing another through abortion, right?

I usually don't express my stand on certain issues here in this blog. But after reading Unwind, I can't help not to. Unwind is the perfect read for young adults to take a stand on this sensitive topic. Perhaps we've been too caught up in deciding whether abortion should or shouldn't be legal. Maybe what we can focus on is instilling responsibility to our children -- tell them what the consequences of their actions are. In Unwind, irresponsible parenthood is somewhat tolerated. Mothers can simply leave their unwanted babies on the front door of strangers' houses. This is called storking. When people are storked, they're forced to bring up the babies as if they were their own.

Shusterman's wonderful characters and how they change throughout the novel had me up all night reading. When I think about it, the concept of unwinding, while it may be barbaric, can become a possibility. Unwinding is a perfect compromise if you think about it, and it benefits people who need organ transplants as well. After all, wasn't it just 60 years ago when people were killing millions of helpless persons just because of their religious beliefs? People have done f**cked up things before, and we don't know if we'll screw up things again soon.

Read Unwind. It's a touching, heartbreaking, and well-written page-turner. Shusterman's writing is crisp and wonderfully nuanced. Connor, Risa, and Lev are multi-dimensional characters; I'm sure you'll recognize a facet of your personality in any of them. And when you get to the part where the process of unwinding is being done to one of the characters, you'll experience a whole gamut of emotions -- horror, pity, and anger. I guarantee you that it's something you haven't read before.

Read this book if:
  1. You feel very passionate about the pro-life and pro-choice debate.
  2. You love YA books that tackle controversial issues.
  3. You signed up for organ donation.
By the way, Neal Shusterman is also the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, The Schwa Was Here. You might want to check that out too.

Monday, December 28, 2009

I talked to a widower, and I liked it

My current favorite contemporary novelist is Jonathan Tropper. He combines pathos and comedy in his stories effortlessly. After reading his latest novel This Is Where I Leave You, I've been on the hunt for all his previous works. So it was a joyful, joyful day when I saw How to Talk to a Widower in the shelves of a local bookstore this week. I had high hopes for this novel, and, sure enough, this novel didn't disappoint.

The widower in How to Talk to a Widower is Doug Parker, a 29-year-old who lost his 40-year-old wife Hailey in a plane accident. It is not just him that's dealing with this loss; Hailey's 16-year-old son, Russ, has been left under Doug's care. Russ is becoming extremely difficult to deal with lately, often finding himself involved in fights in school. Doug becomes prime dating real estate because of his status -- he's slim, sad, beautiful, and broken. When the upper class neighborhood gets wind that he's in the dating scene again, it's enough to create several comedic scenarios involving single and divorced ladies, whom his twin sister Claire sets him up with.

Tropper has created a very lovable character in his widower. Doug is a writer so obviously he's very introspective with his thoughts. His column, naturally titled "How to Talk to a Widower," is very insightful. I wouldn't be surprised if Tropper wrote some parts of his experiences in Tropper; his writing just feels so rich in context.

I can see that having dysfunctional families can be a pivotal theme in Tropper's novels. The Parkers are just as weird and funny as the Foxmans of This Is Where I Leave You. Doug's family provides several hysterical but heartwarming moments that play a role in Doug's ultimate redemption from his sad and lonely existence. Doug has always found himself to be an outsider among his high-profile sisters, but the loss of his wife provides a vehicle for his family to come together for him in all their idiosyncrasies and weirdness.

How to Talk to a Widower is so entertaining that you barely even know that you've reached the mid-point of the novel. It's been optioned for a movie, which is something I'm really not looking forward to seeing. The novel just has too many nuances, too many fine details, that won't translate well into the silver screen. I say, let's not mess with things that are already brilliant as they are.

Read this book if:
  1. You love the novels of John Irving, Tom Perrotta, and Nick Hornby.
  2. You've dated someone who's wallowing in self-pity.
  3. You go for sad, slim, and beautiful people.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

An adventure in a tree

Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle is a beautiful book for young adults. From the clean, white book paper to the wonderful illustrations of François Place that can be found in many pages, it makes a wonderful addition to one's bookshelves. The cover by itself is simply a work of art. The story, though, is another matter.

The main character of Toby Alone is Toby Lolness, your average 13-year-old thrown into difficult circumstances. Toby and his family live in a huge oak tree, with the upper echelons of society living in the treetop. You see, Toby and the rest of the tree people are only a millimeter tall; the tree they live in is their world. And this world is threatened by one Joe Mitch, an oily character whose only concern is to build huge housing projects by boring through the oak using weevils. When Toby's father, the esteemed scientist Sim Lolness, declares to everyone that the tree is a living thing and that its sap is the "lifeblood" of the mighty oak, the family is forced to live in exile in the Lower Branches.

Toby's adventure begins when his parents are forced to go to prison for not revealing the secret of the tree's sap. Alone and apparently betrayed by his closest friends and neighbors, Toby decides to go rescue his parents. Along the way, he encounters different characters -- a reclusive mother and daughter who provides shelter and companionship, the henchmen of Joe Mitch, just to name a few. Toby also meets the feared Grass People, a race who live on the ground underneath the mighty oak.

Timothée de Fombelle's style of storytelling in Toby Alone is to shift constantly between the past and the present, a technique that can sometimes befuddle readers, especially young adults. And his characters usually appear to be one-dimensional -- either good or bad. The effects renders his narrative to be a bit condescending to his readers. Still, some of the situations that his characters find themselves in are fascinating. His descriptions of pools of water formed by the rains along tree branches are so vivid and captivating. And by writing a cliffhanger for an ending, de Fombelle sets his stage to explore more themes in his second novel.

François Place's illustrations remind one of the beautiful comic strips during the '50s. Even though they're not as detailed as the artworks of today, they remain complementary to de Fombelle's text. It's good that Place's illustrations occur often in the book (about every 3 or 4 pages); they boost de Fombelle's story which can seem flat and uninteresting at certain points.

Toby Alone is another attempt to instill environmental awareness among today's young adults. The idea of the tree as one separate world/community is something that may appeal to children. After all, trees are environment indicators, right? The fewer trees we have, the worse our environment appears to be. But what Toby Alone fails to communicate is that trees are part of a bigger ecosystem -- it's not self-sustaining at all. The characters of Toby Alone may take it upon themselves to save their tree so that they can survive, but they should also learn how their tree plays a role in a much bigger world. Hopefully, this interconnectedness will be explored in the second book, which I'm looking forward to just to find out what happens to Toby.

Read this book if:
  1. You have a tree that you're particularly attached to.
  2. You love novels that tackle environment issues.
  3. You're a closeted tree-hugger.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A tale of twins, books, and secrets

I've always seen Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale in bookstores for the longest time, and it's only this week that I bought myself a copy. I love a good mystery, and this book seems to have intriguing elements in its narrative -- a reclusive author, a biographer who loves to read and runs a bookshop with her father, dark family secrets, and a gothic storyline. Plus, if I've been seeing this novel for several years now, I feel that it's worth its hype.

In The Thirteenth Tale, we get to meet aging author Vida Winter, a renowned personality whose biographical details have eluded the world throughout her career. Vida hires Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer who focuses on lesser-known 19th century literary personalities. Margaret only reads novels published in the 1800s (Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Middlemarch, etc.) and runs a small bookshop with her father. Margaret has never read any of Vida's novels, but when she receives an invitation from Vida herself to write her life story, she's left with no choice but to read her novels. Much to her surprise, she is drawn to Vida's fiction. One particular piece of fiction that fascinates Margaret is a collection of stories titled The Thirteenth Tale.

Ms. Winter has been known to fabricate fictional pieces of her life story to different journalists. Knowing this, Margaret becomes guarded and skeptical of all Vida tells her. Eventually, the reclusive novelist reveals the truth about her life, providing deep and dark insights into her childhood and her mysterious family.

Setterfield's narrative is atmospheric, verging on the gothic. The usual technique of including a story within a story is seen here, but with moderate success: Vida Winter's story is definitely more captivating than Margaret's. Sometimes, it feels that Margaret's own discovery about her family leads to nowhere and doesn't tie up seamlessly with what we find out about Vida. Setterfield could have made the two stories more parallel, more equal in weight. As it is, the novel could stand alone with Vida Winter's biography.

I really enjoyed reading about the mystery elements of The Thirteenth Tale. Somehow, it reminded me of a recent favorite read -- The Woman in White. Like Collins's novel, The Thirteenth Tale has ghosts and mistaken identities woven into its story. Setterfield, in the last few chapters of the novel, lets you in on Vida's secrets, and some of these revelations truly come from left field.

All in all, The Thirteenth Tale is hugely enjoyable. Vida Winter's story, in particular, are a joy to read. The Thirteenth Tale would appeal to anyone who loves a good mystery involving sinister family members, Victorian novels, old English houses and bookstores, and ghosts and other creepy narratives.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always thought you're a twin.
  2. You feel your family would be the death of you.
  3. You love old English houses with dark secrets.
And, by the way, a Merry Christmas to you, dear reader! I hope you have a fun-filled and meaningful Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My first manga read

So I finally decided to give manga a try when my good friend R. gave me the first volume of Bleach. I must admit that this particular series interested me, as I've heard good things about it and it was turned into a hit animated series soon after it was published.

Bleach Volume 1: Strawberry and the Soul Reapers by Tite Kubo centers on Ichigo Kurosaki who unwillingly becomes a Soul Reaper when a spirit attacks his family one night. Soul Reapers are tasked two things. First, they help wholes (good ghosts) reach the Soul Society. (I'm not really sure whether the Soul Society refers to heaven though, but it's probably similar to it.) Second, and more importantly, Soul Reapers vaporize hollows (bad ghosts). When a hollow attacks Ichigo's family one night, Rukia Kuchiki, a Soul Reaper, finds herself in the Kurosaki household to vaporize it. Unfortunate things happen though, which has Rukia giving half of her Soul Reaping powers to Ichigo. But during this transfer of power, however, Ichigo unintentionally manages to absorb all of Rukia's powers.

The chapters in Bleach Vol. 1 focuses on Rukia teaching Ichigo the tools of the trade of becoming a full-fledged Soul Reaper, since Ichigo must now do her hollow-killing responsibilities. Some of the chapters are engaging, especially those that provide further insight into the lives of Soul Reapers and how they can't discriminate as to who to save or not. Eventually, Ichigo surprises Rukia with his intuitiveness as a rookie Soul Reaper. Some episodes and panels, however, I couldn't completely comprehend. They're just plain weird.

And, since this was my first manga read ever, it took me some time before I got used to flipping the pages from the left, and reading the panels from right to left. There's even a warning at the start of the first page that says you're reading in the wrong direction if you opened the book the same way you would open your usual novel. Still, it's a fun experience learning to read the Japanese way.

The first volume of Bleach is one light read that is engaging, quirky, and funny at times. Ichigo provides comedic touches throughout this graphic novel with this sarcastic one-liners to Rukia. Rukia is your fish-out-of-water character with her naivete and clumsiness. These main characters, to Kubo's credit, are well-developed.

Tite Kubo's artwork is so beautifully rendered and detailed, although I think this is typical of manga. The result is a graphic novel with panels that seem to jump from the page. The appearances of the characters are also distinct, even though Kubo switches once in a while to chibi form. One doesn't wonder why there are now more than 20 books in the Bleach series.

Read this book if:
  1. You believe that there are good ghosts and bad ghosts.
  2. You feel that bad ghosts are out to get you.
  3. You've always imagined yourself hunting ghosts for a living.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Catching up

And so work has finally ended for the year and I'm off to do some serious shopping and, finally, reading. First, the shopping. I spent two hours last night just finalizing my list and allocating how much I would be spending on each person's gift. The gift budget is a bit easy to do; since I know what to get each person on my list, I just had to plug in an amount that I'm willing to spend for him or her. I realized that I've been spending too much on gifts during this season, so I just hope that I stick to my budget.

I never knew that there were so many hidden costs to gift budget. You have to buy ribbons, wrapping paper, gift tags, etc. Plus, I thought that I never meet them just to give my gifts, right? We usually exchange gifts over dinner or coffee. So I had to factor in those expenses as well. My, oh my...

Next, I plan to catch up on my reading. I've bought several novels lately, and I do plan to read some of them before the year ends. Hopefully, the two weeks will let me finish 5 books at the most, which will barely make a dent on my TBR pile. Interestingly, I noticed that I've developed a taste for Gothic novels lately. I'm currently reading Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. I think that, for some reason, I find the eerie atmosphere of Gothic novels more suited to the Christmas season. Weird...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Bookshelf Project #20

This week's bookshelf pictures are from Chris, a reader from the UK.

Chris mentions that he has almost 6,000 books! I just love his collection of Penguins, both old and new. And he says:
I've never particularly worried about shelving my books since I was one of those weird kids who spent every spare penny of pocket money on the things and probably first started running out of proper shelf space for them when I was 8.
I can totally relate to that! What do you think of Chris's bookshelves and his book collection, dear reader?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Local flavor

We always love it whenever the books we read feature local stuff -- folklore, familiar places, and local personalities. Trese, the series of graphic novels by Budjette Tan and KaJO Baldisimo, is a must-read for lovers of Philippine folklore and mythology. The graphic novels work on the premise that, underneath the crazy happenings in Manila, there exists an underworld populated by monsters, ghosts, elementals, and sorcerers, just to name a few.

Trese (literally meaning "13") features Alexandra Trese, a young woman whose services are sought after by the local police whenever they encounter weird cases. Yes, think "X-Files," but the police in the novels are more open to paranormal involvement in the crimes. Each chapter in the graphic novel deals with a particular case, which Alexandra Trese solves with the help of her alliances in the paranormal underworld.

I doubt whether foreign readers who're not that familiar with Philippine culture would truly appreciate the level of complexity of these graphic novels. Tan and Baldisimo rarely provide context to the characters and the scenario, assuming that readers know what they are alluding to. In a way, this is a downside of the graphic novels. Philippine folklore and mythology is rich in unique characters which will truly fascinate the non-Filipino reader. We have the tiyanaks, which are the souls of aborted fetuses; the tikbalangs, half-horse and half-man beings; aswangs, our local grotesque vampires who incidentally don't sparkle in the sun.

Some of the dialogue in Trese can be a bit cheesy and contrived. I guess the creators did not really focus on the language but on the storylines of each chapter. Trese's chapters have an uneven feel to them. Some chapters are just brilliant, engaging, and full of suspense; others lack depth and make you feel that they're simply fillers.

The illustrations, while beautifully rendered, can certainly use more detail. Some of the panels don't really propel the story with their odd perspectives and the ineffective use of the black-and-white contrast. Also, there aren't that much nuances in the way some characters are drawn; most of the supporting characters appear similar with one another. Alexandra also appears to have an androgynous quality sometimes.

Still, the Trese graphic novels are enjoyable. They're perfect reads during lunch, while on the bus, or just about any time when you have a few minutes to spare. And like most novels that make up a series, the first one (Trese: Murder on Balete Drive) is the best one.

Read Trese if:
  1. You're fascinated with Philippine folklore.
  2. You're fed up reading about beautiful and perfect vampires.
  3. You love gore.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Recent book loot

I know that I haven't been buying books lately, so my recent splurge on book buying was just so satisfying. I bought new hardbacks like there was no tomorrow. The feeling of buying a load of books is just so incomparable.

Here's what I bought:

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - I make it a point to read the Booker winner every year.
  • The City and the City by China Mieville - It's supposed to be a fusion of the fantasy and the detective genre.
  • The Lost City of Z by David Grann - I have always been fascinated by the Amazon.
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl - I haven't read young adult fiction for a long time and this sounds like the perfect read. I've been hearing a lot of good things about it.
And I also bought a few paperbacks which I've always wanted to have.

As you can see, I've a taste for sensational and gothic fiction lately, that's why I bought Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, Dianne Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, Lewis's The Monk, and Ellen Wood's East Lynne, which is said to be the "grandmother" of sensational novels. (Oh, I forgot: I didn't actually buy East Lynne. A good friend gave it to me.)

So now that I got my retail therapy fix, it's now time for some serious reading!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A dysfunctional family you'll love

We all think that our families are weird, but in a good way. Take mine, for instance. We have arguments all the time. No family lunch or dinner is complete without one of us raising his or her voice over the table. Yes, despite these unfortunate episodes, we still love our families; we learn to live with one another's whims and idiosyncrasies.

In Jonathan Tropper's latest novel, This Is Where I Leave You, we get to meet one of the most dysfunctional families in contemporary fiction -- the Foxmans. The novel starts with the death of the father, who, as part of his last wishes, instructs his wife and all his sons and daughter to sit shiva. This custom entails all the first-degree relatives to observe a seven-day period of mourning wherein they sit in small chairs and receive visitors in their home. The sitting shiva practice is the focal point of the novel and provides us a glimpse of all the Foxmans' dirty laundry.

Tropper chooses the middle son, Judd Foxman, as his main character. Judd is recently separated from his wife, whom he caught having sex in their bedroom with his boss. Naturally, because it is his boss that is involved in the illicit affair, he also finds himself unemployed. Judd's older brother, Paul, manages the sporting goods stores, their family business, and has been trying for the longest time to have a baby with his wife, Alice. Wendy, their only female sibling has three kids and is married to Barry, a workaholic who's into finance and who's using his BlackBerry all the time. Philip personifies everything that a youngest sibling is -- carefree, perpetually in trouble, good with the women, and basically a smart-ass. Hillary, their mother (who is also my favorite character in the novel), is a 60-year-old with breast implants who's also a very successful author of a book on child-raising. Hillary can talk about anything in front of her kids -- sex, bowel movement, embarrassing moments -- much to the annoyance of her brood.

Picture a sit-com where the family members are constantly arguing and one-upping each other. Now add superb characterizations and crisp dialogue. What you have is This Is Where I Leave You, a novel so entertaining and engaging that you can read it in a day. Tropper's characterizations are so multi-faceted that there's always something surprising to be discovered in each character. For example, when Judd learns that his ex-wife is pregnant with his baby, it is only when he realizes how he misses his father so much. Hillary, much to the surprise of everyone, comes out of the closet when she French kisses her best friend in front of her children.

The Foxmans are a family not known to show their emotions to one another. They choose to shroud their true feelings with insults, sarcasm, and evasiveness. I believe this is true in most families, and Tropper captures this unhealthy family habit very realistically in his novel. This Is Where I Leave You, for all its outrageously funny moments, isn't too hard to swallow. If you've read Augusten Burroughs memoir, Running with Scissors, you'll find yourself questioning whether all these events happened; most of them don't ring true. With Tropper's novel, you believe his narrative because, somehow, you found yourself in the same situation with you family. How many of us get red in the face every time our parents mention a particularly embarrassing habit we've had as children? Yes, most of us can relate to that. This Is Where I Leave You, despite being a fictional work, is entirely believable.

There are a lot of hysterical moments in the novel that you'll find yourself literally laughing out loud. For instance, the scene when Judd catches his wife in bed with his boss is so memorable. I won't give anything away except that it involves candles, cake, and inopportune ejaculation. Another noteworthy episode involves a joint, a fire detector, and a Jewish temple service. Trust me, Tropper finds a way to connect these seemingly unrelated elements.

We all love dysfunctional families. And we love the novels that feature them -- Irving's The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, Franzen's The Corrections, Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, Enright's The Gathering, Lutz's The Spellman Files. We love reading about their weirdness. Somehow, getting to know these fictional families make us feel that our families are, ummm, normal. I can't recommend this book enough. This Is Where I Leave You is honest, graphic, funny, and touching.

Read this book if:
  1. You love dysfunctional families.
  2. You feel you're the only normal person in your family.
  3. You need a good laugh.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The evil inside of us

I've been a fan of Patricia Highsmith ever since I read her Ripley novels. The Talented Mr. Ripley is still, in my own opinion, her best work, but the other Ripley novels are good too. (If you think the movie was great, well you're in for a treat if you read the novel. The characters are darker and less likable than the ones in the movie.) There's something about the novels of Highsmith that reminds you that there is evil inside all of us, and that some people more inclined to let loose their evil streak.

A Game for the Living, a non-Ripley novels, has all Highsmith's trademark of mystery and suspense. Leila Ballesteros, an artist, is found brutally murdered and raped in her apartment in Mexico by one of her lovers, Theodore Schiebelhut. Theodore immediately suspects Ramon Otero, his rival in his affections for Leila. Ramon eventually confesses to the murder, but his confession is soon dismissed as coming from a person who's lost his mind. Both men eventually develop a closer friendship as they find out who killed their beloved Leila.

Highsmith provides an excellent study in contrasts in the characters of Theodore and Ramon. Theodore is rich and a foreigner, one who feels like a fish out of water amidst Mexico's local color. Ramon is a local, a poor furniture maker. Theodore is rational and calculating; Ramon is brash and too emotional, often acting on his impulses. Throughout the novel, one can see how these characters complement each other, providing a balance in Highsmith's dark and slow-building narrative.

A Game for the Living isn't a page turner though. Highsmith chooses to focus on the relationship between Theodore and Ramon rather than the murder itself. The murder happens in the first few pages, while the rest of the novel delves on the slow decline of Ramon and the ever increasing paranoia of Theodore. The result is a superbly atmospheric novel about what men do when a person they love is taken away from them unexpectedly.

Read this book if:
  1. You're craving for a well-written mystery.
  2. You love the Ripley novels.
  3. You've had enough cheery novels lately.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Bookshelf Project #19

This week's picture of bookshelves are from Dene Bebbington.

Dene mentioned that there are actually 8 Billy bookcases in the library. Now I'm envious that Ikea doesn't have a branch here in Manila.

I just love how all Dene's books are arranged so neatly. And I can see that there's some space left for recent books. I love it! What do you think of Dene's bookcases, dear reader?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

7 things I love

I got tagged by Thomas at his blog for this fun meme, wherein I'm supposed to list 7 things that I particularly love. So here goes.

Reptiles, turtles particularly - I find them so cute and adorable.

Vanilla - I just love the scent and taste of vanilla.

Soap - I find them really essential.

Pens - I'll never trade these for the most advanced PDAs.

The colors yellow and orange - Just looking at them makes me cheery.

Dumplings - Give me pork/beef/shrimp dumplings anytime.

Bookmarks - I can't get enough of them.

I'm not going to tag other bloggers though. I do would want to hear from you, dear reader, what are your 7 loves, besides books of course.