Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10 for 2010

2010 was an awesome year in books for KyusiReader. I've managed to read 70 books this year, despite my very hectic schedule. What can I say, if you find something really important, then you find the time to do it, right?

So what books did I like this year? It was a tough call, considering that I've read so many different genres and discovered new authors this year. Nevertheless, I've narrowed my favorite reads to 10. Here they are (in no particular order):

  1. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower: This fascinating collection of short stories will leave you wanting for more. Tower's debut collection features a cast of misfits in modern-day America in very unusual scenarios. I'm not a short story reader myself, but EREB left me satisfied.
  2. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli: The best graphic novel that I've ever read. Mazzucchelli's work touches on several themes such as architecture, Greek mythology, and music
  3. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer: Dyer's novel art and love is one very memorable read. It's actually two novels in one.
  4. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness: Ness's brilliant young adult trilogy, Chaos Walking, makes other YA novels seem amateurish. The best in the trilogy is this book.
  5. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende: I love the movie, but I love this book more!
  6. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: Murray's Booker longlisted novel is the funniest novel I've read this year which is set in a prep school in Ireland.
  7. The Monk by Matthew Lewis: This is the first book I've read this year. It has also become my favorite Gothic novel.
  1. Born Round by Frank Bruni: Reading this memoir by Bruni, the New York Times restaurant critic, made me realize how difficult it is to review restaurants. I don't know how I'll manage to eat 3 dinners in a day!
  2. Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch: This brilliant memoir by a former captain in one of New York's finest restaurants is not to be missed. What is it about books and food that make them go well together?
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This book appealed to the science geek in me.
So there you go, dear reader. Looking at the list, I can't help notice how my reading patterns have changed through the years. Before, all my top 10 for the year were purely novels. Now, I see:
  • 2 contemporary novels
  • 1 classic novel
  • 2 young adult novels
  • 1 graphic novel
  • 1 short story collection
  • 2 biographies
  • 1 science non-fiction book
How about you, dear reader? What were your favorite reads for this year? And would you like to guess which of these 10 is my favorite book of the year?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sadly, the story ended too soon

More than 20 years ago, I saw a cute film entitled The Neverending Story. I loved it. I saw it 8 times. When the sequel came out, I didn't even bother to watch it. I believe that sequels generally, big time. I wouldn't want to spoil my experience of watching the first movie by going through a mediocre sequel.

It was only last month, after a conversation with my book club, that The Neverending Story movie is an adaptation of a young adult novel. And two weeks after that, I saw a copy of Michael Ende's novel at a used book store. I opened it two days ago and finished it within 6 hours straight. I think it's the best young adult novel I've read this year.

The novel The Neverending Story is richer and more wonderful than the movie, whose plot involved only half of the book. Come to think of it, the novel is actually two books in one, each having the capacity to be a stand-alone work.

In the first half of the novel, we meet Bastian Balthazar Bux, who steals a book from a used book store entitled The Neverending Story. He reads about the imperiled world of Fantastica, a magical place which is being destroyed into nothingness. He reads about how the Childlike Empress chooses a young man named Atreyu to look for the person who can give her a new name and thus restore Fantastica in all its wondrous glory. Little by little, Bastian finds himself playing a more pivotal role in the story, knowing eventually that he is the chosen one who can give the Childlike Empress a new name.

The first half of the novel is truly magical. It's an adventure story featuring Atreyu and his journey throughout most of Fantastica and meeting strange and mysterious creatures along the way. Ende's description of these adventures are so rich in detail that it singlehandedly beats the imagery in the movie.

The second half is more of a coming-of-age story. Bastian is now in Fantastica and is recognized as its savior. He has also been given a new appearance. No longer do we see the fat, clumsy and geeky kid, for Bastian now looks like a handsome and strong nobleman. His storytelling gift also finds a place in this magical realm, with each of his spontaneous stories becoming real. Whatever he wishes, it comes true. But this gift comes at a price: for whenever he makes a wish, he loses a piece of his memory of his life in the human world. It becomes up to Atreyu and the luckdragon, Falkor, to show him this consequence.

While the second half of the book does not feature the same adventurous theme as the first, it is definitely the book's heart. Bastian realizes that, despite having been given a different appearance, he must come to terms with who he really is. The way Ende writes this realization is very touching and never condescending to his readers.

The Neverending Story is a very beautiful book in all aspects. Aside from the deftness of Ende's writing, the book opens each chapter with a full-page illustration. The artwork features the first letter of the word of each chapter and other illustrations about the chapter. And it took me until the second half of the book to realize that the order of the letters of the first word of each chapter follows the alphabet! Just look at two of the chapter openers below.

Ende's novel is one big adventure story filled with memorable characters. I was surprised to note how fast paced the novel is, considering that it was written more than 30 years ago. It's truly enjoyable indeed.

Read this book if:
  1. You like young adult fiction.
  2. You enjoyed The Neverending Story movie.
  3. You can say "Bastian Balthazar Bux" 10 times fast without stammering.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The bookshelf project #27

Oh my goodness! I just realized since I last featured someone's bookshelves in my blog! I have lots of catching up to do then.

This week's bookshelves are from Elizabeth. I just love Elizabeth's Billy bookcases and how she laid them out in the room. It's a wonderful way of maximizing space, don't you think?

In the first picture below, we see a lot of books on foreign languages. I also spy several Lonely Planet travel guides! Tres interesting! I notice that that the bookcases are displayed prominently in the room, and I love it that Elizabeth has found an ingenious way of adding a sound system on her shelves. The music sheet notes are a giveaway -- she's definitely a music lover. I wonder what instrument is in that black bag.

Here in the second picture, there are lots of Oxford Classic Editions on the top shelf. Inside the white boxes are notebooks, art materials, craft supplies, needlework things, among other things.

I do wish that Ikea has a store here in Manila, so that I can buy those Billy bookcases by the dozen.

What do you think of Elizabeth's bookshelves, dear reader?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not the movie with Brad Pitt, but way, way, WAY better

So one day I found myself mindlessly walking the aisles of a local bookstore when I found myself drawn to this small young adult novel -- Troy by Adèle Geras. Of course, I couldn't resist after reading the synopsis at the back and knowing that it was shortlisted for the Whitbread, the Publisher's Weekly list of best books for the year, and the Carnegie Medal.

If you're like me who is endlessly fascinated with the world of Greek mythology, then this book is THE book that you should read this year. I was wondering why it didn't become popular when it first came out in 2000. Perhaps the publishers have thought to reprint this work and package it as something with action, romance, and supernatural creatures. But this isn't Twilight territory though.

Troy is basically a retelling of Homer's The Iliad. You get to meet all the historical characters -- Achilles, Hector, Paris, King Priam, Helen, and Andromache, among others. It's set during the Trojan War, when Greeks and Trojans were battling it out in the plains because of Helen. Caught in the narrative of the novel are two sisters, Marpessa and Xanthe, who both fall in love with the same man, an injured nobleman named Alastor.

It's wonderful to read a novel wherein Greek gods and goddesses are characters themselves in the book. When Xanthe falls in love with Alastor first, it is because of Eros's arrow. Marpessa completes the love triangle because of a whim from Aphrodite. Soon, major gods show up and interact with the human characters -- Ares, Poseidon, Athena, Hades, and even Zeus himself. I love Greek mythology. Greek gods and goddesses have very "human" characteristics. They play favorites. They destroy things that don't take their fancy. They love and kill as they please.

Several reviews have pointed out that this is the story of Troy told from a feminist perspective, and yes, I agree. When Hector leaves Troy to fight Achilles on the plain, it is the thoughts and feelings of his wife, Andromache, that we experience. The terrible consequences of war on soldiers who get injured during battle are told through the eyes of Xanthe, who is also a healer in Troy's Blood Room. We also get to read about Helen's anguish when Troy is besieged on the night they let in the Trojan Horse inside the city's walls.

Troy is very readable, too. As YA fiction, it can provide a good background of Greek mythology to young readers who may not be prepared for Edith Hamilton. As historical fiction, it's gripping. The novel comprises several short chapters, making it a light but engaging read.

Read this book if:
  1. You read everything with Greek mythology.
  2. You love gods and goddesses.
  3. You're craving for sickly sweet romance and bloody battles at the same time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why don't people like you as much I do?

This weekend, my book club met and discussed Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. I've read it a year ago and I loved it. To say that I was looking forward to the discussion would be an understatement. If there's one book that I was really eager to discuss, this would be it. Imagine my surprise at the end of the discusion when I was only one among 3 who thought that the book was brilliant. The rest, around 12 of them, think that the book wasn't "good enough."

Perhaps I was just partial to reading Greene. I love reading his works. The End of the Affair, one of his 4 Catholic novels, is probably one of his best work. His writing has always been sublime. Greene wrote beautifully. I wouldn't want to call it lyrical, since there's minimal poetic elements in his book. What I admire was his gift of evoking mood and atmosphere. In The End of the Affair, set during World War II, I felt that the war played a crucial role in the decisions the main characters made in the book.

One would say that The End of the Affair only has 3 main characters. Maurice Bendrix, the writier who has a passionate affair with Sarah, the wife of an important British government official, Henry Miles. It is the affair of Maurice and Sarah who drives the novel toward its sad conclusion. From the start, the reader has a sense that the affair would have disastrous consequences on all 3 of them. Affairs are simply so un-Catholic.

So one day, Maurice and Sarah were making love in Maurice's apartment and a bomb goes off. Maurice becomes unconscious and Sarah discovers that he has died. In a panic, Sarah prays to God feverishly, saying that if God would let Maurice live, she'll leave him forever. Maurice lives and Sarah, against her wishes, must fulfill her side of the bargain. Of course, she doesn't mention this to Maurice who gets confused when Sarah takes all the pains to avoid him. Maurice eventually discovers the circumstances for Sarah's actions. When the two of them continue on with their affair, Sarah's health deteriorates and dies.

The 4th character in the novel is God. This is not the passive God, but rather the playful, wrathful God we've read in the Old Testament. His presence can be felt all throughout the book. In a way, he punishes Sarah for breaking the agreement with Him. And what better punishment there is than death? Maurice, the self-confessed atheist, is even forced to acknowledge His presence.
I wrote at the start that this was a record of hate, and walking there beside Henry towards the evening glass of beer, I found the one prayer that seemed to serve the winter mood: O God, You've done enough, You've robbed me of enough, I'm too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.
I mentioned that this novel had Catholic sensibilities, as Greene converted to Catholicism late in his life. Sarah, despite calling herself a bitch and a fake, becomes a saint or at least developed saint-like qualities. Her physical contact with two minor characters in the book proves to be miraculous. The element of rituals, which plays a huge role in the Catholic faith, abound in the book. Greene also delved into one of the main taboos of the religion -- adultery. Truly, only a wrathful God would think that death is only fitting for those who violate the seventh commandment.

I think that this is one of the most beautiful love stories that I've read. All right, I haven't read a lot, but The End of the Affair is a total departure from all the books that deal with romance, illicit relationships, and obsesssion. I say that it's brilliant. Who would have thought that a love story can involve a divine character. After all, it wasn't really Henry whom Maurice was competing against to win Sarah. It was God.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything by Graham Greene.
  2. You're craving for a different love story.
  3. You loved the movie. (The book, as always, is better.)
Oh, and here's a picture of me with my Graham Greene books. I just love those Penguin Classic Deluxe Editions!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A fresh take on the vampire novel

It's ironic that Marcus Sedgwick's young adult novel, My Swordhand Is Singing, would have one of the freshest takes on vampire fiction. Why? Because the novel actually goes to the roots of the vampire myth in Eastern Europe. In highlighting the past, Sedgwick has written something new, in a genre that's becoming stale.

I loved reading this short novel which has Gothic elements in it. I enjoyed reading about 14-year-old Peter, his drunkard father, and their nomadic life. When these two characters settle in the town of the Eastern European town of Chust in the 17th century, horrible things begin to happen. People start dying, their corpses drained of blood. It's only a matter of time before Peter realizes his role in preventing these vampires from further killing the people of this idyllic town.

Sedgwick has indeed done his research in My Swordhand Is Singing. He traces the origin of the European vampire all the way back to ancient battles involving European royalty, gypsies, and religion. I was fascinated.

The novel also has a heart. It's not all gore and bloodsucking. There's the relationship between Peter and his abusive father to explore. When Tomas reveals something about his past life to Peter, you know that it won't correct all the bad things Tomas has done to his son. However, what's admirable is how Peter responds to this revelation. There's a bit of a romance too, a love triangle actually, which is wonderfully downplayed by Sedgwick.

I've read lots of vampire novels and I do tend to have a strong opinion on them. Recently, I've gone through Justin Cronin's The Passage (great), Meyer's The Twilight Saga (bad, generally), Melissa De La Cruz's Blue Bloods series (horrible), and Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain (passable), just to name a few. My Swordhand Is Singing is one of the good ones out there.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into vampire fiction.
  2. You love Gothic novels.
  3. You're curious about the history of vampires.

P.S. Thank you, Iya, for giving me this book. I had a grand time reading it. I just have one beef though -- it's too short! I didn't want it to end.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Something surreal

I never knew that it would be challenging to review a 170-page book. But Adolfo Bioy Casares's short but pithy novel, Asleep in the Sun, totally defied all my expectations after reading it straight one lazy Sunday afternoon. It's a love story, science fiction, a commentary of Argentine social structures, an exploration of our attachment with routine, and, finally, a fable.

Lucio Bordenave, the main character, loves his wife, Diana, with a passion bordering on madness. Never mind that she's constantly quarreling with him and embarrassing him in front of his family because of his being unemployed. When Lucio becomes a repairman of clocks, Diana's disdain for her husband only increases, telling him that she has no appreciation for these devices, except for the cuckoo clock which she adores.
...Diana dropped into an armchair, cuddled up, hugging one leg, leaned her face against her knee, and stared into space. Seeing her that way I said to myself, I swear, I couldn't live without her. Also stimulated by enthusiasm, I conceived truly extraordinary thoughts and fell to asking myself, What is Diana to me? Her soul? Her body? I love her eyes, her face, her hands, the smell of her hands and her hair. [page 19]
Of course, Asleep in the Sun is not an out and out love story, since this novel was written by Casares, who was good friends with Jorge Luis Borges. Naturally, things progress to a surreal narrative. Upon the recommendation of Professor Standle, a German who absolutely loves dogs, Lucio agrees to have Diana committed to a mental institution. And this is where things get a bit funny, creepy, and, well, sci-fi-ey.

First, as soon as Diana is sent to the mental institution against her will, her sister, Adriana Maria, flirts excessively with Lucio. But Lucio would not have anything to do with her. He's Diana's through and through. He misses his wife so much that he decides to get her a dog from Standle, who sells him a German shepherd. Oddly, the dog's name is also Diana. So it makes you wonder why Lucio would have Diana sent to a mental institution for her to have a more positive outlook in life or, more specifically, for her to eliminate her hostility to Lucio. But I'll get to that part in a bit.

Second, it seems that the mental institution isn't allowing anyone to visit their patients. Lucio becomes paranoid as to what really goes on in the hospital. He frequently makes secret trips to the hospital and hides in the corner, hoping that he would get a glimpse of his wife from one of the institution's windows. Sadly, this never happens. And then one day, he receives a call that Diana can now be discharge because she is now "cured."

Third, the newly discharged Diana has now become a doting wife who loves Lucio so much. Lucio's relative, Ceferina, confronts Lucio that his wife is not the same person anymore. In denial, Lucio dismisses her comments but comes to a horrific realization when he himself gets committed to the same mental institution where his wife has been. Casares's depiction of Lucio's paranoia is masterful. From a novel that starts out with comedic episodes, Asleep in the Sun has now ventured into Borges-like territory.
I don't understand a thing. Sometimes it seems that I'm never going to leave here; other times, that I'm going to leave at any moment. If I think that I'm not going to leave, I write feverishly so that you will get me out. If I think that I'm about to leave, I continue writing out of habit. I relive so many memories as the pen rushes along; some are distressing, I don't deny it, but many are pleasant. [page 137]
One of the questions Asleep in the Sun asks is, "Why do we crave for routine?" Lucio should have been happy with the new Diana, but apparently, the absence of Diana's hostility toward him has left a vacuum. "Is it love?" one may pose. Perhaps. We can see that Lucio's love for Diana, while being one directional, is unconditional. He comes to a realization that he doesn't need to have Diana changed. He loves her for all she is -- her indifference, her beauty, her soul.

Interestingly, Casares also explores the concept of the soul in Asleep in the Sun, although he ties it up in a very pseudo-scientific approach at the novel's end. We discover that the doctors of the mental institution are experimenting with transferring the essence of the soul into another body, allowing them to put a new soul with more positive qualities into the original body. This explains why the new Diana is so Stepford-y. And what of the soul of Diana, well, the doctors have transferred it into the body of a dog, which became restless and managed to escape the institution.

Asleep in the Sun is one novel that will make you think. It's amazing how Casares was able to integrate all these disparate themes into one short, tightly written novel. It has definitely inspired me to look up the other novels written by this Argentine writer.

Read this book if:
  1. You like to read books with a surreal narrative.
  2. You feel that dogs are better company than humans.
  3. You'll read anything published by NYRB.

And speaking of NYRB, thanks to Honey and Mrs. B for sponsoring the NYRB week beginning November 07. I love the NYRB editions. I have never been disappointed with these books. The true bibiliophile will find it difficult to resist buying NYRB titles if they see them in bookstores.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I want to live here

...I am scared, but more than that, I am a person, I am human, I am walking reasoning humorous human being and I will take a lot from his lunatic filthy house but I will not go along with hurting a child, no, I will not; I will by God get my mouth to open right now and I will yell I will I will yell "STOP IT," she shouted, and the lights were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled.

"What?" Theodora was saying. "What, Nell? What?"

"God God," Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, "God God -- whose hand was I holding?"

Well they don't make them haunted house ghost stories like they used to. Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House makes all other horror stories seem amateurish. (I won't even compare it to the movie of the same title. The movie's a joke, really.) If all horror novels were written the same way as Jackson's, I wouldn't have a good night's sleep for over a year.

The novel opens with a very atmospheric chapter, describing Hill House and its guests in vivid detail. Dr. Montague, a scholar who studies paranormal phenomena has invited 3 guests to stay in the now abandoned Hill House, a house with a very curious and dark past. Eleanor has been invited because of her experience with poltergeists when she was a child. Theodora, a beautiful and carefree woman, was invited because of her uncanny psychic abilities. And rounding up the guests is Luke, the heir to Hill House.
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The novel is of entirely Eleanor's. We never know whether the hauntings the group experiences in the house has been brought about by Eleanor's subconscious manifesting as paranormal events. Hill leaves it up to the reader to make that decision. And granted that people will have different opinions about these hauntings, what's undeniable is the novel's creepy and atmospheric feel. It's enough to give you shudders every now and then.

What struck me after reading the novel is the feeling that haunted houses, or stories about ghosts and haunted houses, are enveloped by sadness. You feel sad knowing the tragic fate of the original owners of Hill House. You feel sad after reading the reasons on how Eleanor has become the paranoid and insecure woman that she is. You're saddened by the fate of the characters, having the premonition that, by the end of the novel, these people are not the constants -- it is the house that will remain.

There are several scenes in The Haunting of Hill House that I keep thinking about. One involved Eleanor clutching the hands of Theodora when they hear a loud banging on the door in the middle of the night, only for Eleanor to discover that Theodora was at the far end of the bed when the lights came back on. And the chapters when we read about the voices that Eleanor hears as she walks the claustrophobic hallways of Hill House are so hair raising. These scenes are what makes the novel enduring. The Haunting of Hill House feels timeless in its shock value, even though it was written more than 50 years ago.

It was fortuitous that I found this copy during the Halloween weekend, as I have been on the hunt for this novel for the longest time. And what better time to find it that on Halloween. It's fate, no? And I finished it on the night of the 31st, perfect timing to give myself a reason to sleep under the covers.

We're all fascinated by old houses. We become curious about its history every time we step into one. But let me ask you, dear reader. Would you still spend a night in a big, old, and abandoned house after learning that its owners met a horrible fate? I know I would.

Read this book if:
  1. You're fascinated by haunted houses.
  2. You love Shirley Jackson.
  3. You don't feel like donning a costume this Halloween and just want to curl up in bed with a wonderfully written creepy read.
I was with a good friend in the children's section of a bookstore and I was telling him about Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, another one of Hill's ghost stories. The novel is really hard to find, so imagine our shock when we found a single copy on top of a stack of children's books. Just that one misplaced copy. It's as if the book was calling out to us. I must admit that it kinda creeped me out.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Creeped out

It's that time of the year again when we all gather around with friends and share ghost stories. It's the season to watch again our favorite scary movies and reread our beloved creepy novels and short stories. And what better way for me to start this Halloween season than to read Susan Hill's frightening ghost story, The Small Hand.

Of course, my favorite ghost story of all time will still be Hill's The Woman in Black, but The Small Hand definitely comes close. It's also a short novel (a lot of people would thus call this a novella), but it is immensely satisfying.

In this story, we meet Adam Snow, a dealer in rare books, who stumbles across a long-forgotten house called the the White House after taking a wrong turn. For reasons he can't explain, he becomes drawn into the house and suddenly feels a small hand grasp his as he enters the gate. Soon after, he experiences panic attacks and apparent hauntings. And it doesn't help that the feel of the small hand becomes more and more frequent.

True to other ghost stories of Susan Hill, the phenomenon of the small hand is linked to Adam's family, more specifically to his brother, who have been confined to a mental institution during his younger years. I won't divulge the connection though, since the twist at the end is too good to reveal in this humble review.

The Small Hand is the kind of ghost story that we all long for -- with its gothic feel, its creepy atmosphere from page 1, and its pervasive feeling of thread. Fans of The Woman in Black will find common themes in this novel and, like me, will wish for Hill to come up with more ghost stories in the future.

I'm a big fan of ghost stories, and I must admit that I don't scare easily. But reading The Small Hand made me wish for a companion in the middle of the night. Yes, it is that good.

Read this book if:
  1. You loved The Woman in Black.
  2. You're a sucker for all things Halloween.
  3. You're a true blue ghost story addict.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The fuss about this comic

Scott Pilgrim is dating a high schooler!

And with this first line, the utterly hilarious saga of Scott Pilgrim begins. Yes, I've finally given in to all the brouhaha that this comic series brings. Was I satisfied with the first volume, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life? Was it funny? Terribly so. Is it for everyone? Yes.

I haven't seen the movie though, but if the big screen adaptation is just half as good as the comic elements in this first volume, then it's still going to be enjoyable. It's hard to pin exactly what makes Scott Pilgrim so lovable:
  • Is it because he's 23, unemployed, and dating a 17-year old girl named Knives Chau?
  • Could it be that Scott is living the life that we didn't have when we were in that age -- carefree, clueless, and impressionable?
  • Or is it because he hangs out with the coolest people who seem to tolerate his idiosyncrasies and whims?
I don't know exactly. But I had a most enjoyable 45 minutes reading the first volume. You just have to read it to appreciate the plot in all its wonderful craziness: Even though Scott Pilgrim has been going steady with Knives, he falls for an Amazon delivery girl named Ramona Flowers. The only catch is, he has to defeat all seven of Ramona's crazy ex-boyfriends. In the first volume, we meet Matthew Patel, who Ramona had a relationship with when she was 11. The fight between Matthew and Scott is one for the books.

So, dear reader, if you're prepared to suspend your disbelief and get lost in a truly funny read for a few minutes, then you have to get this. In creating Scott Pilgrim, the author Bryan Lee O'Malley has come up with a very lovable icon.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I was also born round

For many years, I was a human yo-yo. I had several fat phases and then relatively slim phases. Now, since I turned 30 more than 5 years ago, my body thinks that there's nowhere to go but up (and down and sideways). My current weight is the heaviest I've experienced. No worries though. I know I'm in good company. Frank Bruni, the ex-restaurant critic of The New York Times, also had the same problem.

In Born Round, Bruni's very readable memoir, the critic chronicles his life from his toddler years to the time that he had the best job in the world (i.e., dining in 5-star restaurants and then writing all about his gustatory experiences). Born Round is one enjoyable read. It doesn't come off as a memoir that takes itself too seriously. In fact, the breezy pacing of the book has the atmosphere of fiction.

Bruni states that he was born round, which is true, judging from the pictures in the book. You could see that, despite being the middle child, he appears to be the eldest because of his girth. One funny bit is when he mentions that he usually barfed food when he was still a toddler just to make room for more food. This particular period would foreshadow what would happen during his college years, a period when he was bulimic.

Bruni's Born Round is painfully honest. When he writes about how he gorges on buffets and family reunions, somehow I can relate to him. It's hard to say no when you're presented with so many options, yes? There's always the "just one more bite" mentality. And it didn't help that Bruni came from a family with Italian roots, a family that used food to display their wealth and show hospitality.

Born Round tells significant events that happen in each stage of Bruni's life. During middle school, Bruni became a champion swimmer, even though he didn't have a swimmer's body. He writes about his experiments with different kinds of diet, most of these under the guidance of his mom. The part when he and his mom were on Atkins is one of the most poignant in the book. In college, he was bulimic and tried different drugs just to keep his weight in check. After graduating from college, he took on several journalism jobs, which included being part of the press corps of President Bush and being nominated for a Pulitzer. Everything is captured in wonderful detail.

But the highlight of his career was when he joined The New York Times as a reporter. He didn't start as a restaurant critic though, far from it. His first major stint was when he was assigned as the Times correspondent in Rome, writing about affairs of the Vatican, which usually had no significant value. But it is in Rome that he was exposed to eating in different establishments and then earning a reputation of being someone who's in the know as to the best dining places in Italy.

So when the people at the Dining section of the Times called him up, he accepted and then moved to New York. I never knew that being a restaurant critic was hard work, but it is, almost terribly so. Bruni had to invent different names and then come up with disguises just so that he can dine anonymously and not be given preferential treatment in these restaurants. He writes that he often eats out 5 to 7 days a week and sometimes has 2 dinners in one night, just to make sure that he visits restaurants at least 3 times to write a good review.
For every visit to a restaurant I used a fake name and typically reserved a table for four. I needed three companions to order different dishes and help me cover as much of the restaurant's menu as possible. If I was making my first visit, I usually laid down only one rule for my tablemates: no duplicate orders. Four different appetizers. Four different entrees. Four different desserts. If I was making my second or third visit, I'd call our the dishes that had been previously tried and shouldn't be ordered this time around. [page 289]

His attempts at varied diets, his period of bulimia, his on-off discipline when it comes to working out, and his taking of drugs (e.g., speed) all contributed to his weight fluctuating until his late 30s. Unfortuntately, when he was offered the critic position, he was in his best of health: he was working out and thus had a leaner body, he was eating healthily, and he had a healthy romantic relationship with his partner. I understand the dilemma. Would you sacrifice all your hard work just to take on a job that would require you to eat for a living?

Born Round is one of the most touching memoirs that I've read. It offered me a glimpse of someone who had the same problems that I did. Except for his stint as a restaurant critic, one would be tempted to say that Bruni's life has been unremarkable up to that point. But I think not. Bruni's style of writing makes you live in the moment; I often pictured myself present in those family dinners that he writes about. When he describes his separation from a lover, I felt truly sad. And I reveled and cheered for him in his triumphs. Born Round, like the best memoirs, made me feel empathy.

My icons: Bruni and Martha Stewart

Read this book if:
  1. You've always dreamed of becoming a restaurant critic.
  2. You were, like Frank and me, born round.
  3. You've constantly struggled with your weight.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Oh no, they didn't!

So one of my all-time favorite ghost stories, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, is now being made into a movie. Gasp! They better not mess up this wonderfully creepy read (never mind that it stars Daniel Radcliffe). Seriously, if you're looking for one novel to scare the bejesus out of you this coming Halloween, this short novel is it.

The Woman in Black is the kind of ghost story that creeps up on you. There are no monsters, no vampires, no ghastly apparitions. It's the kind of book that makes you look over your shoulder every now and then, as you read it through the night. And because it's short, you can read it in one sitting. And the ending just has to be one of the most chilling I've read in the past few years.

Incidentally, Hill has written a more recent ghost story, The Small Hand. And it's getting good reviews. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I was prepared to like you

First, you're supposed to be a good old-fashioned ghost story. Second, you promised to have a Southern gothic theme. Third, you've received praises for being fast-paced, creepy, and suspenseful. Even though you did have all of these three (at a bare minimum), somehow, you left me wanting. And that is where my problem lies.

So Cold the River is indeed a ghost story. The ghost in question is one Campbell Bradford, a businessman in the late 1800s who made a name for himself bottling water from a mineral spring in a Southern town. Yes, So Cold the River does have a Southern gothic theme. But this is far from Charlaine Harris territory. The Southern town where the novel is set does have a dubious past, but the author, Michael Koryta, does not delve on it further.

The main character in Koryta's novel is one Eric Shaw, a film maker. Shaw has made a name for himself making films shown during one's funeral, sort of a montage of the dead person's best years. He receives an assignment to chronicle the life of Campbell Bradford, who lies comatose, and his first step is to go to Bradford's hometown in the South called West Baden. In West Baden, Shaw checks in to the town's famous hotel and starts to get hallucinations after drinking Pluto Water, the brand of bottled water that made Bradford rich. He then comes to the conclusion that something in the water is causing these hallucinations. And these hallucinations have become so real that they now resemble hauntings.

So Cold the River is terribly disappointing. There are no characters to root for. What Koryta gave the reader are stereotypes. The town black sheep who becomes the villain when the spirit of Bradford possessed him. A token black guy who becomes a good friend of Shaw while finding out more about Bradford. The oldest lady in the town who knows everything there is to know about West Baden. Of course, this old lady dies in the end.

Oh, why did I buy you, So Cold the River, and at full hardcover price at that? Perhaps it's the blurbs at the back cover who promises the hotel at West Baden to be something like The Overlook in King's The Shining. Or maybe I was looking for a good read that will really scare the hell out of me. I haven't read one for the longest time.

The story isn't even that interesting, now that I think about it. Bottled mineral water that contains the ghost of some creepy millionaire? Please. You're better off drinking from the tap, dear reader.

Read this book if:
  1. It doesn't take a lot to scare you.
  2. You're a sucker for blurbs.
  3. You'll read anything set in the South.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Do you reread?

Besides myself, I only know one other person who doesn't reread. It turns out, besides our common love of books, I share one other trait with Gege, the moderator of the book club I belong to, and that is we never pick up a book that we've already finished.

Funny, I never asked Gege's reason for not rereading. I, however, have only one: I barely have enough time to go through the mountain of books I haven't read yet, so why would I spend these precious free hours reading something I've already read?

That's Gege during our book discussion of The Hunger Games trilogy last weekend.
And the one holding his tummy because of uncontrollable laughter is me.
I think we were discussing the possible actors who would be perfect for The Hunger Games movie.
How about you, dear reader? Do you reread? If you do, what motivates you to reread a particular book? I really want to know.

Monday, October 4, 2010

One day, I will read you

I haven't read any of Tolkien's work. So if there's one challenge that I have set out for myself this year, that is to read his trilogy. I've enjoyed the movies so much that I'm afraid the books might pale in comparison. (Oh, the blasphemy!)

One thing that always gets my goat is when the elves and hobbits actually start singing. Several of my friends actually told me to skip those parts. But since this is a challenge after all, I will read every single word of these three books, including all the text that rhymes and comes in stanzas.

Besides, my good friend R has given me a wonderful edition of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. So now I have a good motivation to read it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fly you high!

So I'm still not over how Mockingjay turned out to be one huge disappointment, and that's why I'm holding off on reviewing it. But it's a good thing that Collins actually wrote an earlier series for younger children that I can sink myself into. I have no expectations whatsoever when I bought the first book of The Underland Chronicles, Gregor the Overlander, and read it in just a few hours. And guess what, the series blew me away!

The Underland Chronicles, the 5-part series by Collins, is an easy, entertaining, and delightful read. Fans of Riordan's Percy Jackson series would surely gobble up these books. I think I even found The Underland Chronicles better than Riordan's, which can get cheesy and contrived at some points. Collins's 5 books are just pure storytelling joy. I can't even recall the last time I read all the books in a series one after the other.

In book 1, Gregor the Overlander, we get to meet Gregor who accidentally discovers a city in peril several miles below the surface called Regalia. Gregor meets interesting characters in Regalia: humans called underlanders who have pale skin and violet irises, and giant rats, bats, spiders, and cockroaches. The founder of Regalia, one named Bartholomew of Sandwich, has written several prophecies, which have Gregor figuring prominently in some of them. In fact, the fate of Regalia somehow rests on Gregor, who has been called the warrior that will save the underlanders' magnificent city.

So in all the books of The Underland Chronicles, Gregor sets off in different adventures that climaxes in a war between the underlanders and the giant rats. And in each book, Collins has introduced more and more fascinating characters that would eventually figure in her elegant storyline. We're introduced to giant cantankerous fireflies who seem to eat for a living, a 12-foot albino rat called the Bane who becomes the ruthless leader of the rats, and Gregor's other family members who take on more active roles in the later books, among others.

There's a whole cinematic feel to the five books in the series. The writing is tight and the pace is really appropriate for younger readers. Adult readers would still find a lot of elements that can be quite refreshing: the simple dialogue, the taxi-meter pace, and the uncomplicated characterizations and revelations in each book.

Yes, you can ignore the sequence of the books and read the books in your chosen sequence. Books 1 to 3 have stand-alone narratives. Book 4 (Gregor and the Marks of Secret), however, ends with a cliffhanger, effectively setting the tone for the full-on battle that will happen in book 5, Gregor and the Code of Claw. And the last book was really satisfying. Collins has written a beautiful yarn, which, despite appearing cluttered in some parts, she masterfully weaves together in one central conclusion.

Oh, and Suzanne Collins has come up with another witty one liner much like the "May the odds be ever in your favor!" in The Hunger Games trilogy. In The Underland Chronicles, every time they wish someone luck especially when that person is going to a battle, they would say, "Fly you high!" I wish I can come up with something like that if ever I would write my first novel. Hehe.

I'm wondering why these series isn't as popular as the other YA chapter books out there. The Underland Chronicles has something for everyone. (It even has a love angle, which doesn't feel forced, thank goodness.) Is it because Collins chose to populate this series with animals that we think of as disgusting? After all, it can be a stretch to think of a 6-foot, mangy, violent rat as a warrior defending the underlanders. Or that a huge cockroach can be fond of giving piggyback rides to a 3-year-old toddler. For me, those are some of the things that endeared me to the series.

Read these books if:
  1. You like chapter books.
  2. You're somehow drawn to rats, cockroaches, and spiders.
  3. You love Suzanne Collins (despite that Mockingjay disappointment).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My good friend and fellow bibliophile, Ajie, made this caricature of me. One thing I've noticed though -- I've never looked this thin in years! Thanks for this, Ajie! I love it!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Not looking forward to number two

I was prepared to like this. Really. After reading Mockingjay, I felt that I needed to read a fast-paced and well-written young adult novel. I Am Number Four is fast-paced, but well written it is not. And somehow, it comes off as an uncoordinated mash-up of several themes in YA literature.

I Am Number Four is the first of six planned novels by Pittacus Lore. No one can live in the world with that name; Pittacus Lore is a pseudonym of course. (PL is actually James Frey, who is famous for his semi-bogus autobiography, A Million Little Pieces.)

Number Four is a 15-year-old boy who goes by a different name every time they move to a new small town in the United States with his guardian. When they move to Paradise, Ohio, Number Four goes by the uninspired name of John Smith. These two are really aliens; they've fled their planet Lorien when a race from another planet, the Mogadorians, invades their home planet and slaughters every one.

So John is number four out of a group of nine. They're Garde, who are citizens of Lorien who develop powers (called Legacies) as they hit their teens. Aside from the Garde, there are also those called Cêpan, who serve as guardians to the Garde. John's Cêpan, Henri, is concerned that the Mogadorians have been able to kill Numbers One, Two, and Three. John's number, literally, is up. Mogadorians can kill these young Garde in sequence, as a charm from Lorien's elders protect them.

When the nine and their guardians left Lorien, they were but wee children. Now, they're coming into their Legacies. Thus, the Mogadorians are hunting them in a fury. Because pretty soon, when these young persons develop all their powers, they're now capable of waging war against the Mogadorians and reclaiming Loriel as their own.

I Am Number Four presents nothing new. If you want to read about young people developing powers, you're better off reading the X-Men graphic novels. And there's a whole cinematic feel to everything. It's as if PL-slash-James Frey wrote the novel as an afterthought, after coming up with the screenplay in his mind.

This book is set to be adapted to the big screen by Michael Bay, a director known for blowing things up. (You walk into a Michael Bay movie, and you leave the theater with a ringing in your ears.) In the last few chapters of the book, there's useless destruction everywhere. School buildings get blown up, huge monsters fight one another (à la Godzilla vs. Mothra, which I will prefer any time), fireballs flying here and there, explosives and gunfire going off every few seconds. The result is one big mess.

Not content with all these destruction, PL also gives us cheese. And what rotten cheese he serves up! A dying character always manages to give words of advice to John Smith such as "Be strong," and "I wouldn't have missed a second of it, kiddo. Not for all of Lorien. Not for the whole damn world." Cringe-inducing moments indeed.

I guess the only persons who would go through the series as the books come out will be teenage boys. They're the only ones who have the patience and energy. Incidentally, this is the same crowd who can sit through a Michael Bay movie and actually have a good time.

Read this book if:
  1. You believe that chapter books get better as the series progresses.
  2. You love destruction.
  3. You have way too much time on your hands and can afford to waste three to four hours of mindless reading.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Feels detached, but in a good way

I love debut fiction. There's nothing like the thrill you feel when you discover a new author. Whoever said that the novel is dead must be delusional. Life of Pi, The God of Small Things, The White Tiger -- all of these are debut novels; they're all wonderfully satisfying reads as well. Reading debut fiction can be quite risky, too. You just don't have any comparison. We all have a list of writers that we are partial too, but with first-time novelists, you just don't know whether you'll like their work and ultimately decide they're writers to watch out for.

So after being terribly disappointed with Mockingjay (review to follow next week), I've decided to take a risk and read Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal. I've read so many things about this novel that I was challenged to read it. The Rehearsal is one novel that polarizes readers. One group would say that it feels oddly detached. Another would mention that it represents a departure from your traditional storytelling. Both are true, in fact. And I'm pleased to say that I liked The Rehearsal. It's the type of novel that makes you think.

The pivotal scene that drives the two narratives in The Rehearsal has to do with a scandal -- a high school teacher was discovered to be having a sexual relationship with his student. It is this context that we hear the perspectives of the main characters of the novel. Isolde, the sister of the sexually abused student, has struck an air of indifference on the issue; it is her classmates that express a strong point. Isolde continues on with her student life amidst the chatter and gossip of her classmates. The result is something analogous to living in a fish bowl, with everyone noticing and discussing Isolde's every move.

Isolde is also studying the saxophone, going frequently to her saxophone teacher for private classes. The saxophone teacher remains nameless throughout the novel. But ironically, it is her thoughts, dialogue, and actions that become the novel's most distinct voice. The sax teacher speaks to parents about different subjects, in a language that somehow feels unnatural because of their verbosity. It is the sax teacher that introduces Isolde to Julia, another high school student and encourages them to become friends. The friendship of Isolde and Julia again become the subject of malicious talk at school. It is only when Isolde develops a romantic relationship with Stanley that the novel takes a wonderfully uncomfortable turn.

The other narrative in The Rehearsal, which occurs as alternating chapters with the chapters on Isolde, is that of Stanley. Stanley is a first year drama student at a prestigious institution. As a student of the performing arts, Stanley comes off as unremarkable. He doesn't have any unique skills. One would only feel for Stanley because Catton writes him as a sensitive character. It made me ask though -- did Catton write her characters purposefully this way? It's as if Isolde, the sax teacher, and Stanley are mere observers, as conduits of people's thoughts.

The latter parts of the novel is where everything gets more interesting. As part of the requirement at the end of their first year, the drama students must perform a play that nobody has heard of. The class decides to choose the sexual abuse in the nearby high school as their subject. Little does Stanley know that he's dating the sister of the subject of their play. Isolde is also clueless about the play. Add to the fact that Stanley will be playing the abusive high school teacher and that Isolde's parents have been invited to watch opening night, you just know that everything will come crashing to a close, and in a big way.

If the novel feels detached, then I guess it is Catton's way of saying that we're all spectators of everyone's lives. Catton engages the reader in a very unusual way. Instead of letting her reader feel that he or she experiences the novel's scenes, Catton lets the reader view it at a distance. Here's an excerpt to illustrate. Note that it has the feel of an opening act of a play.
Isolde and Victoria are watching television. Isolde is curled in the cat-furred hollow of the armchair with her legs hugged to her chest and her head upon her arm. Victoria is lying on the sofa with one leg cocked and the remote control held lightly between her finger and her thumb. Their father has just come through the room and crumpled Isolde's toes in his big hand and said Goodnight, slugs. Their mother has just called out from the stairway, Bed by eleven please. Their counterpointed footsteps, light and heavy, have just dwindled away up the stairs, and they have just shut their bedroom door with a faint and knucked click.

So, Eleanor Catton is someone whose later works I will be looking out for. Who knows what kind of novel she comes up with next. The Rehearsal is so refreshing; I've never read anything quite like it. You read other people's thoughts about the same situation. It appeals to different aspects of our lives -- our need to express our thoughts about a scandalous affair, our fascination for the taboo, our indecisiveness as adolescents, our indifference to people we hardly care about.

If this review has made The Rehearsal seem like a pretentious piece of contemporary literature, then I would have to say that it is not. On the contrary, The Rehearsal is very readable, the dialogue crisp, and the characters people you can relate to. Read it, now.

Read this book if:
  1. You like plays.
  2. You love debut fiction.
  3. You've been the subject of malicious talk.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sorry, full review later

And the biggest disappointment of the year (at least for me) is this book:

After reading it, I couldn't help but think -- WTF! I won't review it yet, since a lot of you haven't even finished the book. Who knows? Maybe someone will convince me to re-read it and have a different view of it altogether later on.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What it's like in prep school

Just looking at the cover of Prep and you'd think that this novel is chick lit. The pink and mint green belt is a giveaway, yes? You couldn't be more wrong. As a novel, Prep works in so many different levels: as an exploration of social class, race, and gender in contemporary America, as a coming-of-age account of a very misunderstood character, and as a wonderful story about love, friendship, and life in high school.

So there I said it: Prep isn't chick lit. If you're looking for clueless, rich girls who are out looking for the perfect bachelor, Prep isn't for you. (I have nothing against chick lit though. I read quite a few. It's just sometimes, you drown in all the cheesiness.) Still, if bookstores categorize this wonderful debut novel by Sittenfeld as chick lit, I would still recommend it to my chick lit-hating friends. Interestingly, I found Prep in the chick lit section of the bookstore.

So when I think of an American prep school, the image that comes to my mind has always been New Englad in the fall, like this:

Who wouldn't want to live in that area? It's so picturesque, idyllic, and highly conducive to studying, no? I do wonder why most prep schools in the US and also majority of the Ivy League institutions are in New England.

Prep is set in Ault School, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, and it's protagonist is one Lee Fiora, an angsty teenager who always finds herself like a fish out of water among the rich and spoiled upperclass kids. You see, unlike most of her classmates, Lee is on financial aid, and she came from a public elementary school, choosing to apply to Ault to leave her family and early childhood life in Indiana.

In Ault, Lee becomes a very mediocre student, which is a far cry from the girl that she was in Indiana, where she graduated with top honors. She doesn't go to the mixers, prefers to stay in room most days doing nothing, and barely makes an impression among her classmates and teachers in Ault. Since she can't really relate among the rich social circles that pervade in Ault, it's as if she has decided to be unremarkable even in academics as well. Our Lee has chosen to become an observer.

To be honest, the reader can feel very challenged to like Lee from the start. She's too awkward and it feels that, sometimes, she's asking for it. She's naive too in the ways of flirting and making out. When Cross Sugarman, the male prefect who's the object of Lee's desires, decides to have a fling with her, Lee becomes the personification of the sexually unaware teen.
He leaned down to reach for the hem of my nightgown -- it was white and calf-length, those were the kinds of nightgowns girls wore at Ault -- and as he started to push it up (was he planning to take it off me completely?) I stiffened.
"It's okay," he said. "I want to make you feel good."
"Why?" he repeated. "What kind of question is that?"
So I'd said the wrong thing; really, it had only been a matter of time. "Never mind," I said.
Sittenfeld writes beautifully. Through Lee's character, Sittenfeld has given us a portrait of prep school in all its polar extremes. We see how the education that you can get in a prep school can be truly exceptional. But we also see the ugly truth: teenagers taking for granted their money, status, and privilege. In Ault, the more the students don't talk about money, the more it becomes evident that money is what got them there. Heck, they don't even talk among themselves as to who's on financial aid; all you have to do is just look at their stuff. (If you're sheets don't have a thread count of 200, they'll assume that you're probably on scholarship.)

I've now decided to look for Sittenfeld's other novels. I already have American Wife, which is a bit of a novelization of the life of Laura Bush. I've heard rave reviews about it, and if it's half as good as Prep, it still would be a wonderful novel, I'm sure. Sittenfeld's characters are people you can relate because of their honesty. They speak to you. And you end up loving them, despite their flaws.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wondered what it's like in prep school.
  2. You felt like an outsider in high school.
  3. You love Salinger and Plath, whom Sittenfeld has been favorably compared with.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One silent novel

So what makes a novel "silent"? Is it the lack of a plot? Is it the boredom that pervade among the characters in the novel? Is it the total ennui that you feel when you read it, which would make you rush to the nearest bookstore and buy the current best-selling thriller? Or is it perhaps the restrained but beautiful writing that permeates throughout its pages?

Adam Foulds's Booker prize shortlisted novel, The Quickening Maze, is indeed a silent novel, but boring it is not. Foulds is primarily a poet, and this is his first attempt at a novel. Naturally, his poetic inclinations are evident in The Quickening Maze. The result is a beautiful and wonderful work of fiction, one that will make you reread some of the passages for their lyrical narrative. Just read the paragraph below and you'll get to see how poetic this novel truly is.
Eventually the singing stopped and a little while after that he felt a blanket placed over him. He opened his eyes to see the rosy fire still breathing at the heart of white sticks. An owl cried its dry, hoarse cry and the bats still scattered their tiny beads of sound around him. He loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on. To please himself, to decorate his path into sleep, he passed through his mind an inventory of its creatures. He saw the trees, beech, oak, hornbeam, lime, holly, hazel, and the berries, the different mushrooms, ferns, moss, lichens. He saw the rapid, low foxes, the tremulous deer, lone wild cats, tough, trundling badgers, the different mice, the bats, the day animals and night animals. He saw the snails, the frogs, the moths, that looked like bark and the large, ghost-winged moths, the butterflies: orange tips, whites, fritillaries, the ragged-winged commas. He recounted the bees, the wasps. He thought of all the birds, the drumming woodpeckers and laughing green woodpeckers, the stripe of the nuthatch, the hook-faced sparrowhawks, the blackbirds and the tree creeper flinching up the trunks of trees. He saw the blue tits flicking between branches, the white flash of the jay's rump as it flew away, the pigeons sitting calmly separate, together in a tree. He was the fierce, sweet-voiced robin. He saw the sparrows. [page 51]

If you're wondering why the paragraph above has a seemingly endless inventory of flora and fauna, it's because The Quickening Maze centers on John Clare, the great nature poet who the English sometimes refer to as the "peasant poet." Set in 1837, The Quickening Maze recounts Clare's stay in a mental institution called High Beach. The institution is run by Matthew Allen, together with his family. We get to read how Clare, in his madness, can't seem to tell reality from fiction. One moment he's Lord Byron; the next, he's Robinson Crusoe. We see how this great poet spirals into madness at the book's closing pages.

John Clare, the peasant poet

Foulds's novel is much about Clare as Matthew Allen, his wife, and his children. Allen's wife, Eliza, is unhappy and dreams of better things for herself. Eliza, one of his younger children, becomes enamored with another poet, Alfred Tennyson, whose brother has just been confined to High Beach. Apparently, having two poets in the institution is big news for the Allens, even though one has gone mad and the other is just a guest accompanying his brother.

One of the things that struck me as I was reading this novel is how some people look down on the poetry of John Clare. Yes, he did write about woodland creatures. And yes, he did touch on mundane topics such as the changing of the seasons, the earth, and indigenous fauna. But does one's choice of a theme in poetry impact the poet's popularity. Unfortunately, it somehow seems so. The Allens and pretty much everyone in High Beach have a higher regard for Tennyson's poems than Clare's. Maybe Tennyson was indeed a better poet than Clare. After all, he is more popular and his collections have never been out of print. I'm not big on poetry, so I'm not going to pass judgment on this topic.

The novel also challenges the reader's perception. On the sections of the book that are about John Clare, one has to be quick to discern whether what you're reading is in fact truth or all part of the madness that is happening in Clare's mind. Sometimes, Foulds offers no distinction and leaves it on the hands of the reader. This technique, I believe, is brilliant.

Despite the novel's tranquil mood, The Quickening Maze remains an enjoyable novel. It's something that you take your time reading. If you're after a thick plot, then you might as well skip this one. But if you're after beautiful prose, intense characterizations, and a rich setting, I'm sure you'll regard this novel as one of the best you've read.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into poetry.
  2. You've always wondered if you're going mad.
  3. You'll read anything that's Booker shortlisted.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Would you be having the specials, today?

For an amateur foodie such as myself, I look forward to reading about restaurants, seventeen-course meals, foie gras, leather-bound wine lists, and Valrhona chocolates. Phoebe Damrosch's memoir, entitled Service Included, about her days as captain of the service crew of Per Se, therefore, was a natural reading choice. I've always been curious about this restaurant; Per Se has been touted as one of the world's best restaurants, earning 4 stars in the New York Times restaurant reviews and 3 stars in the Michelin guide.

Just look at the interior of Per Se. The muted colors and the elegantly simple designs are actually conscious decisions. Thomas Keller, the renowned chef who owns Per Se, wanted an eating establishment where diners focus on the food and not the ambience. There's even none of those annoying pipe-in music. (Somehow, I can't imagine myself eating my light-as-a-feather omelet with truffles while Barry Manilow sings "Mandy" in the background.)

And who wouldn't crave those salmon cornets, which Per Se is most famous for. The cornets are scoops of salmon tartare with chives resting on each cone. The cones are then filled with a red onion crème fraîche. Truly bite-sized pieces of heaven in savory, light pastry.

Anyway, enough about the food and on to the book review. (Notice how I get carried away when I write about food?) Service Included is one wonderfully written memoir. We all know that being part of the service crew isn't at all glamorous. Damrosch goes beyond listing all those brutal truths about being a waiter in a restaurant as well known as Per Se.

In Service Included, Damrosch recounts her training from being a backserver to the only female captain in this restaurant. For those of you not in the know, like myself before I read this book, backservers are people who refill your water glasses, clear plates after every course, and replenish your bread basket. Captains are those who you talk to about the menu and the wine list. Apparently, being a captain is a big deal, as Damrosch recounts in her book. Ultimately, the experience of diners rests heavily on the attention of the captain, other than the food of course.

It's probably Damrosch's background (she has an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence) that makes the descriptions of working in a restaurant so vivid. Damrosch's attention to detail is so remarkable that you can't help but imagine yourself in Per Se and being served those delectable chef tasting menu that can last for more than 3 hours.

There are several funny moments in the book. At one time, the famed New York Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, drops by the restaurant and strikes a very lighthearted discussion with Damrosch about scrambled eggs. The discussion is particularly enlightening, as you would read how Per Se takes everything seriously, even in its scrambled eggs.
"You look perplexed, I (Damrosch) observed.

"I am. What makes these scrambled egs any different from my scrambled eggs? Why would a restaurant of this caliber serve a whole course revolving around eggs?"

I thought about this for a moment. He was right, really. I had never thought to question the custard course. Some of the more virtuosic egg preparations seemed more appropriate: the white truffle-infused custard served in an eggshell or the pickled hen egg with truffle filling made to look like a deviled egg and paired with a tiny truffle "Pop Tart." But a soft-boiled, scrambled, or coddled egg was simply an egg, no matter how much truffle coulis you added. [page 130]
Mouth-watering, isn't it? For the meantime, I had to content myself with our usual scrambled eggs at home, which has only two ingredients -- egg and salt.

Damrosch writes very interesting information about the restaurant business itself. I never knew that restaurant critics visit a new restaurant three or four times before they write their reviews. Waiters are given seminars on where their ingredients come from, how each dish is prepared, and what wine goes best with each dish. Service Included shows you that, in the end, running a restaurant is analogous to maintaining an art gallery, with the dishes as the artwork to be sold.

And the rules, oh my God, the rules. Damrosch lists very funny points that you should consider every time you eat out:
  • Don't try to bribe the host. If there's no table, there's no table.
  • Do not pick up your glass when a waiter or sommelier is about to pour something for you. It makes you seem greedy and oblivious.
  • Your food is delivered to your table based on where you were sitting when we took your order. When you switch seats, it screws us all up.
  • Please don't ask us for cigarettes.
Damrosch has decided to leave the restaurant industry and concentrate more on being a writer. I can't wait as to what kind of book she comes up with next. For now, let's just be content to see the menu at Per Se.

Read this book if:
  1. You've been a waiter at one point in your life.
  2. You like eating out.
  3. You're unfazed when you read a menu in a foreign language.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Those warrior cats

Okay, dear reader, so here's the first blog entry after my long hiatus from blogging. And I decided to write a review about cats. Yes, those feline creatures who refuse to be given baths and nail trimmings. I've never been a cat person, and I guess I never will be. I love dogs too much. I love how fiercely loyal they are. I love that they like to cuddle up next to you. With cats, you just don't know where you stand. I can never imagine getting a cat for a pet. It's just too... creepy. When you look at their eyes, somehow I can feel that they can see my soul.

So I decided to pick up the first book of Erin Hunter's young adult series Warriors. The first installment is titled Into the Wild. The author is a known cat lover, so if I want to know more about these mysterious mammals, I might as well sample her works even though they are fiction. Besides, how can I say no to this book when the first image that came up when I googled cats was this, which I took as something ominous:

Into the Wild is about Rusty, a pet cat who decides to leave the comforts of living with people (who are known in the novel as Twolegs) in favor of being with the cats in the wild. The premise may sound simple, but Hunter provides another dimension to these cats -- how they interact with other cats in the great outdoors. You see, in the world of the Warriors series, a wild cat belongs to one of the four clans. ThunderClan, ShadowClan, RiverClan, and WindClan. Each clan presides over a territory where they can freely hunt their prey.

So Rusty is taken in by the ThunderClan and takes the name Firepaw as a warrior apprentice. Now this is where things get iffy/predictable for me. Of course, I expected Firepaw to prove himself as a worthy member of the Clan despite being an outsider. Also, I was counting the pages as to when he will have the leader of the Clan as his mentor. And yes, all these happened as I expected.

Yes, there are stereotypes in this novel. Firepaw is an outsider who makes a name for himself even while an apprentice. The clans are headed by cats who are imposing, very stately, and tres wise. The clan rulers have deputies who seem to be dubious characters. We've read, heard, and seen these all before. Top of my head, I can think of Star Wars.

Nevertheless, Into the Wild is a fun read. Hunter has written a very engaging YA novel, something that appeals to people who love these furry creatures. While there are no distinct fantastic/magical elements in this book, one can consider Into the Wild a fantasy novel. (Hello, talking cats?!) These cats are magical in themselves. The way they interact with their fellow clan members is fascinating. Who knew that cats can be political? Hehe.

Into the Wild is a good way to start this series. It's not spectacular, but it works. Hunter has even included a teaser storyline for the next book. And I love how the author developed her characters. These aren't your cute cats you see napping under the sun; Hunter's cats are true predators -- they kill not just mice and other small prey, but other enemy cats as well.

Read this book if:
  1. You love cats.
  2. You feel you've never really belonged in a club.
  3. You love YA chapter books.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

It's alive!

I'm baaaaack! Forgive me, dear reader, as I've been busy with lots of things. And I've just realized something -- the less I blog, the more books I get to read. Hehe. Oh well, I guess you can't have the best of both worlds.

I can't say that I didn't miss blogging. I miss reading your comments, dear reader. I miss sitting down for two hours and painstakingly composing my thoughts on a book. I miss the whole interactive aspect of blogging -- the wonderful community of readers, bibliophiles, and fellow book bloggers.

So again, my apologies for the lack of posts for the past few weeks. KyusiReader is now back to its usual ranting, praising, and tackling everything that has to do with our love for reading.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Bookshelf Project #26

And we have an update from Ruth, one of the people who sent their pictures of bookshelves earlier. If you haven't seen her fabulous shelf before, check it here.

Ruth's bookshelves are just awesome. Don't you just love it that the shelves are made of wood? Here's a shelf with all her sewing books. (I am loving the Russian accent at the top of the shelf.

Ruth's bookshelf with her reference books. You can see that Ruth's a bit of a film buff, with a few of her books on film trivia. And that candle holder! What a great piece!

Here's her shelf with all her books on sewing.

And my favorite of them all -- the bookshelf with all her fantasy books and graphic novels. We can see that she does love her Terry Pratchett novels. Ruth, we have something in common -- we both love Star Wars!

So what do you think of Ruth's bookshelves, dear reader?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Venice and Varanasi

Geoff Dyer's novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, turned out to be one of my most satisfying reads this year. It's a novel unlike anything I've read before. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi can actually be considered as two novellas -- the first set in Venice and the other, well, in Varanasi, which is supposedly the holiest city in India.

So let's discuss the first part of the novel, shall we? Every two years, the art community (artists, curators, art buyers, art enthusiasts) find themselves in Venice for the Biennale. Here we meet Jeff Atman, a journalist who is tasked to cover this international art event. Atman is the ultimate art insider -- he knows everyone of influence in the art world and gets invited to every notable party during the Biennale.

Jeff forms a romantic relationship with Laura, an American who's a curator of a gallery. Dyer's description of their romance borders on the graphic. It's well handled though. Dyer seems to make the reader feel that everything in Venice is in excess -- the partying, the exhibits, the people, and, yes, even the sex. It is also in Jeff and Laura where Dyer shows that the art community, despite their belonging to the art world, are jaded and embarrassingly have an almost superficial appreciation for artworks.
...she told him about an exhibition she hoped, one day, to curate. Having seen the look of stunned disappointment on the faces of so many gallery-goers, she aimed to take the bull by the horns with a show called 'Is That It? featuring works by some of the most consistently disappointing artists of the day. Soon they were trading titles for a series of related exhibitions:
'This, That and "The Other."'
'Something of Nothing.'
'Next to Nothing."
'Slim Pickings."
'Climaxing with a symposium of curators and critics,' Laura said. 'Something along the lines of "Now Talk Your Way Out of That."' [page 114]
Jeff seems to have found heaven in Venice, especially after meeting Laura. He has this epiphany about "life" in one of the most pretentious and excessive places in the planet. But there's this element of shallowness to Jeff's thinking, a certain contrived manner if you will. In a way, Dyer prepares the reader for the second part of the novel.
And now she'd come and put her arm around his waist. Life was too good to be true! His whole life was validated by the last couple of days in Venice. He'd never made a mistake in his life because everything, even the mistakes, had led to his being here now. That was the thing about life. You couldn't cherry-pick the good bits. You had to say yes to the whole package, all the ups and downs, but if the ups -- the highs -- were like this, you'd sign up willingly to the downs because, by comparison, they were nothing, so irrelevant he couldn't even remember them. [page 121]
But everything will not turn out well for Jeff. Laura leaves him with the promise of keeping in touch, but Dyer makes it clear that what Jeff and Laura have in Venice is temporary.

And so we get to the second part of the novel, which is narrated by a man who may or may not be Jeff Atman. If Dyer's focus in Venice is the superficial, he shifts his theme to one of introspection and meditation in Varanasi. We don't read about parties and displays of wealth and excess in Varanasi. We get to feel how Varanasi becomes the place where the narrator finally discovers himself. Amid the decay, the dirt, and the gloom that pervade in Varanasi, Dyer's narrator comes full circle.
The reason it doesn't feel like renunciation is because it's not. I didn't renounce the world; I just became gradually less interested in certain aspects of it, less involved with it -- and that diminution of interest was slowly reciprocated. That's how it works. The world stops singling you out; you stop feeling singled out by the world. [page 279]
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, despite its profound ideas, is actually very readable. Dyer has written a novel so beautiful and so atmospheric and evocative of two different worlds.

Read this book if:
  1. You're an art enthusiast.
  2. You wonder about what goes on during the Biennale.
  3. You've always wanted to go to India.