Sunday, March 28, 2010

Something bad happened two years ago

Chris Cleave writes beautiful fiction. His Incendiary was, well, incendiary. His Little Bee is anything but little. It's so full of emotion, detail, character, and drama. It's so wonderfully readable and yet it makes you uncomfortable in some parts, especially with the brutal bits. There's no sugarcoating in Little Bee.

People have been wary about giving too much away concerning the plot of Little Bee. The blurb of my book even warns that "the magic is in how the story unfolds." When you read the novel, you know that this apparent secrecy about the plot is warranted. It has something to do with one nightmarish event that happened during a British couple's vacation in Nigeria. (When you read this part, you'll never believe that these things can still happen in this day and age.)

Little Bee is a Nigerian illegal immigrant who has just been released from the British detention center after two years. With no place to go, she ends up on the doorstep of the O'Rourke's, the couple she met on a beach in Nigeria. Andrew O'Rourke has just committed suicide , leaving his wife, Sarah, alone to take care of their son, Charlie, who refuses to get out of his Batman costume. Sarah, the head of fashion magazine, decides to keep Little Bee in her home. Andrew's suicide has something to do with Little Bee, but you'll have to read the novel to find out.

Cleave's novel undeniably has a wide readership appeal. I also find it admirable that a male novelist can write fiction about two strong-willed women (Sarah and Little Bee) and develop these female characters to the fullest. Cleave also tackles very sensitive issues -- Britain's treatment of illegal immigrants, the effects of globalization on a grassroots level, and the terrible plight of the refugee. But in the end, Little Bee is about Little Bee. You'll love Little Bee. She's far from perfect. Yes, she may seem precocious for her age (she's only 16), but her naivete is understandable. She's the ultimate fish-out-of-water persona. And you'll admire resilience.
"We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived." [page 9]
Somehow, Chris Cleave reminds me of Ian McEwan. You just know that something bad is going to happen in the story. But one difference is that, in Little Bee, the bad thing has happened two years ago into the story, and you keep on reading to find out its consequences on the lives of Little Bee and the O'Rourkes. You may not like what really happens in the story, but you keep on reading nonetheless because, like any good work of fiction, Little Bee touches you.

Read this book if:
  1. You're ambivalent about the effects of globalization.
  2. You love strong female characters.
  3. You want to find out what happened to Sarah's missing finger.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A whiny SOB

Forgive me, dear reader, if I haven't been uploading KyusiReader lately. It's been a very busy week, and I've been working 14-hour work days lately. And it was also the week I turned 36 (I'm a St. Paddy's day baby), so I was busy consuming tons of cake. Forgive me again, dear reader, that my next review isn't about a good novel, well in my opinion anyway. This isn't a review; it's a rant.

So my book club decided to have a discussion on Nick Hornby's debut novel, High Fidelity. It's a novel about music (and music lists), relationships, and basically just trying to grow up even though you're 35 and own your own record shop. High Fidelity was first published in 1995, and it has still endured until today. I guess this has something to do with all those top 5 lists found on every chapter of the book. There's a list for practically everything -- your top 5 songs that you should have with you if ever you get stuck on a deserted island, your top 5 movies of all time, your top 5 failed relationships.

High Fidelity's main character is Rob, a 35 year old who's so into music. Naturally, he opens his own record shop and employs Dick and Barry, two slackers who are music snobs. Rob has just ended a relationship with Laura, a lawyer and the only girl he's been serious with. To say that Rob is still in love with Laura is an understatement. In the novel, we see how Rob lists all his break-ups and overanalyze what exactly went wrong. Eventually, Rob and Laura do get back together, but it isn't the same. Laura has become more cosmpolitan, and Rob, well, Rob's still the same -- still insecure, still whiny, still in the search for "who he really is and what he wants out of his life."

The novel is really more of a celebration of music. I think readers get a kick out of agreeing with Rob and Barry's tastes in music. And it is music that Rob uses to make an analogy on life. Just read the following paragraph that compares making a mixed tape with the workings of a relationship:
I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter -- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again, and I wanted it to be a good one, because . . . to be honest, because I hadn't met anyone as promising as Laura since I'd started DJ-ing, and meeting promising women was partly what the DJ-ing was supposed to be about. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention ... oh, there are loads of rules. [page 89]
I read High Fidelity on the week I was turning 36, which is incidentally the same age as Rob who was also turning 36. I kept on thinking if it's really possible that people in their mid-30s are still hung up on their past relationships. I do understand how Rob gets too preoccupied thinking of his career. His record shop isn't doing well and he feels a high degree of unaccomplishment. (I also have sleepless nights thinking of my career. A friend who's the same age as me told me that, in a few years, we wouldn't be "marketable" anymore.)

There's not much of a plot in High Fidelity though. A couple of my book club buddies also had a difficult time finishing this novel. I think we're not used to reading a male character with too much introspection. High Fidelity is basically your chick lit with testosterone.

Read this book if:
  1. You're passionate about music.
  2. You spend hours of your day thinking of your past relationships and what went wrong with them.
  3. You like lad lit.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I love this graphic novel

If there's one graphic novel that you have to read, it must be David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. After reading it last week, I realized that I will never look at graphic novels the same way again. To say that Asterios Polyp pushes the boundaries of graphic novel is an understatement. Mazzucchelli's masterpiece even puts most novels to shame.

The graphic novel focuses on the failed life of Asterios Polyp, a well-renowned, award-winning professor of architecture whose designs have never been actually constructed. He's all talk and is so full of himself that he considers his opinions about everything to be true. We get to read how he meets his future wife, Hannah, who eventually leaves him after being fed up with his superiority. The graphic novel chronicles Asterios's downward spiral -- from losing his academic tenure, to working as an auto mechanic, to finally asking for his wife's forgiveness.

Don't let the simple plot fool you though. Asterios Polyp touches on a lot of themes that many experienced graphic novelists wouldn't attempt to include in their graphic novels. For one, AP is a meditation on the importance and relevance of artistic styles and design theory. Mazzucchelli switches to different artistic styles to match the mood of the panels. He even limits his color scheme to blues and purples, with the occassional splashes of yellows. The result is brilliant. Every panel, despite its minimal elements of line and color, speaks volumes.

Asterios Polyp even pays homage to the myth of Orpheus. There's a sequence that shows Asterior going down the depths of hell to rescue his wife. For those who know Orpheus Underground, you just know that the ending of this sequence doesn't go well for Asterios and Hannah. Still, the panels that form this sequence is one of the highlights of this masterful graphic novel.

Humorous, profound, trivial, introspective, important -- words that I never thought I would use to describe just one work of fiction. Asterios Polyp is all these. What's even more amazing is that you can see these attributes in one page as your eyes move effortlessly from one panel to the next. Yes, the narrative constantly jumps from the present to the past, but you're seldom left confused. I think this is why this technique works best in graphic novels. You have visuals to help you note minor details.

Asterios Polyp is -- literally and figuratively -- a huge graphic novel. I read somewhere that it took Mazzucchelli several years to produce this work, and it shows. The layout doesn't scream at you; every color, shape, and line has been thought of. It's one of those books that you discover something new every time you reread it. It's just too beautiful.

Read this book if:
  1. You're getting tired of your usual graphic novels.
  2. You love minimalist artwork.
  3. You like blue and purple.