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.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Reply not needed

Before Facebook, I never really thought of how I communicated with my friends. I recall calling them, texting them, or emailing them if it's important. Now, deleting your account in Facebook (or in any one of those networking sites for that matter) is analogous to deleting your identify from the world. No Facebook account? You might as well not exist.

Dan Chaon's much-lauded novel, Await Your Reply, focuses on the nature of identity in this modern age of the Internet. Await Your Reply consists of three stories actually. One is on Miles Cheshire, who has spent most of his adult life looking for his twin brother, Hayden. The second is about Lucy Lattimore, who runs away with her high school teacher to carry on their affair. And in the third story, we read about Ryan Schuyler, who decides to leave his university and remake himself. All three stories have one thing in common -- how changing one's identity is so easily done in this world of connectedness.

Await Your Reply is as a "literary thriller," whatever that means. (Is it because Chaon once wrote a novel who was shortlisted for the National Book Award?) Yes, it's a thriller, I would have to agree. But the suspense isn't nail biting. It's the kind of novel that you feel an ominous dread throughout the pages. You know that something terrible is going to happen and you're itching to find out what it is.

Chaon's novel somehow tested my patience. I knew that these three stories were connected, despite the fact that Ryan's, Miles's, and Lucy's subplots feel disjointed. Then Chaon gives these little hints on their common thread. I'm reminded when you start those 1,000-piece puzzles. It takes you forever to just complete a small section. Then little by little, as the puzzle grows and the unassembled pieces diminish, you feel this rush. Everything then becomes a blur, and before you know it, the puzzle it complete. Await Your Reply is just like that. The seemingly slow pace in the first few chapters is so agonizing. But you get a natural high as you read the last few chapters.

I doubt if fans of the literary genre would take to this book. There are no cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Chaon's technique is to reel you in slowly. The result is an eerily atmospheric novel that is oh so satisfying.

Read this book if:
  1. You love atmospheric thrillers.
  2. You've always wondered what would happen if someone stole your identity.
  3. You've thought about remaking yourself -- wiping the slate clean.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Bookshelf Project #25

This week's pictures of bookshelves are from Orly Agawin, a trainer for a contact here in Manila. He also maintains an excellent blog. Check it out!

Orly designed his bookshelves such that the books at the highest part of the room. Now that is definitely a space saver. And don't you think that Orly's room is so cozy? It's the perfect place to spend those lazy afternoons in.

Now let's see what Orly's book collection is comprised of. Hmmm... I can see lots of Brown and Tolkien! He also has a good Filipiniana collection and lots of classic titles -- definitely signs of a wide reader.

What do you think of Orly's shelves, dear reader?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Vampires, faeries, and zombies

I realized that I had read so many books that I haven't posted reviews on. In an effort to catch up, allow me to post short reviews of young adult novels that I've read recently. Incidentally, these 3 YA novels all had mythical characters in them -- vampires, faeries, and zombies.

First is Melissa De La Cruz's Masquerade, which is book 2 of her series Blue Bloods. Think Gossip Girl meets Meyer's Twilight (or The Vampire Diaries or The Thirst or any other teen novel with vampires in it). Yes, it's that forgettable. De La Cruz's vampires are incarnations of fallen angels who now move among the elite. It's an interesting premise, but I feel that the glamorous theme that De La Cruz lends to her vampiric characters falls flat.

Second is Maggie Stiefvater's Ballad, a YA novel that touches on the Celtic myth of faeries. I haven't read many novels that have faeries (except for Peter Pan). Steifvater's novel is dark, lush and atmospheric. I loved it! In Ballad, we get to read about faeries who use humans as tools for their own intentions. There's none of the cute, magical, and winged faeries in Ballad. Some of Stiefvater's faeries, in fact, kill humans. In Ballad, you get to read about faeries who feed off the musical talents of mortals. Thus, the high school for the arts in the novel naturally becomes a convergence point for these faeries.

And the last is Carrie Ryan's wonderful debut novel about the zombie apocalypse, The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Most people have turned into the living dead, which humans call the unconsecrated. And a few surviving humans have established small colonies fortified with gates that keep the unconsecrated out. The novel is very suspenseful. It's a welcome addition to the cluttered zombie genre out there in bookstores. Ryan's writing is so detailed. You feel the claustrophobia all throughout the novel.

There you go, dear reader. I hope you do take some time to pick up some of these novels, especially the ones by Steifvater and Ryan. Even though they're categorized as YA, they can be enjoyed by adults who can't get enough of these mythical creatures.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

First-time moderator

So last weekend was my first time ever to moderate a discussion for my book club. I've been active since November of last year but haven't had the guts to facilitate a book discussion yet. However, a few members managed to convince me, and I picked The Hunger Games as our book.

My decision to pick The Hunger Games was somehow fortuitous. Aside from being the book to be discussed for my inaugural moderatorship (is there such a word?), it was also the very first book that I reviewed here in my blog. How time flies!

The book club, Flips Flipping Pages (FFP), usually has a pre-activity before the book discussion itself. For the pre-activity, I thought of having a paintball tournament, another first for FFP. Sadly, I wasn't able to join the tournament as I had to rush to the venue for our book discussion to set up. But judging from the smiles on their faces, I guess everyone had a good time shooting and "killing" each other.

The members before putting on the gear

All smiles despite being in full battle mode

R on the field

The book discussion was held at R.O.X., a huge shop in the metro that specializes in outdoor and sports gear. If you're in Manila and you're the sporty or outdoorsy type, you'll spend hours just looking through their stuff.

Me and a few members busy preparing a game before the discussion
(Talk about last-minute additions!)

The book discussion was very enjoyable. Everyone had their own thoughts about the book, its themes, and other aspects. I actually prepared slides with questions for the book discussions. However, the first question somehow didn't work out so I had to come up with impromptu questions just to get the book discussion on a roll. (That was very, very stressful.) Thankfully, the discussion went its natural course; I barely had to interfere.

I just love hearing about other people's opinion on books. The Hunger Games certainly posed a lot of questions after reading it. What's the cruelest part of the YA novel? Who was your favorite character? Were the characters well developed? How is HG different from other YA novels with the theme such as Battle Royale and The Lord of the Flies? Why are we so hooked on "reality television"?

Joyce and Ivy of Scholastic

And of course, it has been an "informal" tradition among the members of FFP to give bookmarks as tokens after the discussion. I thought of giving 12 bookmarks that will each represent the 12 districts in The Hunger Games. Good thing my good friend R, graphic designer extraordinaire, was able to come up with 12 beautiful designs. The bookmarks were a hit with everyone!

The 12 bookmarks

FFP members Ajie (with the bookmarks) and Jan

I'm glad that the book discussion was enjoyable. It was a lot of hard work in terms of logistics and preparation, plus the fact that I had to call and text members just to confirm their attendance. Nevertheless, being able to moderate was a very rewarding experience.

FFP members after the event We're a happy, smiley lot.

I am extremely grateful to the following persons:
  • R for designing the bookmarks and for taking wonderful pictures
  • Don and Ajie for the pictures, and for showing up at the paintball tournament much to my surprise
  • Sana for arranging a meeting with R.O.X. management and for helping me out with the game (together with Ronald and Fatima). She really is the most well-connected person that I know!
  • The people at R.O.X. for allowing us full use of their conference room and their audio-visual equipment
  • People who brought food for the discussion. And there were a lot! We ended up taking some of those home.
  • Joyce and Ivy of Scholastic for the HG T-shirts
  • Everyone who participated