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.