Sunday, October 30, 2011

This is probably one of the best novels I've ever read, but don't take my word for it

Every once in a while, you read a novel that's so beautiful beyond words that you just can't imagine your review doing justice to it. So, I'm not going to bother with all that analysis of writing styles, narrative, and themes. Instead, I'll just be gushing over John Williams's novel, Stoner.

Stoner is probably one of the best adult fiction I've read, ever. The character of William Stoner is one that will indelibly remain in my conscious reading life. But what's more amazing is that, as a character, Stoner doesn't do anything spectacular. In the novel, Stoner seems to be just going with whatever fate throws at him.

Stoner, which is written in a refreshingly linear fashion, we are taken through the entire life of Stoner -- from his beginnings as a son of a farmer and his wife, to the time of his retirement from teaching literature in a university. If the story seems too simple, it's just because it really is. But John Williams, in this semi-autobiographical novel, chooses to focus on the whole gamut of emotions that Stoner experiences. The result is one very rich work of fiction that you want to finish in one sitting. It is that rewarding, I tell you.

Of course, this isn't a "happy" novel, with its subplots of emotionally abusive marriage (Stoner and his wife) university politics (Stoner and the chairman of the department), adulterous relationships (Stoner and a colleague), and how not to raise a child (Stoner and his daughter). Saying that Stoner is heartbreaking would be an understatement.

At the end of the novel, I keep asking myself why would Williams choose to write about a character who seem to have made such bad decisions on his life. His choosing to study literature instead of agriculture seems to be the only redeeming decision that he has ever made. Other than this, everything seems to be going against Stoner's favor: he marries a woman who doesn't love him; he lets his wife take control of the raising of their child, resulting in their daughter becoming one messed-up individual. I guess, Williams is a realist. Bad things do happen to people, and they happen a lot.

Stoner doesn't fall into the trap of being highly romanticized. Its story is straightforward, and its characters are people that you expect to meet if you do live in a university town. There's no heavy introspection on the part of Stoner that would make the novel too pedantic. Dear reader, if you're going to read one novel this year, let Stoner be it.

Read this book if:
  1. You're longing for good (if not the best) literary fiction.
  2. You've also made bad decisions on your life.
  3. You'll read anything published by the NYRB.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stand-alone high fantasy

My main beef about high fantasy novels is that you should have lots and lots of patience to read them. For one, many of these novels written by those considered masters of the genre are so thick, doorstop proportions actually. Another, it's not enough that you should read not just the first of the series, but the 5 or 6 books that follow it. And it doesn't help that the other books haven't even been written yet. Case in point: George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, a planned 7-book series, isn't complete yet, with only the 5th book published this year. (Prayers are definitely needed to make sure that he's still alive to finish the series.)

Good thing that Brandon Sanderson's debut novel, Elantris, is a complete fantasy novel in itself. In Sanderson's novel, we meet three characters -- Raoden, Hrathen, and Sarene -- in a place called Arelon. The vast land of Arelon is divided into the cities of Kae, Fjorden, and Elantris, which are so unlike one another in terms of beliefs and political system. The current unofficial capital of Arelon is Kae, which is a kingdom ruled by merchants. Fjorden is a bit far off, with the people being devout to a religion called Shu-Dereth and is ruled by Derethi priests. Elantris is cursed. There was a time when Elantrians were considered gods: they had power, they glowed. But 10 years ago, the chasm happened, causing Elantris to decay and its people to appear diseased. Now, Elantrians are in a state of being half dead and half alive. Their hunger cannot be assuaged and their wounds do not heal.

So let's go back to the three protagonists. Raoden, the prince of Arelon, is visited one day by the Shaod, causing him to become one of the cursed Elantrians. He is thrown into the city and is considered dead by the people of Kae. The woman he is engaged to, Sarene, who is a feisty woman from the faraway kingdom of Teod, doesn't know of what happened to Raoden. But because of the political arrangement of their marriage, she is destined to become the widowed princess of Kae. Hrathen arrives at Kae, hoping to convert its people to Shu-Dereth.

Sanderson's world-building talent is so promising in this first novel that Elantris doesn't have the feel of debut fiction at all. When he depicts Kae as a place of corruption, you can almost sense the stench of the dirty dealings of the ruling class. Likewise, the dirt and slime that covers Elantris is something that you can almost see and smell. The fictional world that Sanderson conjures is equal parts fascinating and repulsive.

However, Sanderson tends to repeat himself with what transpired from the previous chapter. Often, the events of one chapter are discussed in detail by the characters in the next. (Thank goodness that Elantris isn't a doorstop.) Lots of dialogue permeate the text; hence, Elantris isn't as action packed as I would like it to be. Nevertheless, the narrative is still fast paced enough to make you read through the night (which I did by the way).

I think Elantris made me a fan of Brandon Sanderson. I'm now on the lookout for his acclaimed Mistborn series. I do believe that the estate of Robert Jordan, who wrote the series The Wheel of Time, entrusted Sanderson to finish the long overdrawn fantasy epic. Fans of TWOT need not worry, for I think the series is in good hands with Sanderson.

Read this book if:
  1. Fantasy novels are your thing.
  2. You have no patience to read fantasy novels that constitute a series.
  3. You're curious about Sanderson's work.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The original vampire story and other tales of the macabre

One enduring character in fiction is the vampire. But, dear reader, have you ever wondered as to what started this hugely popular theme? Well, it started in 1817 with a short story entitled "The Vampyre" written by John Polidori. Thankfully, this story is included in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre published by Oxford World's Classics.

The fanged monster in "The Vampyre" is one Lord Ruthven, who appears to have the ability to seduce women. As a vampire, Lord Ruthven has all the classic traits -- he appears out of nowhere, is extremely sinister, drinks the blood of his victims and kills them. He prefers virginal young women though, going to the extent of even marrying them first before finishing them off. "The Vampyre" has a gothic feel to it, and, as a tale meant to frighten, is very satisfying.

Each of the 14 stories collected in The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre is horrifying in different ways. Here we read about family curses, the doppelgänger who will torment you forever, dementia and madness, and people who are mistakenly buried even though they're still alive, just to name a few. I'm telling you, it's enough to give you nightmares for several days.

My favorite is the story by William Carleton entitled "Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman." It's about how a group of vigilantes perform a lynching on a house of inmates. For a short story published in the 17th century, it can be excessively graphic.
. . . Just then from a window opposite him, proceeded the shrieks of a woman who appeared at it with the infant in her arms. She herself was almost scorched to death; but with the presence of mind and humanity of her sex, she was about to thrust the little babe out of the window. The Captain noticed this, and with characteristic atrocity, thrust, with a sharp bayonet, the little innocent, along with the person who endeavoured to rescue it, into the red flames, where they both perished. . . [page 49]
Just reading this excerpt gives me the shivers.

Read this book if:
  1. You love anything that has a touch of the macabre.
  2. You want to read the first ever vampire story.
  3. It's been a long time since you had a nightmare.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lots of magic and a bit of cheese

As a child, did you, dear reader, believe in unicorns? I didn't. Just one look at this creature's horn was enough to tell me that the unicorn couldn't possibly exist. How can one animal, fantastic as it may be, go through its everyday tasks with that protrusion getting in the way. It can be a drag, no? But then I saw a narwhal, so that kinda screwed up my reason for unbelieving.

Fortunately, Peter S. Beagle's classic fantasy, The Last Unicorn, hopes to restore our belief in these magical creatures. It has been 40 years since this classic of fantasy was published, so I figured it's high time for me to read it, especially since I've been reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels lately.

I have mixed feelings about The Last Unicorn as a fantasy novel. I found that the magical elements can get too cheesy. (One can die of too much cheese, you know.) The unicorn is a thing of beauty, of gentleness, of magic, and the combination of these three can be cloying. It makes you want to watch Saw I to IV after reading.

The writing is another thing though, as Beagle's words have their own beautiful rhythm, a lyrical quality to it that's enviable. The sentences have a very buttery texture. The opening sentences alone can make you want to weep. (I also have mixed feelings about weeping.)
The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea. [page 1]
So the unicorn finds out that she's probably the last unicorn left on earth. She decides to leave the confines of her sunny-all-year forest and search for other of her own kind. Along the way, she meets a very underestimated magician called Schmendrick and a feisty woman named Molly Grue. Their adventures would take them toward King Haggard's castle. Haggard's domain is also home of the Red Bull, which has been known to capture unicorns and bring them to an undiscovered place. How this motley assortment of characters defeat the Red Bull form the climax of The Last Unicorn.

I believe that the novel's strong suits are its fable-like mood and its humor. Yes, The Last Unicorn can ultimately be likened to a fairy tale, complete with stories of princes and princesses, Robin Hood and his merry gang, traveling circuses, and other mythological creatures. The part when the unicorn was captured by the circus and she was kept together with other beasts of fantasy was very captivating. Beagle's gift for description of things magical is very much evident here.

And one simply cannot ignore the humor that pervades throughout the book. Sadly, this wonderful aspect is more often evident in the dialogue than in the scenes of the novel. Nevertheless, the witty exchange of the characters are a gas. Sometimes, the dialogues border on the bubblegum, but I don't mind that at all.
Prince LĂ­r said hoarsely, "I must go. There is an ogre of some sort devouring village maidens two days' ride from here. It is said that he can be slain only by one who wields the Great Axe of Duke Alban. Unfortunately, Duke Alban himself was one of the first consumed -- he was dressed as a village maiden at the time. . . [page 183]
One can see why The Last Unicorn has often been cited by contemporary fantasy novelists as their influence (e.g., Patrick Rothfuss). It still has the power to create awe in its readers. With Beagle's lyrical prose and uninhibited imagination, The Last Unicorn inspires us to make our own magical words.

Read this book if:
  1. You love classic fantasy novels.
  2. You've always believed that unicorns once existed (or still exist).
  3. Patrick Rothfuss is your idol.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happiness in these pages

   "It's simple," he says. "There's more than one path to happiness."
   Of course. How could I have missed it? Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own ways. [page 400]
What happens when you take a self-confessed grump and you follow him in his travels across countries as he explores what makes people happy? The result is one funny book which is part travelogue and part a study in sociology. Such a blissful read is Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss.

So what does Weiner discover in his journey? Well, it turns out that there's no simple recipe for a country's happiness. It's a confluence of factors, some of which are quite surprising. Here's a summarized list of the places he visited, which have reported high levels of happiness among the citizens:
  • The Netherlands -- Apparently, the place's permissiveness is a factor in making people feel happy. Prostitution and marijuana are legal.
  • Switzerland -- Lots of rules and laws are in place. The Swiss can also be very "boring." And Switzerland is also extremely democratic; people vote six or seven times a year. The Swiss even voted to increase their own taxes! How crazy is that!
  • Bhutan -- The government has put in place a program called Gross National Happiness. The hell with the gross national product!
  • Qatar -- Well, sad to say, wealth is an important factor in being happy, but only up to a certain point. The Qataris are so rich that they can buy their own culture.
  • Iceland -- This one was quite surprising. I couldn't imagine being happy in a country that has weird daylight patterns and in temperatures that are way below zero. But Icelanders seem to thrive in these conditions. Of course, it helps that the citizens drink a lot and seem to celebrate the importance of failures.
  • Thailand -- Thais are too busy being happy to think about happiness. Their known for their distrust in thinking and for that famous genuine Thai smile.
  • India -- The country's rich culture and tradition play a part in bringing happiness.
Weiner also made it a point to visit countries that scored way below the happiness scale. His trip to Moldova established why money is important, for Moldovans have little of it. He decided to travel to England to observe the stiff upper lip manners of the British. True, in England, outbursts of happiness are rare. Tony Blair is even rarer; he's a prime minister who smiled.

The Geography of Bliss is truly eye opening. Weiner is very thorough with his research, often stating the probable effect of reverse causality and desirability bias involved in happiness studies. It's also one very funny book that is hard to put down. Weiner describes the culture and the people of the places he visited in a very intimate way. I believe that this is probably due to his experience as a journalist.

So what does Weiner find out at the end of The Geography of Bliss? The paragraph below may be simplistic, but how can you argue with a man who has seen the evidence up close.
. . . I am no philosopher, so here goes: Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude. [page 400]
Read this book if:
  1. You feel like relocating to some place happier.
  2. You're into travel books.
  3. You think of yourself as a grump.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Awestruck

So how do you follow up a wonderful young adult novel that has moved readers so much? Why use the same formula of course! This is what Brian Selznick has done in his new book, Wonderstruck, which is filled with several beautifully done detailed pencil illustrations and has a very touching story as well.

Wonderstruck doesn't have the storytelling breadth and historical scope as Selznick's earlier work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Still, his latest work is very notable and does stand on its own merits. If anything, some readers would find it more accessible as Selznick now chooses to focus on the subject of family and one's place in it.

The story in Wonderstruck is twofold. There's the tale of Ben Wilson, which is set in 1977 in Minnesota and is told in words. The other, that of Rose Kincaid, starts out 50 years before in New Jersey and is portrayed in pictures. Ben has always wondered about his father and has decided to trace him, despite the fact that he has recently turned deaf because of an accident. Rose is shown to be fascinated by a theater actress and decides to find her as well.

These two stories are eventually shown to be connected, and this connection would definitely surprise the reader. Yes, Ben and Rose are related to one another, but I won't tell you how! I don't want to spoil such a beautiful story and a very meaningful reading experience.

If The Invention of Hugo Cabret touched on the development of the art of film, Wonderstruck depicts how museums came to be. The reader can't help but be amazed at the multifaceted aspects that Selznick touches on in this book. Aside from his artistic skill, the author comes across as someone who has a deep appreciation for history and for getting his facts straight. Selznick's description of American Museum of Natural History in New York is fascinating. It's as if Wonderstruck has become the reader's admission ticket into this place of learning.

Of course, the main appeal of Wonderstruck still lies on Selznick's illustrations, which number around 460, appearing as spreads. I've shot some of my favorites below.









Dear reader, if you love The Invention of Hugo Cabret, then you'll probably enjoy Wonderstruck too (although I still think the former is still the better book). It's heartwarming, funny, suspenseful in some moments, and redeeming.

Read this book if:
  1. You love books with pictures.
  2. You've always been fascinated with museums.
  3. You know that the best stories are told in words and images.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

This little book deserves a big place in your shelf

We've all seen this book by Nobel laureate Herman Hesse. But how many of us have picked it up and bothered to read it? Dear reader, you should. If read with an open mind, Siddhartha can truly be a very meaningful reading experience.

Now I'm not one to pick up a self-help or inspirational book. (I read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist this year and found it totally unbelievable. I still don't know what the fuss is all about The Little Prince despite having read it twice.) But I figured I might as well read Siddhartha, since I've been seeing this little pocket-sized edition in bookstores for the longest time ever.

Siddhartha is still basically a novel though, one that concerns an Indian, named Siddhartha, who lived during Buddha's time. He goes through the usual experiences when one seeks spiritual enlightenment. He leaves his father and mother to join the mystics in the forest. He listens to Buddha preach. He joins the secular world and becomes a rich man and a lover of a courtesan. Finally, he becomes a boatman, shuttling people back and forth across the river.

The novel makes it clear that, for a person to succeed in his or her spiritual journey, it's not the individual experiences that matter, but rather the sum of them. It is through these experiences that we gain an understanding, an appreciation of things.

I don't doubt it if people would see differing messages conveyed by the novel. After reading, I felt that the novel spoke to me about happiness and contentment. I don't need to search far and wide to be happy. The things, the experiences, the people that will make me happy are all in front of me. Maybe the message I'll glean after re-reading Siddhartha might change. We'll see.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything by a Nobel laureate.
  2. You're fascinated by Indian mysticism.
  3. You're not into inspirational books but are willing to give this one a try.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

And yet another ghost story

After reading The Woman in Black, which a lot of people mention as the most terrifying ghost story of our time, I decided to read another ghost story which has been lately generating a lot of buzz. And it's Michelle Paver's first ever book for adults, a ghost story entitled Dark Matter. Yes, it's the same author who wrote Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.

Unlike most ghost stories, Dark Matter is set in the Arctic wilderness, which can literally drive people crazy with its overwhelming sense of isolation. But when you think about it, the barren frozen region is perfect for tales involving hauntings. Where else can you find a setting that is enveloped in complete darkness for several months?

In Paver's debut into adult fiction, she has chosen a protagonist named Jack Miller, who has enlisted for an expedition to Norway with four upperclass English gentlemen. The expedition is doomed even from the start, as it's riddled with accidents, unfortunate circumstances, and pitfalls, which have resulted in Jack being left alone in a very isolated region of the Arctic called Gruhuken. And when the seasons finally shift to one characterized by perpetual nighttime, that's when the hauntings begin for Jack.

The ghost in Dark Matter is the spirit of a former explorer who has been tortured and killed. When Jack first sees him in the daytime and tells the captain of the boat about it, he only gets statements of denial about the man's existence. No one seems to want to talk about this man. Of course, in ghost stories, this technique isn't anything new; natives are not always keen to talk about their town's resident ghosts. In Dark Matter, the crew of the ship that has taken Jack and his companions refuse to stay in Gruhuken no longer than necessary. This bit I found just a bit too predictable for my taste.

Nevertheless, the novel is indeed hair raising in some moments. It's the kind of book that features an old-fashioned kind of horror. There's no gore, no monsters ripping people's bodies, no verbal pyrotechnics. Paver's brand of horror is the same as Hill's. The first encounter with the ghost is innocuous, the succeeding ones turn into a creepy menace. Paver's sense of place is wonderful to read. One cannot feel a slight chill as she describes the unkind icy northern region.

With Paver's brilliant description of setting, her controlled scenes of horror, and her detailed narrative, Dark Matter succeeds not just as a ghost story, but as a period piece and an account of one man's journey into terror and madness.

Read this book if:
  1. Ghost stories are your thing.
  2. You're fascinated with the Arctic regions.
  3. People don't believe you when you tell them you've seen a ghost.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Attack of the blond, golden-eyed, creepy children

2011 is turning out to be a year in reading the works of John Wyndham. There's something about the novels of Wyndham that appeal to my inner geek, which I strive to always keep hidden. His novels, very popular during the time they were published, work on so many levels, not to mention that they have very engaging plot lines.

The first Wyndham novel I have ever read was The Chrysalids, which made me a fan. Then it was followed by The Day of the Triffids, which I think should serve as a template for post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels. This weekend, I finished The Midwich Cuckoos which, although not his best work, is still one enjoyable and well-written work of science fiction.

One fateful day in the village of Midwich, all the people suddenly fall asleep. They awaken the following day feeling tired. And surprise, it turns out that all women are suddenly pregnant. Everything's attributed to the mysterious object found in the village on that same day, which mysteriously disappears the next day.

When the women more or less give birth at the same time, the village folk discover something about the babies.
'Most striking are the eyes. These appear to be quite normal in structure; the iris however, is, to the best of my knowledge, unique in its colouring, being of a bright, almost fluorescent-looking gold, and is the same shade of gold in all.

'The hair, noticeably soft and fine, is, as well as I can describe it, of a slightly darkened blond shade. In section, under the microscope, it is almost flat on one side, while the other is an arc; the shape being close to that of a narrow D. [page 96]
The novel was also adapted into a movie
entitled
The Village of the Damned.

The people of Midwich also discover that these children grow up fast, such that after 9 years, all of them seem to have the appearance of 16-year-olds. And they find out something else -- these children act as one unit. If you teach one child how to solve a puzzle and you show the same puzzle to a different child, that child can easily solve it, as if it's encountered the puzzle before.

The Midwich Cuckoos then becomes a study of the survival of a species. The men and women of Midwich believe that, for all intents and purposes, these children are not human. The novel explores what happens when either the children or the villages are threatened. A person who attempts to kill a child eventually feels a compulsion to commit suicide or to engage in a fatal accident.

Wyndham has written a very fascinating novel. I couldn't help but picture myself in Midwich, feeling very paranoid in the company of these otherworldly children. Why have they chosen Midwich? What could be their ultimate goal on this planet? Where did they really come from? Unfortunately, these never answered. Nevertheless, these same questions make The Midwich Cuckoos a very engaging and thought-provoking read.

Read this book if:
  1. You like creepy-looking children.
  2. You believe all those stories about alien abduction and impregnation.
  3. You love classic works of science fiction.