Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The taming of the toad

Such a charming book, this one. And quite a quick read too. If there's anything bad that's been said about The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame's beloved classic children's book, I've yet to hear it.

Who isn't beguiled by the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad? Through these characters, Grahame explores an array of human emotionsbeing afraid, experiencing the joys of coming home and encountering something new, conquering one's fear, to name a few. Ironic that it will take animals to fully show these emotions in a wonderful story.

While there's a running story line in The Wind in the Willows, the episodic adventures of the different characters are what struck me the most. I particularly love the chapter where Mole returns to his home with Rat in tow. In this poignant chapter, Grahame shows us that no matter how much we've traveled, it is in our homes where we truly find comfort.

I won't call Toad the main character in Grahame's book. Nor is there a singular protagonist in The Wind in the Willows. We do see Toad transform from one who is absolutely obsessed with motor cars (to the point that he would lie and scheme) to a character who is humbled after realizing the unfortunate consequences of his actions. Toad wouldn't have become a better individual without the help of his friends, Rat and Mole. It's such an inspired cast.

It's a good thing that this children's novel was part of Penguin Threads, otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered to pick it up. The beautiful embroidered cover design did it for me. Also, the introduction by Gregory Maguire on what makes this book a classic is very insightful. If I had children, this would automatically be required reading in the house.

Read this book if:

  1. You love classic children's literature.
  2. You're looking for a comfort read.
  3. You've always imagined what it would be like if animals could talk.

Monday, October 29, 2012

On to the next doorstop

It seems ages ago since I last read a contemporary novel, and, for some reason, I'm not missing it. After reading Anna Karenina and really enjoying the experience, I'm still up for reading the classics.

Recently, I bought my first Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend. It's a doorstop at 900+ pages. Why this particular Dickens, you may ask, and not his famous David Copperfield or even Bleak House, which most people consider his best work? Well, I was intrigued by the back cover summary, which tells of a dark and corrupt London.

But what I'm more excited to read is Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. I'm still a few pages in the book and I still can't form an opinion about it yet. Harold Bloom's brilliant introduction though is worth the price of this book. (Yes, I read everything from cover to cover, beginning with the copyright page till the end notes.)

Yes, I'll read this, all 936 pages of this.

So bring on the adventures of the knight-errant Don Quixote of La Mancha and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. Let's see if I'll enjoy your company for a few days.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The train! The train!

After more than a week of reading, I finally finished Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina on this fine Friday night. (Thank goodness for holidays and long weekends, no?) Yes, it's everything that I thought this novel would be.

There are a few points that surprised me though. Much as the main character of the novel is the eponymous heroine, Anna Karenina is also the story of lots of other characters. It is this myriad of voices and streams of consciousness that lets the reader feel fully satisfied by the novel's end.

There's Levin, the unbeliever and spurned lover at the beginning of the novel, who manages to get the girl and come to grips with his faith and belief in the goodness of people. There's Kitty, a noble-born girl, who eventually accepts Levin's love despite her initial rejection of him and becomes a good companion to him as his wife. Of course, this doorstop wouldn't be complete without the rest of their families, countless members of the Russian upperclass, peasants, house help, and artists, among other personas.

Another thing that I found surprising was how the Russian upperclass appear to be "inbred," as they all seem to be related with one another. It's a vicious society, one full of gossip, malice, and an endless parade of balls and dinners. It is this close-knit nature of these people that caused Anna and Vronsky to be shunned when they embark on their relationship.

In whatever angle you look at it, Anna Karenina is still about the scandalous affair of Anna and Vronsky. And it's one of those love stories that seem to be doomed from the start. Anna is married to a man who refuses to grant her a divorce. Vronsky, a man with huge potential in the Russian government, throws everything away just for the chance to love Anna. Two passionate and beautiful creatures amid the unforgiving elite, wherein they used to belong.

Tolstoy did love his parallel story lines. In the novel, running along the love affair is the story of Levin. If Anna were the novel's heart, one can think of Levin as the novel's mind, the thinking character whom Tolstoy uses to communicate his ideas about politics, commerce, and faith. If this novel were titled Levin, it could still work, I believe.

Despite the subplots in Anna Karenina, there's a certain structure to Tolstoy's narrative, with the stories of the main characters complementing one another. When Anna officially leaves her husband to escape with Vronsky to Italy, it is when Levin and Kitty become engaged. Anna's apparent apathy to her love child coincides with Kitty's pregnancy. Vronsky's deterioration goes hand in hand with Levin's enlightenment.

One does feel a sense of accomplishment after reading the last page of this doorstop. It takes stamina to go through Tolstoy's numerous name-switching instances (or maybe this is a common feature in classic Russian novels), his depictions of agricultural life in the country, and the drastic shifts in perspective, to name a few. It's quite a reading experience, if I may tell you, dear readers. And it's one experience that I highly recommend that you go through as well.

Read this book if:

  1. You've never been satisfied with any of the "Anna Karenina" movies. (Believe me, these movies barely scratch the surface of the novel.)
  2. You love Russian doorstops.
  3. You've always been curious about this "greatest love affair ever written."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

10 things I learned from attending book discussions

The bargain bin at the book fair
Very, very popular destination among bibliophiles,
especially the people from the book club
  1. From the Howl's Moving Castle discussion: All Diana Wynne Jones fans are also J. K. Rowling fans, but not the other way around.
  2. From the A Good Year discussion: The key words for a large member turnout are "wine" and "food." To hell with the book discussion.
  3. From The Woman in Black discussion: Because there's the word "black" in the title, people will come in black. (Everyone wore black actually. Me? I came in pink.)
  4. From The House of Mirth discussion: Some want to be Lily Bart; others want to wring her neck. Never has a character divided the members.
  5. From the "Taming of the Shrew" discussion: To understand the play fully, it helps if you read Shakespeare's works aloud. More so if you employ a British accent.
  6. From The Game of Thrones discussion: Okay, book 1 has been around for more than 10 years, you know. It does have a small following since it's well written, but it's nowhere near as well known as, say, The Lord of the Rings. Far from it actually. To make it more popular, turn it into an HBO mini series! These days, everyone's a Stark, a Lannister, or what-have-you. Gandalf—who is that?
  7. From The Ready Player One discussion: Who knew that the '80s would be awesome in a geeky sort of way? All I remember are women with big shoulder pads and big hair, the styling of which has brought about global warming.
  8. From the Fifty Shades trilogy discussion: The books are so bad that they're actually good.
  9. From the A Short History of Nearly Everything discussion: People forget stuff they learned in grade school. Or, they just weren't paying attention in science class. Science is so cool, everyone!
  10. From all the discussions that I attended: If you say 3 pm, people come at 4. It's a mystery.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The old lady and the wizard

Howl's Moving Castle is the first (and so far the only) novel that I've read by Diana Wynne Jones. Because this novel has such a huge following, I had high expectations for it. I read it last year and just reread some parts quickly for the book discussion this weekend. Let's just say that my expectations were not met, well, at least not fully.

First, I found the narrative quite flat. It's a very talky book, with the characters engaging in conversations throughout the book. There weren't that many exciting scenes. For a children's book, I think it could've used more adventure and more thrills. (Is it the British way of writing that is in these pages? Well, J. K. Rowling is British and her Harry Potter novels were hugely entertaining.)

Second, I feel that there was a disproportionate number of things happening throughout the book. The first half of the book moved slowly. Now in the second half of Howl's Moving Castle, there were lots of moving parts already. Identities being switched and revealed, curses lifted, love realized, villains killed, persons set free. The plot elements seem to be all over the place.

But I have to hand it to Diana Wynne Jones for coming up with a very unconventional fairy tale. Yes, for all its high fantasy and wizardry, Howl's Moving Castle is a fairy tale in my opinion. There are beauty and the beast elements, but Jones wonderfully twists this aspect, resulting in the reader frequently guessing which among the characters is the beauty or the beast. She also alludes to the stepmother-stepsister formula. In the novel, the stepmother is anything but evil, and Sophie, the lead character, gets along with her sisters.

Since Sophie was a hatter,
the moderators asked the book club members
to come wearing hats to the discussion.
(Photo courtesy of R.)

I really did want to like this novel, even after the "reread." Maybe the story does get better in the succeeding books. I'm currently reading one of the sequels, House of Many Ways, and I'm finding it better and more charming than the first book. Nevertheless, Howl's Moving Castle can still captivate the reader who's looking for fantasy reads.

Read this book if:

  1. You're a huge fan of the Hayao Miyazake movie. (The book is quite different and is entertaining in itw own way.)
  2. You love your British fantasy writers.
  3. You like your wizards vain. (Howl apparently spent at least 2 hours in the bathroom.)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Another doorstop in my bag

No lengthy introductions for the Penguin Classics Red!
Woot woot!

Here I am thinking that my one doorstop for the year would be The Count of Monte Cristo. But Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has been in my TBR pile for so long that I simply decided one day to just get it over with.

There was a time, when I was in my 20s I believe, that I wouldn't think twice about reading doorstops. Ah, those glorious yesteryears when I read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (unabridged), James Joyce's Ulysses (with annotations), David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (the footnotes alone can make a novel), and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (not really very American but very, very tragic), to name a few.

Now I'm around 300 pages in the novel and, so far, I'm liking it. Perhaps it's due to the wonderful translation of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which makes the text very accessible indeed. Or maybe I am on a natural high from reading all the name switching that's happening (e.g., Levin is Konstantin is Kostya; Kitty is Katerina is Katya). It could also be that I'm just a masochist.

So how long will Anna Karenina stay in my bag, lugging it with me everywhere I go? I don't really know. I've been reading 80 pages or so every night and, frankly, I might lose some steam. Hmmmm... Steam. Now I'm thinking of trains. Anna Karenina did love the train, didn't she?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

No explanation for this catastrophe

Icebergs melting and water levels rising. Ships sinking for no apparent reason. Fireballs falling from the sky. Deep-sea explorations going haywire. No, this isn't a contemporary sci-fi apocalyptic novel. The Kraken Wakes was published in the 1950s, and because of that, it was way, way, way ahead of its time.

I've been having a love affair with John Wyndham since I read The Chrysalids. I haven't been disappointed with any of his works. The Kraken Wakes is considered to be one of his finest works. Hands down, I agree. It's a harrowing piece of science fiction, one that warns us of the effects of climate change and guerilla alien invasion.

The novel begins with a bang, literally. A couple on a cruise, Phyllis and Mike Watson, spot fireballs from the sky which rapidly descend into the ocean. This sounds innocuous enough, no? But no one has been able to come up with a solid theory on what these fireballs are, and why they seem always fall in the ocean.

Of course, this being the 1950s, the most obvious reason would be the Russians. Surely, the Russians also have the capability of sinking aircraft carriers and other huge maritime vessels. Sinking ships have followed the fireballs, but only a few have established the connection yet. However, the Russian theory is soon scrapped because of, shall we say, extraterrestrial reasons.

Next we see huge metallic orbs crawl out of the sea. Out of these alien structures protrude large cilia which aim for people. Once you get hit, there's no escaping. When the cilia contracts, you find yourself being pulled into these alien structures. Naturally, this causes a panic among people living along the shorelines. Countries that are more or less composed of small islands seem to be particularly affected. When things normalize (i.e., when there are no apparent alien abductions reported), people think it's over. The worse is still to come though when water levels rise significantly and people are forced to evacuate. It's the end of civilization as we know it.

The Kraken Wakes is a novel of ideas. Wyndham postulates how people would behave when confronted with the implausible. There's denial, mass hysteria, finger pointing, and even a few media personalities who capitalize on the unfortunate events. Wyndham captures all the craziness vividly.

And you gotta hand it to Wyndham for somehow showing us what'll happen should the polar ice caps melt. It's a grim picture that Wydham paints in The Kraken Wakes. It'll make you want to do anything just to lessen your carbon footprint.

The Kraken Wakes is a terrific novel about alien invasion, even though we hardly get to see any of these aliens in the novel, much less krakens. All we know is that they are in the ocean depths. Wyndham shows us what happens to humanity when the oceans who have sustained life on this planet eventually turn out to be the thing that we'll be most afraid of.

Read this book if:

  1. You like apocalyptic science fiction.
  2. You'll read anything by Wyndham.
  3. You love vintage science fiction.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Being consoled by 6 philosophers

I've always dreaded meeting a philosopher. The thought of conversing with one is my personal version of hell. I keep picturing myself with my eyes glazing as I listen to the philosopher ramble on and on and on about the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. This scene ends with me throwing myself on the cliff, frustrated by my apparent lack of understanding of anything that issued forth from the philosopher's mouth.

And this is why I like Alain de Botton. He makes philosophy accessible. Read any of his books and you'll see what I mean. In The Consolations of Philosophy, he introduces us to 6 philosophers and how they can help us with our lives. It's a wonderful idea but I assume hard to pull off, as most of these philosophers seldom agree with one another.

Instead of offering us a sweeping scope of philosophical thought, de Botton narrows in on 6 problematic life areas (unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and difficulties) and finds a suitable philosopher who can offer a solution for each. The resulting book is brilliant, one that provides a brief account of the philosopher's life and his work, and coupled with lots of anecdotal records.

Okay, let's start with the first. Are you concerned about being unpopular? Fret not, Socrates can help you. This is a bit of an irony, as Socrates was condemned to death by a jury of his peers. In this part, the classical philosopher somehow tells you that it's not the opinion of the people that count but rather the experts.
The philosopher offered us a way out of two powerful delusions: that we should always or never listen to the dictates of public opinion.
To follow his example, we will best be rewarded if we strive instead to listen always to the dictates of reason. [page 42]
Don't have enough money? Well, look to Epicurus. Yes, Epicurus, the philosopher whose reputation is for getting the finer things in life. Apparently, this isn't true at all. Epicurus advocated the acquisition of the simple things in life. To be happy, all one needs is to acquire friendship, freedom, and thought. Now knowing this has already put a smile to my face. Everyone can "afford" these acquisitions!

If you easily get frustrated, Seneca advises us not be too hopeful. Don't think that the loud noise your neighbor makes is intentional, that he's out to annoy you. No, your neighbor is just noisy, and that's the first step to not getting frustrated. Trust that your neighbor knows nothing of you.

Are you feeling inadequate? Don't, just read Montaigne. He tells us to open our minds and not be discouraged. All you really need to do is just make yourself clever.
In Montaigne's redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it is possible to speak no Greek, fart, change one's mind after a meal, get bored with books, know none of the ancient philosophers and mistake Scipios.
A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough. [page 168]
Schopenhauer, probably the most pessimistic of all philosophers, is the one de Botton turns to for the broken hearted. Schopenhauer argues that we shouldn't be surprised at all if we find misery sometimes. And (hold on to your partners for this bit, everyone), the person who will make the perfect match for us is seldom the one who will make us happy.

And last, Nietzsche tells us that to come up with creations of beauty and brilliance, we shouldn't be afraid of difficulties at all. Instead of being envious that someone wrote an intelligent novel and despairing that we'll never write anything as brilliant, we need to look at all those revisions that went with the work. And it also helps to know if this writer whom we're envious went through several rejections before writing his masterpiece.

I absolutely enjoyed The Consolations of Philosophy. The writing style of de Botton is engaging, as if he's writing a self-help book instead of one filled with very lofty philosophical ideas. In a way, The Consolations of Philosophy is indeed self-help. After all, who wouldn't want to be consoled by 6 of the most intelligent men who have lived on this planet, no?

Read this book if:

  1. You've always been curious but intimidated by philosophy.
  2. You want to know how the word Epicurean came from.
  3. You love eccentric, intelligent, dead guys.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Classics by my bed

Currently, five novels are my bedside. All of them are classics. For some inexplicable reason, I've a taste for classic novels lately.

(Just click to enlarge.)

I don't know which novel I'd finish first, as I'm constantly switching between novels. I believe that most people would describe me as a polybookist. I'm fine with that label.

I am finding E. M. Forster's Howards End very enjoyable. It's short, so I think this has the best chance of being finished by the weekend. Also, Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is quite engaging. Very realistic, if I must say. Certainly not as cloying as the works of her sisters

My head is spinning from all the names in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It's bad enough that it's quite difficult to get into those polysyllabic Russian names, but to take note of the characters' nicknames, too? Ayayay! This calls for vodka, lots and lots of vodka. And caviar.

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is proving to be quite depressing. I'm this close to just watching the movie adaptation starring Kate Winslet. Oy! I'll watch anything with Kate Winslet. Even "Titanic." Henry James's The Golden Bowl is getting to be a challenge. One minute I'm reading it; the next minute, well, I'm wiping drool off my face and it's morning already.

James, Hardy, Forster, Brontë, and Tolstoy in my bed. It's like a slumber party, come to think of it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The book club turns 5

Last month, without us knowing it, Flips Flipping Pages, the book club I belong to, turned 5. That's 5 years of book-ish fun!

I still recall the first face-to-face discussion that I've attended, which was all about Dr. Seuss. That was way back in July 2009. I have this blog to thank for being a member of FFP. Some of the members discovered KyusiReader, and they invited me to join.

My first FFP discussion
I have no idea why I had my eyes closed.
(Photo credit: Blooey of Sumthinblue)

Thanks, all you beautiful people of FFP! It's been one great book-ish adventure with you guys. And I'm looking forward to another 5 years.

If you're in the Philippines and you have nothing to do on Saturdays, why not join us? We meet once a month to talk about a particular book. And for next year, we've already made a rough lineup! Check it here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Those beautiful covers from Penguin

What better way for a publisher to celebrate it's 75th anniversary than to come up with a retrospective of some of its memorable cover designs, no? Penguin did exactly just that, coming out with a visually stunning book on some of their covers with commentaries from the author, the designer, and the creative director.

Buying this book was a no-brainer for me. It's no secret that I'm a Penguin junkie. And I was curious as to the actual process that goes with the generation of Penguin's beautiful covers.

Penguin 75, which is edited by no less than Penguin's Executive Vice President Creative Director Paul Buckley, is a very eye-opening book. It shows you the interesting dynamic between the author and the creative team. Some of the stories included in the book are quite funny actually. Below, I picked a few from the 75 books contained in this collection.

The author, Jim Powell, thought that this cover was brilliant.
The designer had a different opinion though,
saying that the yellow he used looked a bit washed out. 

This cover is just too beautiful.
The elements (i.e., the portrait, the tree, the dark atmosphere)
work really well in telling you about the books of these 3 Bronte sisters. 

The small leftmost image is the hardback cover,
and the small red one is the rejected paperback cover.
For the approved paperback design, the designer simply used the 
image of the original cover, which was an actual photo.

I've never read a Durrell.
But these designs want me to head to the bookstore
and buy all these copies. 

The cover for Gilbert's nonfiction work was hell to work on.
They had to do the photo shoot twice because of poor lighting.
And the petals used to form 'love' easily wilted, so they had to work fast. 

The estate of Ian Fleming wanted no female nudes nor images of 
James Bond when Penguin was designing this series.
However, they did manage to sneak in a couple of naked women. 

The designer of The Canterbury Tales wanted a design 
that wouldn't come off as boring.
He actually wants the readers to guess the characters 
he placed on the cover. 

I think this is very edgy, yes?
What comes to your mind when you see 
a teddy bear shagging a doll?

The designer was somewhat concerned that the pink color used 
for the transvestite sleuth in this mystery series might seem offensive.
Good thing that they decided to stick with it, as the cover is quite arresting. 

Sometimes, all one needs for a captivating design 
are a solid color and beautiful typography. 

Penguin is particularly proud of their Penguin Classics,
which is the line that they're famous for.
But because of the limited print-runs for these titles,
all these designs are done in-house. 

This is one of my favorites.
The images used are perfect for the title. 

William T. Vollman sent this waiver and invoice to Penguin
when he photographed 3 prostitutes for the cover of his book below.

 They had to hide the prostitutes' faces because of 
legal issues.

In the cover on the right, notice the man who seems to be 
running away from something.
Penguin actually used one of the designers 
to serve as a model (small leftmost image).

Beautiful illustrations used in one of Penguin's short story anthologies

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The bookshelf project #38

Hello, dear reader! It's time for another peek at a fellow reader's bookshelves. This week, the pictures are from a good friend, Ajie, who's one of the most artistically inclined persons I know.

Ajie was the one who made the book tote that I was raving about last month. See it here. And she also does wonderful caricatures, which she draws on shirts and even on shoes! So let's take a peek at her shelves, shall we?

I love that her shelves aren't all about books.
She's into crafts, so I'm guessing that those plastic holders 
contain crafts-y thingies. 
Don't you just love that vintage sharpener?

Sigh. If only my books were as orderly as these. 
And most of her books are lovingly covered in plastic!

Here's another great reason to collect books in the same editions.
Don't they just look beautiful on the shelf? 

There are two things I love in this shot:
George Eliot and Elizabeth Kostova. 

And of course, one's shelf wouldn't be complete 
without at least one work by Ray Bradbury. Woot!

So, dear reader, what do you think of Ajie's bookshelves? Do you love it as much as I do?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

War as seen through a horse's eyes

It's a book with strong anti-war sentiments. It's written from the point of view of a horse. It shows both the British and the German experience in World War I. It's been in print for 30 years, and yet it still comes off as being remarkably fresh. That's Michael Morpurgo's War Horse.

If it were up to me to decide which books children of today should read, War Horse would come out on top of the list. Morpurgo's narrative is very straightforward, and his sentences so crisp that they appear to be Hemingway-esque.

The horse, named Joey, has the unlucky fate to serve as a horse in the English army during WWI. But fate's hand is indeed cruel, and we see Joey taken by the English, the Germans, the French, and back to the English. It's an adventure story, really, with the horse taking center stage.

What's surprising is what we find out after reading both sides of the two warring nations. When it comes down to the soldiers fighting in the front, all they really want is for the war to end and for them to go home to their families. It's a fact not lost even on Joey.

Consider the scene between an English and a German soldier when they meet in the trenches to rescue Joey, whose leg has been caught in barbed wire. The two soldiers simply decide to flip a coin to decide who gets to keep Joey.
"In an hour, maybe, or two," he said, "we will be trying our best again each other to kill. God only knows why we do it, and I think He has maybe forgotten why. Good-bye, Welshman. We have shown them, haven't we? We have shown them that any problem can be solved between people if only they can trust each other. That is all it needs, no?"
The little Welshman shook his head in disbelief as he took the rope. "I think if they would let you and me have an hour or two out here together, we could sort out this whole wretched mess. There would be no more weeping widows and crying children in my valley and no more in yours. If worse came to worst, we could decide it all on the flip of a coin, couldn't we?"
I did find that particular scene one of the most poignant that I've read among children's novels. Perhaps we need to be reminded again that, for all the vastness that is the scope of war, the solution can be as simple as talking or even just calling "heads" or "tails" in a coin flip.

Read this book if:

  1. You have very strong feelings about war.
  2. You love classic children's novels.
  3. You've always wanted to own a horse.