Monday, April 29, 2013

Biting off more than I can chew

The reading rut has passed, and I'm now reading more than ever. Yes, I still watch a lot of TV shows that I download from the net. Yes, I still find the time to study for my Italian class. Yes, I still go out for a movie and dinner with friends occasionally. But I'm reading whenever I get free time. On the commute to and from work, while in line in the bank, a few chapters before going to bed.

I've been very vocal on how young adult novels have helped me with my reader's block. I love YA novels. They're my comfort reads. I love their straightforward narratives and their accessible length. A few of my favorite books are YA novels: The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Rainbow Boys trilogy by Alex Sanchez, and, more recently, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan.

And while I still have that burst of reading groove, I figured that I might as well give myself a challenge. Why don't I read all the novels of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, depending on the translation)? I already have the first 2 books but from different publishers (My Swann's Way is the Modern Library edition; my In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is the new translation from Penguin).

I'd really like to have the same editions for all 7 books. But I bought my copy of Swann's Way a few years ago, and I thought it's high time I read it. The new Penguin translations are beautiful though, with their deckle edges and French flaps. Still, Proust is Proust, yes? No matter what translation you have, reading him will always be a challenge.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

10 things that result from reading Shakespeare

With my books during the discussion of
'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
(Photo courtesy of R)
  1. You feel the urge to speak in an English accent.
  2. You become fond of rhymes. I like sour limes. I collect shiny dimes. I fart a hundred times.
  3. You're afraid that your partner would flake out on you on your suicide pact and you'll just die alone.
  4. You check yourself in the mirror often, just in case you turn into an ass.
  5. You think you and your partner are star-crossed lovers. Even though you know that he or she sleeps around, pushes you down the stairs, puts pepper on your coffee, spreads vile rumors about how small your "assets" are, and just basically throws up whenever you're near. But yes, you're star-crossed; you've no doubts about it.
  6. You head to the beauty salon to get a perm.
  7. You suddenly want to cross-dress. Men in tights? That's so you.
  8. You think that the circus needs a 'shrew tamer'.
  9. You imagine Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife, must have looked like Anne Hathaway.
  10. You now know that Hamlet doesn't come from a baby pig.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Still on a Levithan roll

My Levithan stash
A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Facebook how much I'm enjoying Levithan's novels and a few reasons for my being a devoted fan boy. And again, I have him to thank because I'm reading again! Woot! Good-bye, reading rut! Good-bye, endless switching between books! Good-bye, mindless downloading of TV episodes just to kill time!

So far, I've read 3: Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List. I haven't been disappointed yet. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I won't be.

How can you not love an author who writes the most beautiful lines, who isn't into stereotypes and labels, and who comes up with the most engaging stories? Also, reading Levithan made me feel like a teenager again.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Of best friends, ex-boyfriends, and a very troublesome list

I'm currently in a David Levithan phase, which was happily triggered by the wonderful Boy Meets Boy. That's why I've been busy visiting bookstores for the past weeks, scouring the shelves for Levithan's young adult novels. And I'm thankful that Levithan has brought me out of that reading rut. So glad that that unfortunate phase is over, well at least for now.

My 2nd Levithan read is a collaboration with Rachel Cohn: Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List. The book is very cosmopolitan, with it being set in New York, having 2 fashionable and very open-minded teenagers as protagonists, and touching on the concept of friendship in the context of one's romantic relationships.

We all have that one person who always has our back. For Naomi, it has always been Ely. These two have always been inseparable, and I can't help but think that it's by default. They grew up in the same NYC apartment, went to the same high school and are now in NYU, and have come up with a list containing the names of boys that are officially off limits to any of them. I completely understand the concept of the list. One cannot date someone that your bff doesn't approve of, yes? For these two, their friendship is priority. Of course, Naomi isn't just your typical fag hag; she's in love with Ely, who unfortunately for her is also into boys.

Things get complicated when Ely kisses Bruce the Second, Naomi's boyfriend. While Bruce the Second isn't on the No Kiss List, it's just a given that current boyfriends are off limits. But is Bruce the Second gay? Levithan doesn't clearly say so. I'm getting the impression that Levithan is shying away from labels, which can really get very tricky and restrictive. When Bruce the Second's mom asks him if he's gay, he responds with, "I'm just not straight." Okay, I can totally work with that.

What I'm not okay is that there are quite a few unnecessary characters in the novel. They just come and go; they just muddle up the story. There's Bruce the First, Robin (a girl) and Robin (a boy), Gabriel the doorman, their fellow NYU undergraduates. It can be quite frustrating, especially when Levithan didn't give clear voices to the minor characters.

The resulting conflict between Naomi and Ely leads to a healthy realization. Both of them have always been associated with each other that their separation, albeit temporarily, makes them realize their individuality. Naomi comes to grips with the fact that it's futile holding out for Ely. And Ely is finally comfortable with having a "serious" relationship with someone that he might really be in love with.

Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List is a quirky but beautiful novel about friendship. And love too. We love our friends. It might not be the same way we love our partners, but this love is as important to us nonetheless.

Read this book if:
  1. You've had a bff all your life.
  2. You value the opinions of your close friends when it comes to the persons you date.
  3. You hate labels.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Now under my radar

When the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was handed out this week, I was relieved to find out that they actually picked a winner. Last year, they just had a list of 3 nominated novels. For shame! Oh well, we couldn't really nitpick on the judges' reasons.

Now The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. A novel about North Korea. The books seems eerily familiar to me. So familiar that I recall having bought it. And that's how I spent part of my Wednesday night—me and my big fat ass riffling through my shelves. Damn silverfish and dust bunnies everywhere.

And then I found it! Woot! So now The Orphan Master's Son is my Mt. Everest. I will read it because it's there. Now I understand how important these awards are. They bring to our attention books that we wouldn't have picked up. In my case, it just gave me the motivation to lessen the number of books that I have to read, by 1.

Hooray for impulsive book purchases! One never knows if the book one gets will end up being a keeper.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I fell in love with this book

It's been a while since I gushed over a book, and it feels great to be doing it now. Yes, I am seriously fawning over David Levithan's debut novel Boy Meets Boy, a novel published 10 years ago. As I closed the book last Friday night, I was swept away by the beauty of Levithan's story and his writing. I've now included it in my very short list of all-time favorite books.

The world that Levithan creates in this novel represents an ideal. If you're jaded, you'd think this would be speculative fiction. It's a world where teenagers, gay or straight, can date anyone they want to, without fear of being ostracized. It's a school where the star quarterback is also the homecoming queen. Parents, well at least the main character's parents anyway, do not think too much about their children's sexuality but shower them with all the love that they can give.

I found it very easy to relate to all the characters Levithan wrote about in Boy Meets Boy. Paul, the 1st 'boy' in the title, is so unlike in your typical teenager. He has no tinge of insecurity and knows what he wants. However, like your typical teenager, he becomes awkward when he meets 'Noah', a senior who just transferred to his school. Right from the start, I just knew that Paul should end up with Noah. If they didn't, I would just die. There's no hope for the world.

But hope isn't a concept that's wanting in Boy Meets Boy. Paul hopes that he ends up with Noah. He hopes to patch things up with Joni, one of his best friends, who's dating a schmuck. He hopes that he wouldn't bump into his ex, Kyle, who keeps popping up in all the wrong moments. In the latter part of the novel, Kyle makes amends with Paul and hopes that things turn out better for them as friends. And Paul hopes that the parents of his other best friend, Tony, would step down from their religious pedestal and see that there's nothing wrong with being gay.

If I knew that Boy Meets Boy would have memorable lines, I would have kept a highlighter with me while I was reading it. I just fell in love with the beautiful prose that Levithan wrote. Here are some of my favorites:
I find my greatest strength in wanting to be strong. I find my greatest bravery in deciding to be brave. I don't know if I've ever realized it before. . . I think we both realize it now. If there's no feeling of fear, then there's no need for courage. 
With some break-ups, all you can think about afterwards is how badly it ended and how much the other person hurt you. With others, you become sentimental for the good times and lose track of what went wrong.
Now, I don't believe in doing hugs halfway. I can't stand people who try to hug without touching. A hug should be a full embrace - as I wrap my arms around Tony, I am not just holding him, but also trying to lift off his troubles for a moment so that the only thing he can feel is my presence, my support.
Part of love is letting a person be who they want to be.
My only gripe is that the novel is too short! It's that kind of book that you just want to go on forever. You feel that you just need to know everything that happens to these quirky characters. You wish that there were a sequel. And it's the kind of novel that makes you want to write fan mail to the author and urges you to hunt for his other books. I love Boy Meets Boy, and I hope more people would love it too.

Read this book if:
  1. You know that it's only a matter of time before we get to that ideal world.
  2. You like boys meeting boys, or girls meeting girls.
  3. You love LGBT fiction.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Less is more

It's no secret that I love books with beautiful covers. Beautiful is subjective, yes? But, most of the time, I find that I'm particularly attracted to covers with a rather minimalistic aesthetic. I prefer non-busy covers, those covers that let my imagination work.

Take for example the 2 books above: David Levithan's debut novel Boy Meets Boy and R. J. Palacio's Wonder. Isn't your curiosity piqued just by looking at their elegantly sparse elements? Up front, we know that Levithan's work is LGBT themed, but that's about it. You're actually eager to know the story.

The cover of Wonder is another design that works for me. I love the simple line drawing. And that lone eye rendered in light blue, albeit done very subtly, speaks volumes. We imagine the novel to tackle a theme on the significance of one's physical appearance.

I have lots of respect for cover designers, nay, graphic designers in general. They're a talented bunch. I guess that respect comes from my being non-gifted in that artistic field. Non-gifted is an understatement though, as I can hardly draw stick figures.

How about you, dear reader? What kind of cover designs do you like?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

We wish to inform you that your baby has now been replaced

During the weekend, I finished Brenna Yovanoff's young adult novel The Replacement and found myself being conflicted with my feelings toward it. It does have all the elements that I usually am partial too—the creepy atmosphere, the supernatural characters based on folklore, the subtle horror, and the romance not bordering on bubblegum. And yet, I'm not too sure if I really liked it.

The Replacement touches on a myth that seems to be common across different cultures: supernatural creatures living below the ground steal babies and replace them with one of their own. In Yovanoff's novel, this unfortunate incident seems to happen in the town of Gentry regularly. It's a situation that the town folk don't talk about openly; a few of them view it as a sacrifice to these mythical creatures. These babies are offered as a way of thanks for giving Gentry a few more years of prosperity.

Normally though, the replaced babies—these changelings—don't live long. But Mackie Doyle is an exception. He's now 16 but is apparently slowly dying. He gets long-lasting dizzy spells brought about by being near to objects made of iron; he passes out easily. The human world isn't an environment where he can thrive. He's living in it on borrowed time. But he finds out that he is drawn to the underworld where he originally came from, and it's a world that can offer him the chance to live. However, choosing the underworld means leaving his family behind and also the girl whom he has fallen in love with, Tate.

I was expecting that the romance angle of The Replacement would be a major element. Thankfully, it's not. More than anything, it is the concept of the family that Yovanoff chooses to highlight. We find out that the changelings don't survive long because the family knows that their babies have been replaced, and that this knowledge is what keeps preventing them from loving the changelings. In Mackie's case, it is not the love of his "parents" that made the difference, but the enduring, unselfish love of his older sister. His sister chooses to look beyond the fact that Mackie is no longer her original brother; she acknowledges that Mackie will be the only brother that she'll have.

I like Yovanoff's writing style. The slow burn, the musings of the characters, and the exploration of the importance of family and friends are pretty much enjoyable to read. But something is holding me back from loving The Replacement. I can't quite put my finger on it yet. Maybe I would have liked more exposition on the supernatural aspect of the novel. As it is, the mythical creatures don't even have labels of what they really are. The underworld, with its wonderfully ugly inhabitants, had a huge potential for development. Unfortunately, I was left wanting.

Still, I think I would read more of Yovanoff's works, as her writing is very beautiful and very fluid. She has 2 more novels that I've seen recently: The Space between Us and Paper Valentine. I've Googled the stories of these novels, and I think they're right up my alley.

Read this book if:
  1. You're fascinated with the idea of changelings.
  2. You understand the concept of " being beautifully ugly."
  3. You love creepy reads.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

I bite my nails to the quick

Ah, the bard. If there's one writer I'm not looking forward to reading, it's him. I get paranoid, antsy, and disoriented, knowing that I'll get my hands close to any of his works. Ye olde English? I don't get ye, not very much. Now I understand this expression because I'm close to doing it: I bite my nails to the point of thumbtacks.

But there's no escaping him. He is everywhere. He still influences TV, movies, and, of course, theater. He has been redone, rewritten, repackaged, updated, made more palatable. I think he just may be alive. For all we know, Shakespeare is the original Elvis, and he has not yet left the building.

As I said, I can't escape him, even if I cross dress, pretend I died, tell everyone I'm busy avenging a relative's death because his ghost told me so, marry a shrew or become a shrew myself, or just basically be one in a pair of star-crossed lovers. Have I just listed some elements of his plays? As I said, very influential indeed. Effortless.

This month, the book club will be discussing one of his plays, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I've found out that it's a comedy. Hmmmm... So no one dies? No one becomes a crazed woman and drowns herself? But wasn't AMND the play featured in the movie Dead Poets' Society? I recall that, during curtain, the prep school boys loved it. All those cheers, whistles, and yawps. So I know that AMND doesn't suck vacuum cleaners.

My first non-academic experience with Shakespeare was just last year. Wasn't that bad, not bad at all. Read about it here. This time around, I come better prepared. Graphic novel? Check. A Shakespeare handbook? Have it. The Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the play? Beside my bed. The collecting part is easy; the bard can even take pointers from me in that aspect. Now for the challenge—reading.

I've never really liked manga. I find it weird and artificial. (Manga, one more WTF shit coming from Japan. Solar-powered flashlights? I die. But: toilet seat warmers—crazy brilliant.) But I'll take all the help I can get. Besides, the colored panels are beautiful, in a weird and artificial way.

And The Essential Shakespeare Handbook published by DK is just a beautiful book. It has more information on Shakespeare than you actually need. It's like a calculus textbook, but with full color images of people in costume. Because we know, really, that calculus is highly relevant in our everyday life. You need Shakespeare and calculus to buy stuff from iTunes, or to take the train, or to have sushi. Really.

And yet another book that I find quite interesting is The Graphic Canon series. Such an ambitious project, a 3-volume set aiming to interpret important literary works in comics and visual form. Volume 1 includes very early works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Tao Te Ching, The Tale of Genji, and, what do you know, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"! AMND just runs for 5 pages though. Better than nothing. Shakespeare ignoramuses (ignorami?) can't be choosy.

I'm no English major, so wish me luck on the book discussion. I majored in science actually, but I do believe in pretty things like fairies. And, from what I Googled, AMND has a few characters who are fairies. Because we love fairies, especially fairy royalty, and the sprites who attend to them.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The cure (hopefully) against reader's block

It's been almost 3 weeks since I last finished a book. Goodness, time flies when you're really having fun just being lazy. My lazy ass and I have just been watching lots of TV, Facebook-ing, and tinkering with gadgets. If I'm not in front of the computer, I'm stuffing myself with empty calories.

Yes, I blame a lot of things, mostly TV shows: Bates Motel, The Following, Scandal, Revenge, Elementary, House of Cards, and Monday Mornings. Or just maybe I should blame the Internet, as I get these episodes as web downloads. TV to the people!

But all is not lost. I've a bunch of books beside my bed, all 8 of them young adult. (Requisite picture below.) I've bought just 1 of them, Crash and Burn; the rest were given as birthday presents.

I love YA novels, with their no-nonsense narratives, engaging plot, and clear story lines. I'm particularly interested with Cinder, a sci-fi retelling of the beloved fairy tale, but this time with androids and space ships! The controversial Burgess novel appeals to; it's supposedly the basis of the cult TV series Life As We Know It.

But I'm just going to take things slow. I think if I force myself to read, then I'll just take the fun out of the hobby. The last thing I want is for reading to become a chore. Reading is definitely not the same as doing the laundry, or washing the dishes, or taking the dog for a walk and waiting for it to poop. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Notably brainy

What if you decided to catalog all your thoughts beginning with your earliest memory up to a specific point in your life? What if you shut yourself away from the world just to write your memories in notebooks that will fill your bookshelves three times over? What if you have the compulsion to write in detail all the events that transpired within the day? These are the questions explored in J. W. Ironmonger's debut novel, The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder.

It's no secret that I have a paper fetish; I collect notebooks and journals. Writing on them is another matter. I've never been a fan of keeping a journal. I find it tedious. I'd much rather sit in a quiet corner and make mental notes of all the things that happened on that day. The character in Ironmonger's novel though feels differently. Max Ponder, a moneyed eccentric, chooses to become a recluse to write everything that he remembers up till the time he turned 21.

This monumental project, which Ponder labeled as 'The Catalogue', was supposed to last for just a few years. However, it has gone on for more than 30 years. Max, now 50, lies dead from a brain tumor and it's up to his best friend of several years, Adam Last, to do the finishing touches to the project: to remove Max's brain and place it in liquid nitrogen. Why? Max wants Adam to preserve his brain so that scientists can study it and possibly unlock the secrets of memory.

The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder is basically a novel about friendship. Alan first meets Max in Africa, when they were living in the continent with their parents as expats. Since then, we see these two in their boarding school in Africa, their brief separation in college, and their eventual reuniting for The Catalogue, wherein Max hires Alan to help him complete it. This of course entails Alan to serve as steward-slash-manservant-slash-companion to Max. Max has decided to shut himself away from the world, to prevent him from forming new memories.

Ironmonger's debut fiction is quite funny, especially when you read the banter between Max and Alan. Max appears to be the idealist, complementing perfectly with Alan's grounded nature. And Ironmonger writes very distinct voices for Max and Alan. I'm sure the reader would be able to relate to any one of these two British gentlemen. I really identified with the character of Alan. His commitment to the peculiarities of his friend and his fulfillment of his promise are quite touching.

I do hope that this debut isn't a fluke. The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder received several nominations this year and last, including ones from Costa and the Guardian. It's a work huge on promise and identifies the writer as a talent to watch out for. I'll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for his next work.

Read this book if:
  1. Your memory is very photographic.
  2. You have a best friend who always has your back.
  3. You love reading about two proper English gentlemen.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A thriller in monthly installments

Scholastic Philippines has recently launched a young adult series entitled "Conspiracy 365." The series comes out in 12 installments, so there's something to look forward to every month! How cool is that? At least we'll be spared the agonizing wait which, in the case of books in a series, usually lasts for years.

It's already April, so the 4th book is now out. "Conspiracy 365" is like a cat-and-mouse thriller, with the protagonist, 15-year-old Cal, must do everything to remain alive within the next 365 days. Very interesting premise, I must say.

If you've read my previous post, you'd know that I'm in a bit of a reading slump. Maybe these books will just be the solution to my reader's block. Besides, I think all 12 books would look good on one's shelf. They'd make very unusual conversation pieces.

Thank you, Scholastic, for these books. You really make reading fun! Of course, we will be forever indebted to you guys for publishing Harry Potter.