Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The inevitable fluff

Aieeee! A new novel by Dan Brown! What is it about this time? Will DB give us a virtual travelogue of a historic European city again? Will the Harvard professor hit up with another troubled female character? Will there be twists again, but far less engaging than the last novel? Will it shallowly touch on a current social issue? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Inferno is still very much formula. Puzzle, chase, twist, and revelation. And, like any typical DB novel, Inferno is peppered with lots of trivia. But fortunately, readers are familiar with a caveat: DB can get some of his facts wrong. I didn't bother with the fact checking though. It's fiction, and it's the type that you read to while away a lazy afternoon. You don't finish a DB novel and feel differently. As for me, I just muttered, "Well, that's that. I need a drink."

This time, the novel opens with Robert Langdon in a hospital in Florence. But wait, he has amnesia! (Again, I will drink to that! If I were Langdon, I'd be grateful that I couldn't remember anything. Now pass me that vodka!) What follows is one crazy escape scene after another. (Get me that brandy!) And then we find out that they're after a ticking biological disaster, one so incredulous for posing that it has the potential to wipe a third of the human race. Oy!

I wonder why DB even bothered with the more than 100 chapters in this 400-page novel. There's this one chapter toward the latter part wherein everything is explained to Langdon. Goodness, all those wasted pages! The trees! And it's ironic that the novel somehow talks about how there'll come a time when our planet's resources wouldn't be able to support us all.

And what's the deal with all these women that Langdon meets? There's practically a new potential romantic interest every time. Is Langdon the intellectual James Bond? But make no mistake, Langdon doesn't shag these women. I guess he's too intellectual for that as well, no? (Where's that gin tonic?) In Inferno, the unfortunate female lead is really unfortunate. I can't even remember her name.

There's a bit about Manila in this novel, which somehow caused a controversy in this side of the world. 6-hour traffic jam to get from one point to another in the city? Please. It's just 2 hours at the most. 3 may be pushing it, but still possible. Also, Manila is not the kind of city where one gets raped just because he or she made eye contact with the local male population. Whatever.

Okay, what I've written so far seems to be some sort of a rant. Now let me get to a positive note. Inferno is still, ummm, enjoyable. Very much so. It's the kind of book that you pick up and realize that, after reading it for 3 hours straight, a third of your brain cells have died. Enjoyable indeed, especially if you have a stiff drink to wash away all the fluff.

Read this book if:
  1. You like Googling the places DB writes about.
  2. You love formula. 
  3. Whatever.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The bookshelf project #42

I'm currently reading the latest novel by Dan Brown—Inferno. I just want to get it over with and find out what all the fuss is about. It features Florence, Italy! My review of that novel is coming up soon.

And speaking of Italy, my friend's sister once stayed at a hotel in Piemonte in Turin and was happily pleased to see books. Now there's one reason to pack and just leave for Italy—some of their hotels have books for their guests! I can imagine locking myself in the hotel room and just whiling away the hours reading.

Graphic novels,
which apparently have very scary content.
Life of Pi!
And Harry Potter!
In Italian!
I die.
In case you didn't know, I'm taking up a language class in Italian. A lot of my friends ask, "Why Italian? Isn't Italian spoken only in, ummmm, Italy?" Well, true that. But Italian is such a language that's very pleasing to the ears, yes? Besides, a foreign language will surely come in handy one day, I hope.

I read somewhere that one of the most effective ways to learn a foreign language is to read books written in that language. It doesn't matter if you don't understand it, just as long as you get familiar with all the words. So the next time I'm in a bookstore, I might as well get a novel written in Italian. Who knows, maybe one day I'll be able to read Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy in Italian!

(All photos are courtesy of my friend's sister, Socorro Manguiat. Thank you!)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

10 things that happen when you go on a sci-fi reading spree

  1. You fart, and you smell methane.
  2. You feel disappointed that your father ain't Darth Vader.
  3. Your fashion sense has now become rather minimalist. Or with lots of sleek leather. Or white. Or spandex. And you wear dark sunglasses, even in the theater.
  4. You know that you're not "the one." Well, at least not in this reality. But perhaps in another parallel universe? 
  5. You imagine having clones of yourself. The clones do all the dirty work (e.g., boring office stuff, boring family get-togethers, boring dinners with friends), while the real you is on the beach, working your tan. 
  6. A ride on the bus feels a total pain. You know that teleportation is way, way cooler.
  7. All your T-shirts have sci-fi references, which some people don't get.
  8. Red Bull is your water. Energy bars are your food.
  9. Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke (the ABC of sci-fi) are your gods.
  10. You trust no one.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Burn, baby, burn

So it's true—when you reread a good book, you discover more things about it that make you love the book even more. It was only last year in July when I first read Fahrenheit 451, and now, after finishing the book this lazy Sunday afternoon, I must say that the reading experience was even more fulfilling.

When I first read Fahrenheit 451, I was blown by away by the premise and its plot. Bradbury's made-up world where firemen burn books is the stuff of nightmares, especially among bibliophiles. It's a world where people aren't encouraged to feel and think, where it's enough to spend the day in one's work and then kill the remaining hours with mindless television.

This time around, I was particularly surprised that I paid more attention to Bradbury's characters. And I think that Fahrenheit 451 may be more character-centered than plot-driven. I still have a soft spot for Guy Montag, our main character. You just can't help but root for the guy. When his character transforms from being an instrument to destruction to a supporter of the printed word, you realize that all is not lost for humanity after all. It takes just one person, just one person who thinks rationally and questions the status quo, to tip the balance. Montag is the person that the dystopian world in Fahrenheit 451 is afraid the most.

Then there's Captain Beatty, Montag's boss and the novel's antagonist. He represents everything that went wrong in that speculative future. Beatty is uncompromising in his belief that it's dangerous to let people read books and pollute their minds with the thoughts of the books' writers. Beatty is learned, but he doesn't want people to learn. He quotes Shakespeare and Pope, and thus feels superior to the rest of the population who remain uneducated. He knows the world's terrible history—why it has come to be the bleak place that it is—but he fights and destroys the things and the people that can bring the old world back.

Montag's wife, Mildred, shows us what happens when we let unkind governments have their way with us. Mildred has become one-dimensional, forgetful, unaware, insensitive, and shallow. Who can blame her though. If the highlight of your day is watching TV programs, then you become nothing but someone who just takes up space. Mildred even chooses the company of the actors of a TV program, even calling them her "family," to having a conversation with Montag. She is what happens when we constantly get stimuli only from limited and controlled sources.

I wonder what I'll discover if I read Fahrenheit 451 a third time. I'm happy that I was able to go through Bradbury's detailed and sometimes poetic narrative. He really embodied the difficult craft of showing rather than telling. And I feel a bit melancholy that we've list this distinguished man of letters. If not for the book club's sci-fi read-along, I never would have reconnected with Fahrenheit 451. Now I'm looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts about it. I hope they like it as much as I did.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Saying no to checklist reading

 Because it's Gosling, and he's reading Camus
Image from Page Pulp
Early this year, I had an embarrassingly pretentious plan of reading just "good books." I had a mental list of the books that I would be reading, books that probably even lit majors haven't read themselves. I thought, never again will I be caught reading Fifty Shades of Grey (with all its bad, non-arousing sex) or the latest formulaic thriller by Dan Brown or the young adult romance showing horny teenagers holding hands.

And then I realized that I've fallen into the trap of what some people call "checklist reading." So what if I'll never read Infinite Jest or the 7-volume Remembrance of Things Past ? Heck, even the translators can't seem to agree whether it's Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time. I know that these are great works of fiction, but I'm not feeling the pressure of reading them within a specified time frame.

Checklist reading reminds me of my literature class back in college, when my instructor handed out the list of readings that we'll go through during that term. Ack! Memories of cramming, drinking too much caffeine to finish reading, and taking way too many notes to share with the class the following day. I had fun though, but it's something that I'm not too keen on experiencing again.

I guess it doesn't matter what kind of books you read, as long as you read, yes? Besides, as bibliophiles, the thing that connects us is our indiscriminate love for books. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Not cool

When the book club met early this year to discuss Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the topic of OSC's homophobic remarks came up. During that time, I felt that I didn't want to railroad the discussion and steer it away from the book, which I still feel is an enjoyable sci-fi novel. And during that time, I had no strong feelings toward OSC's remarks. I remember saying to my book club friends that we have far greater problems to deal with than this ridiculous person's remarks—world hunger, climate change, and global armed conflict.

Now I take it all back. I realize that these "bigger" problems are never going away, and they shouldn't be made an excuse to not address other issues that may be equally as relevant. If people continue to have the same attitude as I did (i.e., indifference), then people who are deeply bigoted would already have won. We should not let that happen. Ever.

So no, I am not cool with OSC's homophobic remarks. It's one thing to say what you feel. Feelings are amoral; they're neither right nor wrong, yes? But to actively promote and encourage a culture of hate and bigotry is another thing. It's just plain wrong and reeks of misplaced entitlement. Let's admit that OSC can be likened to a brand and, like a brand, has the capacity to influence people. What's worse is that OSC may already have had. I shudder to think of the repercussions.

Ignorance would've been bliss in this case. If I hadn't known what an a**hole OSC really is, I would've continued to read the rest of the Ender saga. But knowing makes us wiser and lets us act accordingly. Thus, I have no plans of getting near any of OSC's books. Nor am I watching the movie. In my own small way, no matter how a cliche it might be, I will wave the rainbow flag to his face.

It's a good thing that there are other sci-fi writers around, who are even better than OSC, that I can turn to when I need a genre fix. John Scalzi is one, and he seems to be a good guy with the causes he fights for.

The tide's turning. People are becoming more accepting and less hateful. More and more governments are now broadening their marriage laws. There are so many good things to look forward to—a time when one's sexual orientation is irrelevant, and people who choose to remain a**holes live in places where the sun doesn't shine.

I hope. I stand up. I smile. I can't help it—seeing the rainbow makes me happy. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Adieu, soleil

This week, I reread Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea as part of the book club's month-long sci-fi read-along. If you love sci-fi or are simply interested about the genre, do join us. We've just begun this week, and we'll be reading 3 more sci-fi books in the coming weeks.

Anyway, what's not to love in Verne's seminal sci-fi work. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea may not have spaceships or space travel or aliens, but it's still sci-fi nonetheless. When it was published in the late 1800s, people were enthralled with Verne's description of the underwater world. Groundbreaking stuff, I tell you.

In the novel, a French intellectual named Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and a brash Canadian named Ned Land find themselves in a huge submarine aptly called the Nautilus. In the vessel, they meet its maker, the enigmatic Captain Nemo, a man who tells them that people who have boarded the Nautilus are never allowed to leave. It doesn't men that he treats Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned as prisoners though. They're more of like perpetual guests in the ship. They're free to roam around the Nautilus, but they can't ever leave it.

The title refers to the distance that the Nautilus has traveled while the 3 were kept in its 'captivity'. And during this time, Captain Nemo has allowed them to experience adventures that they wouldn't have been able to do on land—a trip to an underwater forest, an underwater burial, encounters with giant squid and sharks, a trip to a coal mine inside a volcano, and even a tour of the forgotten city of Atlantis. I believe these episodes are the heavy sci-fi aspects of the novel. During the time the book was published, the submarine was never thought of as a vessel with military potential. Even the mechanics of underwater breathing apparatuses weren't that solid yet. But Verne presented a possibility, and these possibilities are already a reality in our present world.

Captain Nemo is undoubtedly the star of the novel. Verne doesn't even give names to the other crew member of the Nautilus. When you think of the submarine, you immediate associate it with its tough, stubborn captain. Verne even teases the reader that Captain Nemo has forsaken the world above ground for it took away his country and his family.

Verne had the propensity to rattle off the flora and the fauna of the various places that the Nautilus visits. It can get sometimes get very cloying, especially since Verne mentions the Latin names of these life-forms. The lists certainly add texture to the narrative.

If you want a sci-fi novel that's heavy on the adventure stuff, I do recommend Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The novel may feel dated at certain points. However, it does highlight the fact that sci-fi, as a genre, can fascinate, inspire wonder, somehow describe what the future holds, and basically entertain. And that's why sci-fi is timeless.

Read this book if:
  1. You has a fondness for overbearing figures of authority.
  2. You've always thought that the city of Atlantis was real.
  3. You love classic sci-fi.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book of the trade

I've been with the publishing industry for close to 15 years now. To say that I've a career involving books would be an understatement. I breathe books. Heck, I'm around books 24/7. If you cut me, I will bleed books. And now, I'd like to think of my body as having reached Ulysses or Don Quixote proportions—the complete text with the detailed annotations.

During all those years, I've done basically everything. Coming up with the instructional design (for textbooks), looking for authors, following them up, checking their work, proofreading, copyediting, facilitating proofs production, checking galleys (argh, galleys don't exist anymore), and coordinating the conversion from print to e-format. I even have experience on having the books printed (from offshore printers no less!), brainstorming for covers, doing PR work for new titles, and even arranging book launches.

It's a wonderful and rewarding career, I tell you. And I would recommend it to anyone who has a passion for the printed word. I've always thought that I'd be a doctor, having majored in pre-med in college. But I think a career in book publishing is just as fulfilling. The money ain't bad either. Well, at least I've no complaints. (I still eat the requisite 3 meals a day, but I still live with my folks. So it's up to you to interpret that. Hehehe.)

In those 15 years, no book has ever been more helpful to me than the one I'm holding in the picture—The Chicago Manual of Style. It's now on its 16th edition. You can tell just how old a book editor is by the number of CMoS editions he or she has gone through. When I started, it was the 14th.

If you're curious about the entire book production process, the stringent rules of punctuation and usage, the detailed ways of writing bibliographic entries, and basically everything about the book, then get a copy, dear reader. It's a bit pricey, but it's so worth it. Think of the purchase as an investment. Besides, it does make a nice conversation piece when people see it in your shelves.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Choose kindness

If there's one message that R. J. Palacio's novel, Wonder, conveyed to me, it's the idea that one should kindness. I do believe that it's kindness that's lacking in our world today. If we all choose to be kind, instead of choosing to be right, then everything might just be a little bit better, yes?

I'm getting a feeling that the writer might be referring to the act of kindness being extended to a person who haven't been a frequent recipient of it. In her debut novel, that person is one kid named August Pullman. Now why should people choose to be kind to him,  you might wonder. Well, Auggie, has been born with several defects, causing his face to have several deformities.

It's hard to picture what Auggie looks like. In the novel, he always says that he looks much worse that you could imagine. He mentions that his eyes droop to the level of his cheeks, that he has a perennial scowl, that his ears look like clenched fists, that his hip bone was grafted to his face so that he could at least have the semblance of a jaw. Are you picturing it already, dear reader?

But Auggie is one tough kid. Despite having been home schooled until the 4th grade, he goes along with his parents' decision to enter 5th grade in a prep school. I begin to recall what 5th grade was like for me. And I can't help but think that Auggie might have made the wrong decision. Grade schoolers can be pretty mean with the things they say. And it's around that time that they form cliques. I have my doubts as to the survival of Auggie.

And yet, Auggie develops real friendships in his school, with a group of people who choose to be kind to him. It is kindness that motivates Jack Will, a popular kid, and Summer, a budding writer, to befriend Auggie. It is not necessarily kindness though that made them stay friends with him, for they discover that Auggie is funny, smart, sensitive, and very friendly. Indeed, kindness paved the way.

I particularly liked the character of Jack Will. Like everyone else, he feels uncomfortable meeting Auggie for the first time. But pretty soon, Jack Will becomes Auggie most ardent protector. Yes, these two had some rough patches, especially when Auggie overhears Jack Will saying something to other students that he's rather die than be friends with Auggie. But all these things are just your typical situations in grade school, I think. And the way that these two become friends again, by a thread of email exchanges, is quite amusing.

Wonder is the kind of novel that you go through in one sitting. It's very episodic, with the book being divided into chapters written in the perspective of the different characters. Wonder is wonderful. It brings back fond memories in grade school when friends were someone you share lunch tables with and your teachers are people you really look up to as your second parents. Grade school was such a magical and wonderful time for me.

I loved Auggie, Summer, Charlotte, and even the school bullies who eventually make amends with Auggie. I loved Auggie's sister, Via, who overcomes her insecurities and realizes her place in the family. I loved Via's friend, Miranda, who treated Auggie as her brother. I loved Via's boyfriend, Justin, who is an adorable dork. Most of all, I loved Jack Will, who stuck with Auggie and made the good decision to be kind to him.

Read this book if:
  1. You had a wonderful time in grade school.
  2. You think that the friends you made in grade school are the best people in the world.
  3. You choose to be kind.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rereading a sci-fi classic

This month is when the book club is having a month-long sci-fi read-along. I love this genre, and I think that more people should read sci-fi novels. Personally, whenever I read about sci-fi being not a 'serious, literary genre', I can't help but think that the writer of that article is a complete dumbass. These people don't know what they're missing.

We're starting with Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. I remember reading it when I was 13, and I can't wait to go aboard the Nautilus again. Verne was a visionary, for he have foreseen how the submarine can become a vital military resource.

At heart, Verne's novel is a story about adventure. I guess I was a very gullible teenager, as I recall being amazed and wide eyed at Verne's description of the places the crew visited. I was truly fascinated. I wonder if I will have the same level of enjoyment now that I'm reading it in my late 30s. I will soon find out!