Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Hitchcock interlude

Last weekend was a long weekend (again!) here in the Philippines. And I'm feeling the burn of finishing the book of the month for the book club. To say that I'm not getting the book is an understatement.

So I decided to just spend the day downloading movies. The weather last weekend was a bit gloomy, so I thought—suspense, classic movies, Hitchcock! I did a quick Google search on the movies made by Hitchcock and decided to watch 3: Rear Window, Rope, and Strangers on a Train.

Was James Stewart one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite actors? He seems to be in most of them, no? Anyway, I didn't like Rear Window that much. I felt that it wasn't suspenseful enough. Grace Kelly is probably the most gorgeous woman ever though.

Now Rope was the movie that satisfied my craving for suspense. The murder happened in the opening scene, so the movie focused on whether the two murderers would actually be caught. Such chutzpah these two men have! They even hid the body in a trunk and then invited people to a party!

I've read Patricia Highsmith's novel, Strangers on a Train, which the movie is based on. The book was more menacing though. But Highsmith's plot was just perfect for Hitchcock: 2 strangers meet on a train and decide to commit murders for one another. Goosebumps!

I'm still loving my Hitchcock phase. So I'll probably see The Birds, To Catch a Thief, and Dial M for Murder next.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Standing on the shoulders of angels

A few years ago, showing two boys kissing on the cover would have been unimaginable. Now, some people still think it's groundbreaking. I feel it's right, and that it's just about effing time.

Until yesterday, my favorite David Levithan was Boy Meets Boy, which I deemed so perfect. (How can DL top this, no?) But last night, on the same day I got a copy, I finished Two Boys Kissing, his latest novel. And, boy oh boy, is it so damn good! And this post is my total, all-out, I'm-not-worthy, completely-blown-off-through-the-roof rave about it.

While Two Boys Kissing shows, well, two boys kissing, it's not all about the kiss. DL uses it as a device to tell a fine story. And it's a story told by unseen voices of an older generation of gay men. These are the people who got sick of AIDS, who bore the brunt of unequal treatment, who were chastised for their colorful individuality, who were told that they should be ashamed of their "unnatural" desires. But because of them, we now know that it does get better.

There are quite a few story lines in Two Boys Kissing, all involving young teenaged gay men. There's Craig and Henry, who are officially no longer a couple but are determined to set the world's record for the longest kiss of more than 30 hours. Amidst them are Peter and Neil, who are a couple, and they seem to settle issues between them like fairly normal adults. Neil's heritage is Korean, and the way he asks his parents to acknowledge his sexuality is one of the high points of the novel. You gotta love a teenager who's so secure of his sexuality. And again, we have the older generation to thank for giving us that confidence. His medical condition does not define him.

We also learn to love Avery and Ryan, two boys who have just met at a gay prom and are starting their relationship. Pink-haired Avery was born with a medical condition—he was born in a girl's body. When he was very young, he received hormone shots. But the treatments, we are told, will continue, and yet somehow, DL makes it seem irrelevant. What's important, the novel seems to say, is that we are living and that we have the ability to love. Avery does love, and it's glorious to read his budding romance with Ryan. The fact that Avery has to have complete privacy when he goes to the toilet is just an inconvenience.

There's also our single gay guy, Cooper. He spends most of his free time immersed in hook-up sites and apps. If you're a gay guy, you'll all be too familiar with Grindr, yes? In the end, he realizes that hook-ups are shallow. They're all well and good to scratch that itch (oh, we're all too familiar with that), but they don't allow you to connect. Cooper is still lucky to have this way of meeting people like him; the older generation had it more difficult. They cruised, they assembled, they used landlines, they made eye contact. But they still found like-minded people. And that in itself is a celebration.

Let's face it, it took us several years to make people believe that we're just like everyone else. Slowly, one baby step at a time, we're getting equal rights. We're standing on the right side of history, and people are embracing us closer. Yes, there will always be people who hate, who condemn, who feel disgust, but we're no longer riled up as we used to be. Two Boys Kissing always reminds us of that. These were the men who were physically hurt solely for being gay. They were the people who were beaten and sometimes left to die because of their sexuality.

There are so many good and touching things in Two Boys Kissing. DL writes beautifully and every page emits a glorious lyricism. We cheer on Craig and Henry and hope that they do break that record. We then realize that it's not the record that will matter but the fact that two boys can actually kiss in public is a cause for celebration. We root for Avery and Ryan and hope that their romance blossoms. We revel in Peter and Neil's relationship and wish that all couples have their stability. We want to hold Cooper and tell him that it's going to be all right.

I could go on and on as to why you should read Two Boys Kissing. It has something for everyone—gay, straight, out and proud, closeted, the young, and the wise. It will make you feel sad in some parts, but you end up richer for the reading experience.

Read this book if:
  1. You think that people should see more boys kissing.
  2. You love LGBT fiction.
  3. You want a reason to celebrate.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This isn't just about food

One of the main characters in Jami Attenberg's novel, The Middlesteins, is obsessed about food, lots and lots of food. But its effect on the reader is a 180. After reading this novel, I felt a lack of craving for Big Macs, Chinese take-out, and baby back ribs. Yes, I've been affected by The Middlesteins, and in a good way.

The Middlesteins may be a short novel, but it certainly is meaty on the issues of family, our roles in it, marriage, the importance of coping with change, and the consequences of failing to do so. We all know that family is important, and yet our actions, our attitude, toward our family seem to point otherwise.

Attenberg's novel is made up of the narratives of the Middlestein family. There's Edie Middlestein, the 60-year-old retired lawyer who has been abandoned by her husband. Edie's problem is that she can't stop eating, even though she's now more than 300 pounds and is diabetic. Richard, her husband of more than 30 years, is now living in an apartment with his girlfriend. Apparently, Richard has long been contemplating leaving Edie, which was finally triggered by Edie's latest diabetic surgery.

Then there are their children. Robin, their daughter who is a schoolteacher, naturally hates her father for leaving. Benny, who has now a family of his own, is married to Rachelle, who also gets her own narrative in the novel. Rachelle is your Stepford wife: is a perfectionist, counts calories in her family's meals, and is determined to "save" Edie's life. It's a futile attempt though, as Edie just consumes all the food that she can possibly can up to the end.

Food is central in the story of The Middlesteins. When Edie's children were growing up, she gave them all the food that they can afford, as if thinking that "food was made of love. . . and they could never deny themselves a bit of anything they desired." Robin was a fat kid who decides that she's had enough of all the eating during her teenage years. Now an adult, Robin may be thin, but she has all this pent-up anger toward her father and probably just a slight bitterness that her career didn't actually become how she thought it would.

Throughout the novel, it's as if Edie has resigned herself to the fact that all she has in her life, apart from her kids and grandchildren, is her love of eating. Attenberg even describes the food, junk food and otherwise, with much detail. We know that all this eating will eventually lead to her death, but we're still reading, anxiously awaiting how the final events will play out.

I love The Middlesteins. It allowed me a glimpse of contemporary family life, albeit the family is Jewish and American. I enjoyed reading the narratives of each of the characters. I'm amazed how the author has created distinct voices for each. I just felt sorry for Edie and I somehow sympathized with Richard. And Rachelle's obsessive compulsiveness is a gas.

It's no wonder why The Middlesteins was chosen as a best book of the month by Amazon and also by The Millions. The novel is just so wonderful that you wish it were longer. It's heartbreaking and smart. The term "tragicomedy" doesn't cut it in describing this beautiful novel.

Read this book if:
  1. Food is your obsession.
  2. You know that every family is weird in its own way.
  3. You love reading personal narratives.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

These YA thrillers rock

The Russians and I are taking a much-needed break. No more Russian doorstops in the next few days. Doctor Zhivago and War and Peace will have to wait.

For the meantime, I'm reading a lot of thrillers lately. They have always been my antidote to the cloying feeling I get whenever I do a series of "heavy" reading. Lately, I finished Gone Girl and The Devotion of Suspect X, which were awesome reads.

But the novels that really floored me were the young adult thrillers written by Barry Lyga. The first book, I Hunt Killers, was a wonderful surprise. Even though it was YA, it had plenty of grit and gore to satisfy even hardcore adult readers of the genre. The second novel, Game, which I just read in white heat this afternoon, is just as satisfying as the first. (I'll post more detailed reviews soon.)

I Hunt Killers ends in a cliffhanger; Game also sets up the third novel beautifully. I have no idea when the third book will come out. I. CANT. WAIT.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Neighborhood book sales are the best

This rainy Monday, I decided to check out the book sale that a church near my office was having. I've always been curious about this church. I've never been inside it, which is a bit weird since I pass by it every day for several years now.

So during our afternoon coffee break, a few of my officemates and I went there, with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. And, who would've thunk?! I was pleasantly surprised with the books they're selling!

They've lots of fiction and nonfiction titles. The paperbacks were going at 20 pesos each (around half a US dollar), and the hardbacks were 50 pesos each (just a little bit over a dollar). Now that's a bargain, yes? I took a few pictures of the book sale, and you click on each one to enlarge.

One of the fiction tables
Of course, being a church-sponsored activity,
I was expecting a table of books on religion and spirituality.
Another table containing fiction
Lots of sci-fi, thrillers, and literary fiction
They even had a table on literary criticism books.
The obligatory used magazine corner
The book sale floor
I believe the people manning the cashier were volunteers.
A few of their nonfiction titles
And what did I get for myself? I got only 2 books. (Yay for restraint!) But the 2 books that I bought were a keeper—the complete Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. And my purchases amounted to just less than a dollar! Woot woot!

Friday, August 9, 2013

What I'll be doing this long weekend

This weekend is a long weekend here in the Philippines. And what's a bibliophile to do during a 3-day weekend? Read, of course. As if I had to ask.

I absolutely made no plans whatsoever for the next 3 days, except for my Italian classes on Saturday mornings. All I want to do is just curl up in bed and just read, read, read, and read. The coming week is a pretty hectic time at work, so I might as well catch up on my reading now.

I have an eclectic bunch of books all lined up. Rachel Hartman's Seraphina is lovely. I can't remember why I stopped reading it a couple of months ago, as it's a very enjoyable read. I'm also in the middle of Leigh Bardugo's 2nd book in her wonderful fantasy trilogy. Siege and Storm is a book that I've been waiting patiently for. I really love the 1st book, so I have high expectations for this one.

And I'm reading my 1st George Elliot and Saki this weekend! The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories published by NYRB is just a beautiful book. Edward Gorey did the illustrations for Saki's bite-sized fictional pieces in this book. Middlemarch is a book that I would probably not finish in 3 days. It's a book that's meant to be savored, yes? Like a fine wine.

So you have to excuse me. I'll be reading now. Happy weekend, folks! 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Girl gone a-cuckoo

Ah, Rosamund Pike. You underrated British actress you. I can't wait to see you wow everyone in the big screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. You'd kill them all (pun intended). Blonde, sexy, and so talented–you're a natural for the part. I'm so happy they didn't go for the cookie cutter Hollywood actress. Rosamund Pike, it's your time to shine. But first, let's talk about the book.

I read my first Gillian Flynn thriller years ago, a dark Southern gothic entitled Sharp Objects. Then I read my second–Dark Places, and I also wasn't disappointed. With Gone Girl, I am on a Gillian Flynn high. Yes, all the raves and hype are merited. Gone Girl is pure mess-up-your-head, who-is-the-more-reliable-narrator, wait-until-you-get-to-the-twisted-ending fun.

The gone girl in the novel is Amy, whom Rosamund Pike will be playing. She's married to 34-year-old Nick. Nick and Amy now live in a small town in Missouri, after having been both laid off from their jobs in New York City. Nick decides to return to his hometown to care for his mother, essentially removing his moneyed and beautiful wife from her NYC roots. Gone Girl is written in chapters where we read the alternating points of view of Nick and Amy.

In the novel's first part, I have basically made up my mind that it was Nick who did it. You see, Amy has gone missing on the couple's 5th anniversary. Nick has a few skeletons up his sleeve: the very young mistress, his unexplained whereabouts on the morning of his wife's disappearance, and the enormous credit card bills, to name a few. And it doesn't help that Amy, in the chapters written as diary entries, comes off as one sweet, self-sacrificing wife who seems to be getting more and more afraid for her life because of Nick's violet tendencies recently.

But in the second part of Gone Girl, Flynn throws us a curveball. Amy might not be right in the head after all. The disappearance could have been the result of months of meticulous planning on Amy's part. All right, I'll say it–Nick could have been framed. What happens after that can be likened to a slow burn, a deep and satisfying unravelling of the fucked up mind of Amy and the lengths that she can go to punish her husband. Yes, she knows about the affair and she's determined not to just grin and bear it.

Gone Girl is so wonderful in its portrayal of a sick mind that you forget how slow it can be in the first few chapters. One wonders if Gillian Flynn can top this. Her novels just seem to get better and better. But before the next Flynn thriller hits the bookstores, I'm ecstatic that there's the movie to look forward to. And, Rosamund Pike!

Read this book if:
  1. You're a big fan of twisted endings in thrillers.
  2. You love the slow burn.
  3. You think it's a must to read the book first before the book comes out.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Is this my favorite read of the year so far? Probably.

Although we're still only halfway through the year, my experience reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment would be hard to top. If there's a novel wherein I completely immersed myself in, it's this Russian classic novel. I love, love, love every bit of it.

Crime and Punishment was our book club's selection last month, so I was really looking forward to the discussion. I kinda had an inkling that not many people would like this, and I was indeed correct. We did have a very engaging discussion nonetheless.

Dostoevsky's novel is the kind of book that elicits a lot of feelings from the reader. Dostoevsky is a realist, so his treatment of poverty isn't romanticized at all. More than anything, I felt that poverty in Russia during the 1800s was a way of life. I wouldn't want to live in St. Petersburg during the 1800s. Fyodor describes it as very bleak, cramped, and poverty-stricken.

Rodion, the novel's main character, murders an unscrupulous woman and her sister early in the novel. He considers the crime to be a rational act, thinking that he did everybody else a favor by killing this pawnbroker who seems to take advantage of people. Crime and Punishment has a plethora of other characters, but I chose to just keep my eyes on Rodion. Everything revolves around him anyway.

The punishment mentioned in the title is meted only by the novel's end, the epilogue actually. So what, you may ask, does Rodion do throughout the novel? Dostoevsky chooses to take the character redemption route. We see Rodion get sick as soon as he committed the murder. We witness how irrational he can be when he justifies to himself the crime. We experience his dealings with the people in his surroundings (his family included). In the cramped world of Crime and Punishment, everyone seems to know everyone else.

Of course, redemption can come when one accepts that he or she did something wrong and is prepared to suffer the consequences for it. For Rodion, that path is never easy. But he meets Sonya, a prostitute, who becomes instrumental to Rodion's confessing to the crime. Reading this entire journey, from the murder to the confession, is one very satisfying experience.

I know that one shouldn't compare apples and oranges, but I can't help doing so with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I love Anna Karenina, which I also read recently. However, finishing Crime and Punishment is something I consider more rewarding. Now I want to read The Idiot or even reread The Brothers Karamazov!

I even took a few notes before coming to the discussion.
Yes, that's how much I love Crime and Punishment!
Read this book if:
  1. You love them Russians.
  2. You'll read anything translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. (I know I would.)
  3. See more reasons here.