Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wherein the book club talked about books that talk about music


This rainy weekend, the book club gathered once again for our monthly book discussion. This meet-up differed from our recent ones, as we discussed two books which had music as their themes. For July, the books chosen were Salingkit: A 1986 Diary by Cyan Abad-Jugo and Talking to Girls about Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield.

Now it's no secret that I don't have love for new wave music of the 80s, which the 2 books heavily touched on. Still, I finished the books. I've read a lot of books that have themes I didn't particularly like, but I ended up enjoying them. But Salingkit and TtGaDD, my goodness, I found them terrible.

I loved the venue of the discussion though—Commune. It's a very artsy place in the central business district of Makati that serves good food. It's the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon just reading or staring at the people passing by.

One of the walls of Commune
They have books! Woot woot!
I see Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, which is one of my favorite travel books.
Several Flippers are so into the 80s. This discussion was therefore an opportunity to dress up once again. Because, you know, we do love our costumes.

The 80s were indeed a decade of excess. Who can ever forget the big hair (on both men and women), shoulder pads that extend to the heavens, metallic accessories, over-the-top hairstyles, and what-have-you. It was a very fun decade, yes? It didn't take itself too seriously.

Shani and Gege dressed up as the Tears for Fears duo.
Marie came as an 80s rocker chick.
She won best in costume!
R. even had a rainbow mohawk wig.
Before we went to the discussion proper, Vlad the moderator invited this theater actress for an interpretative reading of song lyrics. The activity was a great way to emphasize the poetry of the lyrics of songs. I loved her reading of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now."

She's so fabulous and talented.
Life is unfair.
The 80s is a significant period in Philippine history. During 1986, People Power happened. Marcos, the decades-long dictator, was exiled to Hawaii with his family. Cory Aquino was the person whom people believe will bring about much needed change. People became hopeful once again during the 2nd half of the decade.

The discussion moderator asked Flippers to bring People Power paraphernalia to show to the group. We were all awed by the items brought by two members.

Gege showing her husband's collection of People Power paraphernalia
Her husband had lots of news clippings and election-related items.
Mike brought his first edition hardcover on People Power.
The discussion was very spirited, especially since a lot of Flippers love new wave music. Also, a few of us were already children during the 1986 People Power revolution. We talked about music too—our favorite music genres, how the music theme influenced our liking of the 2 books, etc.

Several of us were highly critical of Salingkit and TtGaDD though. I found the books so disappointing. (I wrote my thoughts on Salingkit earlier.) The discussion was very stimulating however. And I admire how Flippers can shift from fluff to profound conversations.

One of the many light-hearted moments during the discussion
I believe we were talking about our respective ages.
Best book club ever!
To be honest, I was apprehensive to show up for this month's event. My frustration and non-love for Salingkit and Talking to Girls about Duran Duran were things I felt I didn't want to share. I wouldn't want to railroad the discussion, much less turn it into my own personal rant fest.

A few friends convinced me to attend though, saying that it would be nice to have a balanced conversation of the 2 books. Besides, I missed last month's book discussion so it would be good to reconnect with fellow bibliophiles.

So it's true: No matter how bad the books are, you can still have great conversations about them!

Game face!
All photos, except the first one, were taken by R., who has a huge love for the 80s and for new wave music.

Friday, June 28, 2013

A great book raises many questions

It's easy to get lost in Albert Camus's short novel The Stranger. At just a little over 100 pages, one can easily finish it in one sitting. That's what I did actually, this morning when I couldn't go to work.

The Stranger is the kind of book that, as soon as you close it, several profound questions pop up in your head. First, the title. Why title it as The Stranger, when it clearly is about Meursault, a man thrown into the spotlight when he commits an unexplicable act of murder.

Meursault, whom I'll label as our novel's hero for lack of a better term, shoots an Arab one sunny day on a beach midpoint in the novel. When he's asked by the judge for his reason, he just said it's because of the sun. WTF?

The Stranger is a kind of novel that lets you dig deeper, forcing you to "read between the lines" if you will. Perhaps it's Meursault's enigmatic nature that makes the reader feel that he doesn't understand the novel's protagonist at all.

Yes, it's a bit of a challenge deciphering Meursault's reasons for his actions. In the first part of the novel, the reader is informed that his mother has died in a home for the elderly. Why does Meursault refuse to see his mother in a casket? Has he reached a point of being unfeeling toward his parent? The novel doesn't clearly state his rationale. And this is one of the reasons the book will make for a good discussion.

Also, why does Meursault refuse to show any deeper feelings toward the woman he's seeing. He appears to enjoy his company. When he's asked if he loves her or if he wants to marry her, he tells her no. But later on, he thinks that he probably doesn't have any real objection to him being wed to her.

In the last few pages of The Stranger, Meursault is sentenced to be beheaded. Naturally, a priest goes to him during his last remaining hours. And what does our Meursault do? Why he laughs in the face of the priest and throws him out! He feels that everything doesn't matter at this point.

The Stranger is a kind of novel that requires introspection. Reading the final page doesn't complete the reading experience. It forces you to question, to think, to rationalize. And that I think is a hallmark of a great book by a truly gifted writer.

Read this book if:
  1. You like your novels short but pithy.
  2. You're into philosophical novels.
  3. You'll read anything by someone who has won the Nobel Prize.

Monday, June 24, 2013

It's about time


Unlike most people my age, I never really liked Archie, Veronica, Betty, and the rest of the gang from Riverdale High. But there's one recent storyline that grabbed my attention—a gay wedding! Who would've thunk it?!

I know that this particular story came out last year, but I had a very difficult time finding that specific issue. When I saw a compilation last week with the awesome story about two guys finally tying the knot, I just knew I had to get it. I think this one's a keeper.

All this recent tide of goodwill about marriage equality has got me thinking of what the next generation would probably say. "What's the big deal with two guys (or girls) getting married? They love each other, yes? How come people years ago would be opposed to this? You old people are so weird."

Equality is something I feel passionately about. I find it odd that so-called modern-thinking folks would be all for equality and yet have these conditions. Equality is treating everyone fairly—it's as simple as that. Everything else is irrelevant: be it gender, sexual orientation, race, social status, and what have you.

But I know, baby steps. If it takes a popular comic to show to the young generation that marriage between two guys is perfectly fine and that there's no big deal about it, then I'm happy. Yes, baby steps.  Before we take that giant leap for equality.

The uber-romantic back cover

Thursday, June 20, 2013

This felt very detached

I seldom write about books that I don't like or about those which leave no impression at all after reading them. What's the use of talking about these books, no? Besides, negativity is so wrinkle inducing.

But I feel that I need to say my piece about Cyan Abad-Jugo's book, Salingkit: A 1986 Diary. It's one of two books for discussion this month for the book club; I wouldn't want to railroad the discussion with my thoughts, if I want to get out of it alive.

For one, the main character, a girl in senior high school named Kitty Eugenio, is just ordinary, probably too ordinary for my taste. If I wanted ordinary, I wouldn't look for it in a book. I'll just talk to my nieces. They probably have more interesting things going on in their lives right now.

So this ordinary girl has ordinary friends, who seem to speak in one voice. Kit's friends are your cookie cutter lovesick and hormone-pumped teenagers. And the dialogue is very unnatural that I actually cringed in some parts. It's like a badly written episode from the Disney Channel.

It's too unfortunate that Kitty comes off as being ordinary as she is living in an extraordinary time. It's 1986, the year when the Philippines went through a peaceful revolution, forcing the dictatorial President Marcos into exile. But the book did include a story line about Kit finding herself smack in the middle of a coup d'├ętat, while hoping to speak to a general who can probably help find her father. (You see, Kit's father, a political activist, has been missing for several years and is probably one of the thousands killed during the repressive regime of the Marcoses.) Unfortunately, that story line felt flat and went nowhere.

I think that another reason that I didn't take to the book is the music references. All the mentions of 80s music by bands such as Duran Duran and Depeche Mode are lost on me. I never liked DD and DM. I didn't care too much about their trippy music and how their many songs feel and sound the same. But the 80s gave us U2 and R.E.M., and for that I will be forever grateful to this decade. (Michael Stipe is a god.)

I'll probably just keep mum during the book discussion. I was told that there would be cake. And my copy of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way is begging for my attention.

Read this book if:
  1. 80s music is your thing. Big hair! Shoulder pads! Metallic accessories!
  2. Fictional memoirs are your thing.
  3. Cassette tapes were your thing.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The saddest line you can say to someone

When novelist Iain Banks found out that he had just a few months to live because he was dying of gall bladder cancer, he uttered the most morose line that I've ever read. Proposing to his partner, long-time girlfriend Adele Hartley, Banks said,

"Would you do me the honor of becoming my widow?"

My heart just breaks every time I think about that line. Only a good novelist can pull off something like that, yes? And I believe that Banks was one damn good writer. When I learned that he died last week, I thought that I should read more of his works.

I really enjoyed his debut, that critically acclaimed novel entitled The Wasp Factory. I enjoyed it so much that it was one of my favorite reads in 2011. And Banks wrote great SF works, too. His Culture novels are considered landmarks in the genre. I've read just the first so far—Consider Phlebas—and found it mind blowing. I should read more of his SF works.

When I went to the bookstore last week, I was fortunate to find 2 of his non-SF novels, pictured below. He had particularly quirk though. When he wrote "literary fiction," he would just go with Iain Banks, and then using Iain M. Banks when writing SF. I love his novels, with or without the M.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

I kissed a goose girl and I liked it

When I bought Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl, a very dear friend remarked, quite amusedly, "Oh, what's that?" Perhaps he was taken aback by the somewhat cheesy cover. Or maybe the weird title set him off. I couldn't blame him though—the cover is quite fluffy and the title, well, it's just one of those less familiar fairy tales by the Grimm brothers.

So yes, Hale's The Goose Girl is a retelling of a fairy tale. (You can read the original version here.) But it's a retelling that kept me entertained during a holiday. The young adult novel is Hale's debut, and it has become so widely read that 3 more books followed it, making up "The Books of Bayern" series.

Our goose girl is Crown Princess Ani of the kingdom of Kildenree, who gets betrothed against her will to a prince of the neighboring kingdom of Bayern. We can say that Ani was probably a fish out of water in her native land, where people see her ability of speaking to animals as a very unnatural gift. It doesn't help that her mother, the queen, sees her as being unfit to rule, forcing to queen to promise the crown to the second-born prince.

So Ani is whisked away to that unfamiliar kingdom with her small band of royal guards and Selia, her lady-in-waiting, who has other plans of her own once they reach Bayern. Selia manages to raise a mutiny while in transit and assumes the identity of Princess Ani, who escapes and finds herself in the employ of the palace—as the girl who tend to the king's 50 geese. And as goose girl, she befriends the other people under the king's employ, people who, despite being Bayern natives, still feel alienated. In Bayern, there appears to be a rough stratification of its citizens, with people who come from the outside forests being treated as second class.

At heart, The Goose Girl is a coming-of-age story. At the beginning of the novel, Ani seems to just go with whatever people decide for her. She doesn't even see the value of being the crown princess. But she comes to a beautiful bloom as the goose girl: appreciating the value of hard work, realizing the importance of forming true friendships, coming to terms of who she really is, and even falling in love with an elusive character. One can't help but love Ani, and one does wish that she makes everything right.

The Goose Girl, being a fairy tale, has a happy ending. But this conclusion doesn't feel contrived at all, which is so unlike the denouements in fairy tales wherein everything becomes conveniently right. Ani uses her gift in a pivotal fight sequence. In a way, she "works" to make things right. And the reader might feel giddy to discover the true identity of our elusive boy.

It's not all fluff though. Hale gives us a few bloody fight scenes. And Selia's way of talking to Ani can come off as very bitchy. (A modern retelling indeed!) But let's face it, we read these stories because we want to feel good. Because fairy tales, no matter how fantastical they may seem, make us want to believe that the betrayed princess gets her crown, traitorous people get punished and sometimes killed, true friends are rewarded, and people live happily ever after.

Read this book if:
  1. You love modern retellings of fairy tales.
  2. You always felt that you can speak to animals.
  3. You're dissatisfied with the usual fairy-tale endings.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Viagra, hemorrhoid cream, bikini, Teflon cookware, sleeping pills, and other stuff I don't need


When I started this blog almost 5 years ago, I never knew that I'd be the recipient of so much spam. Now the only spam that I really like is the edible kind—heavy on the sodium, fried to a crisp, and eaten with lots and lots of rice. Spam should coat your tongue with umami, and not be a bother in your inbox.

All right, being the science major that I am, I did a simple experiment. I logged in to my blog's dashboard to find that I receive around 2 to 3 spam comments every hour. My goodness, that comes up to more than 40 spam comments in a day! Good thing I turned on the 'comment moderation' feature.

What do these people get from sending this digital junk? And why am I being sold hemorrhoid creams? I searched all my entries and not once have I found a post saying that I have hemorrhoids. And not because I'm pushing 40 means that I need to take Viagra soon. Last time I checked, I'm perfectly okay in that department. Sorry, oversharing.

What's even more annoying is that, sometimes, a few of these spam comments end up in the legitimate comments folder. What's up with that, Google/Blogger? I love you guys for this free service, but I think a more robust way of filtering is in order.

I can't help but think that there are 'spam mills' all over the globe, with people hunched down on their PCs, hopping from one blog to another, and then leaving their digital crap. In a way, they're shitting on your property, yes? Sucks.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

High tea

This week, the awesome people at the newly opened Raffles Hotel in Manila invited a few members of the book club for an afternoon of high tea. My goodness, they were very gracious hosts indeed!

The original Raffles Hotel in Singapore had a reputation for having been a favorite of such writers such as Ernest Hemingway, W. Somerset Maugham, and Rudyard Kipling. Raffles Manila would like to continue this long history of supporting writers and readers, so they're exploring the possibility of touching base with a book club.

Being a tea drinker myself, I've had high tea a couple of times, but I never knew that this afternoon tradition involves 3 courses! Oy, I die!

The first course: savory sandwiches
Cucumber, ham and cream cheese, pastrami, egg salad, and smoked salmon
The second course: scones
My favorite scone was the chocolate chip variety
Clotted cream so thick you can eat it like ice cream
and strawberry jam
The third course: sweets
Macarons, dark chocolate cake, eclairs, fruit tarts
The mini key lime pie was divine.
I would just have to say that Monique, the marketing communications manager, is a true bibliophile. She talked about Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and David Mitchell. Of course, we just have to introduce her to Jose Saramago. Bianca, one of the marketing staff, is a Harry Potter and Chuck Palahniuk fan. It's so wonderful to meet fellow bibliophiles, yes?

The Writers' Bar at Raffles is an ideal place for reading, I think. They have high bookshelves filled with books. Too bad I wasn't able to take pictures.

I do hope that we can hold one of the book club's discussions over at the Writers' Bar at Raffles, or at least their long bar, where they encourage customers to throw their peanut shells on the floor. I'm thinking period dramas! Or elaborate costumes! Or ladies in flouncy dresses! Or rugged gentlemen like Papa Hemingway! Oh, the possibilities!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

This year's Newbery

I usually make it a point to read the Newbery-winning novel every year. These novels never fail to entertain and to delight. I particularly like the more recent winners—Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, and Claire Vanderpool's Moon over Manifest. This year, the award went to prolific children's book writer Katherine Applegate, and her novel, The One and Only Ivan, is such a joy to read.

Now The One and Only Ivan is about talking animals, which is something I feel iffy about. There's just a hint of being unnatural about that feature. Fortunately though, the animals in the novel (the gorilla named Ivan, the mongrel named Bob, the elephants Stella and Ruby) communicate only among themselves and never with humans. In fact, one of the things I liked about the novel is how Ivan doesn't get humans, with our harsh and noisy habits. "Humans just waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot." I have to agree though—we humans speak too much.

In The One and Only Ivan, we see the dangers of confined spaces. For Ivan, Ruby, and Stella, who are kept in cages in a mall and perform daily for the mall's customers, it's such a lonely existence. Imagine being kept in a box with people staring at you whether you like it or not! It's particularly hard on Ivan and the elephants: Ivan, a mighty silverback, should be out with his troop. Instead, he is reduced to making crude paintings that sell for 20 dollars a piece. At first, he has only the aging elephant Stella and the wise-cracking dog Bob for company. But pretty soon, the popularity of Ivan and Stella has waned and the mall employees decided to add a baby elephant named Ruby to drive more people.

Spoiler alert: Stella dies. But she makes Ivan promise her that he'll take Ruby out of the depressing mall and bring her to the zoo. According to Stella, the zoo is a place where humans make amends. I feel ambivalent about the latter statement though. If we humans were to make our amends, wouldn't it be more appropriate to just return the animals in the wild? On the other hand though, I do think that the zoo is sometimes the best option that we have, provided that it's well maintained and that the animals are kept healthy.

Ivan's voice in the novel is very much in character. His words are the kind of language that you imagine gorillas to speak. Oftentimes, he's confused, pensive, and accepting of his fate. He rarely shows emotions, at least to people. He knows that it's not nice to see one angry alpha male gorilla. But we need a character transformation to propel the story, yes? And fortunately, Stella's death and Ivan's promise provide the trigger.
how i look  
I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.  
I have a gorilla's shy gaze, a gorilla's sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla's majestic shadow. 
In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I'm thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine. 
I'm mightier than any human, four hundred pounds of pure power. My body looks made for battle. My arms, outstretched, span taller than the tallest human. 
My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins. 
I know this is troubling. 
I too find it hard to believe there is a connection across time and space, linking me to a race of ill-mannered clowns. 
Chimps. There's no excuse for them. [pp. 4-5]
So the novel's resolution focused on Ivan keeping his promise. The way Applegate enables Ivan to do so may be a bit hard to believe. Ivan crudely writes the word "home" on bits of paper, draws a rough picture of a zoo, and manages to hand them over to Julia, the emphatic daughter of a mall employee. In the end, Ivan does keep his promise, as he and Ruby end up in a zoo under the care of trained people.

The ending is a bit too clean, too sterile, for my taste. But I understand that The One and Only Ivan is a novel for children. Children should know that things should get done, promises be kept, animals be cared for, and people be more resilient and persevering. After all, the way we treat animals, or all living things for that matter, is a reflection of how much we put value into them.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything that's won the Newbery.
  2. You love these cousins of ours.
  3. You fear enclosed spaces.