Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A semblance of home


The premise of the entire novel was intriguing: a very famous Filipino writer by the name of Crispin Salvador was found dead, his corpse floating in the Hudson river. The manuscript of his final book The Bridges Ablaze is gone as well, a book that will expose the crimes of many ruling corrupted political families in the Philippines. His apprentice Miguel, an aspiring writer, sets out to Manila to investigate and untangle the mysteries surrounding the Salvador family, going back as far as three generations. In doing so, Miguel has to re-visit his mentor’s poetry, interviews, novels, polemics and memoirs, and this made Ilustrado not a linear work of fiction as a reader may hope it would be. In fact, as much as there is a consistent plot being followed, the entire novel is so fragmented that it’s visually challenging to read. Syjuco has invented Crispin Salvador as a prolific writer and therefore quotes ‘excerpts’ from the fictional author’s works. Reading this book required time because of the explorative way it was written. I don’t think anyone can consume it in just a few days. By its very definition, Ilustrados are ‘enlightened’ Filipinos who lived abroad and were able to understand firsthand what centuries of colonization have done to our nation, and so they seek for reform in an intellectual sense. Jose Rizal is one. And so are the characters Crispin and Miguel in this book. Most of the time it’s difficult to distinguish whose story it truly is, and about halfway through the novel, I realized that it is every Filipino’s story; all of us who never stop yearning for progress in a country with a decaying economy, dirty politics and hypocritical Christian values.

Syjuco’s prose is beautiful in the most harrowing and irritating sense. The passages are filled with feelings familiar with a Filipino individual, with all the aches, desires and disillusions we share as a colonozied nation, and yet the prose manages to alienate a more critical reader because the entire novel is a tapestry so convoluted and overwhelming at times that there was no defining bigger picture to put the puzzles neatly together. This is both the magic and weakness of Ilustrado. As terribly enchanting and genuinely humorous the excerpts from Salvador’s works were, Syjuco’s plot is hardly distinguishable; his side of the story alternates between autobiographical lamentations to psychological examinations of the Filipino identity or lack thereof. Though this book is a work of fiction, it translates more as a memoir of a person (who is by all accounts not even real), though perhaps that was the intention. If Salvador was meant to mirror the neglected Philippine literature, then Miguel (not the actual author but the ‘protagonist’) is the reflection of a generation of youth who is a mix of different cultures that are not its own, and the only distinctive quality that makes it unique is the diversity itself.

I battled within myself how I could review this novel while I balance both subjective and objective opinions. In a more personal sense, this book was an accomplishment of multitude proportions. It was intelligent, funny and intense. It casted a spell on me the whole time I was reading it. It was the kind of story that feels important because you relate strongly to it, even if the true reason is unknowable. I applaud Syjuco’s grasp of the English language while at the same time using it as distinctively Filipino. His prose has the same layers as our national identity like the scattered entities of our own geographical distance; we live separately because our country is an archipelago but in a more symbolic sense than the literal. When this book was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, Syjuco claimed that "I’m a Filipino. I’m nothing else but a Filipino. I’d like to be a writer, not just defined by race." The product of his literary quest is a novel where fact and fiction are interchangeable at both its best and worst. Realities are blurred in this work of art, and oftentimes that it became exhausting to keep up with.

I’m almost afraid to be critical of this book, and it’s probably because in doing so I fear that it would devalue the enjoyment and other more sentimental feelings I have for Ilustrado. But two days after finishing it, I was finally able to de-mystify and make more sense of this book once I’ve separated myself from its transformative hold. This was also made possible when I finally figured out the epilogue. It took me a while but once it hit me, I was more confounded than satisfied. It enabled me to re-examine the book again with a more critical stance. There was definitely an overreaching quality to the way Syjuco wrote this story. There are so many threads that he had to connect together but the threads were not gracefully woven in the first place so the endgame was composed of many frays rather than with something concrete. I was not too happy about that. It certainly felt like all that time I spent in the darkness was absurdity itself because there was a candle behind me the whole time and all I needed to do was to turn around and grab it. I suppose that Syjuco’s novel is what it is because he is still defined by the Filipino’s search for national identity, even if he doesn’t want to believe it himself. We cannot escape the pull of our race and all its trappings. Much like Luna’s painting of Spolarium, we bask in our colonization, and our struggle to be individualistic still comes back to our purgatory where we are never going to be complete as persons, or whole as a nation. And there’s beauty in that decay.

RATING: 8.5/10 RECOMMENDED

Even with its flaws in narrative and consistent storytelling, Ilustrado is stylish and daring for its literary execution. The prose is crisp with memorable passages and its defying structure makes it unable for readers to put it in a specific genre. This novel can be enjoyed best if you read nothing else. Because of the fragmented way it was written, you shouldn’t put it down for too long if you do take a break. It may take a while to develop a momentum when you read it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"The toughest membrane imaginable"

This was an extraordinary find while I was sifting randomly through the dusty boxes of a booksale outlet store. The price tag was shocking as well; it only cost 10 pesos. I enjoy reading anthologies, whether they're short stories in fiction or non-fiction essays. Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell falls in the latter category. The book is composed of 29 of the most succinct but unforgettable essays on subjects not just narrowed down to scientific fields but also about their ongoing connection to more humanistic fields of knowledge and endeavor such as mass communications and music. Thomas' aim is to show readers that everything in Earth is connected even if such connections are microscopic and neglected by the human populous.

Recommending this book to a general audience may seem like a strange thing, especially since most people would view this as an academic piece of literature that not everyone can enjoy in passing. True, Thomas's work belongs to classrooms and for students who actively pursue science as a vocation but I believe The Lives of a Cell has accomplished a surprising feat: anyone can enjoy the essays he had composed, and he composed them with such delicacy, craft and mastery, successfully employing a literary voice to deliver his pieces. The result is worth at least a day of your life (and I've finished this while on a bus ride during a field trip). The essays themselves are harmonious; Thomas not only has a great grasp on the fundamentals and implications of biology as a scientific field but also as a philosophy which we can look at nature and man's place in it with a renewed understanding. He definitely has an ear for music while he writes the essays; his sentences are so melodious, often resonating beyond our scholarly comprehension.

Here is a sample of his first essay that immediately gripped me by the throat:

"We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.

But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature."


There is nothing I could say that could offer you any kind of consolation if you ever pick up this book except that it's a transformative experience you shouldn't miss out on. You can view The Lives of a Cell as a scientist's journal--but don't expect it to be stifling or dreary at all. Thomas' musings and observations are quite whimsical and heartfelt. Trust him while you read his work and he may open your mind with things a lot of us are quick to overlook in our lives.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10
 
* A collection of sublime and compelling examinations on man and nature, written with deftness and childlike curiosity

Since I don't believe this book is available in print anymore unless in bargain sales, I decided to research it online and was happy to find a PDF copy which you can read HERE

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Walking with a mask on, believing it's your face


The novel was a combination of fictional and true accounts which are loosely based on “the history of psychology and the real-life experiences of British army officers being treated for shell shock during World War I at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh (The War Poets at Craiglockhart)”. It consisted of four parts centered mostly on three characters (Rivers, Sassoon and Prior) but also delved on mental struggles of other discharged soldiers suffering from their experiences while in the battlefied; and how individuals cope and move on from these burdens.

The protagonist Siegfried Sassoon declares that the war the British are fighting for is no longer a justifiable course of action, and he laments that they no longer have a true cause that empowers them through their service as soldiers. This he used as inspiration and form of catharis in the various poetry he writes. He was dispatched to a mental ward in the care of the psychoanalyst W.H.R Rivers who was a recognized doctor in his field. In the hopes of ‘curing’ him from his ‘pacifist’ ways, the readers are taken into a very intimate scrutiny of the psyche of different characters other than Sassoon. There is also Sergeant Burns who struggles to eat food after a bomb explosion threw him head-first into a gas-filled belly of a corpse that caused him to swallow some of the rotting flesh; Anderson, a former surgeon who now goes into a catatonic state in the presence of blood; Willard, who insisted that his spine is damaged although there is no physical evidence to show it, but it has rendered him unable to believe he can walk; and finally, Billy Prior, with selective mutism and asthma, whose arrogance and refusal of treatment from Rivers explores the power struggle between patient and doctor. Other supporting characters include Wilson Owen, a fellow poet who has hero-worship for Sassoon, and Sarah Lumb, Prior’s girlfriend who works at a factory that handles bomb detonators. With so many enigmatic characters, this work of fiction was able to deliver an intensive and humane look on the turmoils of war in a more psychological aspect and how they translate to the physical manifestations.

"The process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay" ~W.H.R. Rivers

THE CHARACTERS

My personal favorite character is Rivers because the doctor has steel nerves especially during the last portions of the book where he observes a fellow colleague, Dr. Yealland, perform electric shocks on a patient with mutism. His detached demeanor does not reflect the intense nature of his intellectual mind which allows him to see things clearly and more sensibly; recognizing that the men under his care need treatment which will open them up emotionally, rather than come up with an ultimate cure. This makes him serve noble intentions even if he himself is haunted by the hopelessness of some of his patients’ inner worlds.

Sassoon’s poetry are rich with allegory, and their passages in the book—as well as the process in which he revises and improves them—are entertaining to read. Sassoon’s stand against war does not directly make him a pacifist, and that paradox is what kept me reading because I wanted to know exactly why Sassoon was able to fight in a war he never believed in at all. Meanwhile, Prior’s personality is the most intriguing of the three. He is more able to act on his feelings no matter how ugly they are as oppose to Rivers who is still professionally responsive and Sassoon who retreats to his poetry. Still, he carries the most bondage of them as well, unable to adjust to an ordinary life outside of his experiences in the war.

I enjoyed reading and comparing the states of minds among Rivers, Sassoon and Prior, as well as the relationships and emotional bonds formed within. Both Sassoon and Prior see Rivers as a father figure but with a maternal presence. But Sassoon and Prior’s responses to this are essentially different. While Sassoon accepts Rivers because he was filling in a hole left by his own father whom he never knew, Prior subtly retaliates every time Rivers tries to understand him because Prior’s own relationship with his real father—who only visited him one time in the ward—was already fractured to begin with. As chemical as Prior and Rivers are because of the tension between them, Sassoon’s ways of relating to Rivers and vice-versa are more explorative because both men respect each other even if their ideals are barely similar.

THE THEMES

The most invigorating aspect of this book is that it deconstructs gender roles in times of war where masculine fortitude is challenged by the traumatic experiences men undergo when in battle for their lives, while the women back at home has now taken on more assertive and independent roles. Prior makes this observation with Sarah Lumb whom he meets one night as he was drinking at a bar and forms a relationship with her, secretly drawn to her strength and invulnerability that contrasted his own frailty (“women have expanded in all kinds of ways, whereas men over the same period had shrunk into a smaller and smaller space”).

In the middle of the second part of the book, Rivers contemplates the notion that the war was advertised by the government in which men can prove themselves with traditionally heroic male feats, yet the reality portrays that these very same men, once in the battefields, are “crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed,” and that “the war that had promised so much in a way of manly activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passitivity and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down.” Sassoon addresses that the war has questioned the standard roles of men in the society, especially among men of military service, and he realized that such fixed roles of power, strength and infallibility attached to men are the reasons why they were easily damaged in the first place (“You’re walking with a mask on and you want to take it off but you can’t because they all think it’s your face”).

I also read online that there are two sequels that followed this story, and they explored themes of homosexuality in time of war as well. I definitely saw that possibility in my course of reading this novel. The male characters are extremely well-written and their relationships are intricately woven in the story so well that it will not surprise me if that theme may serve as an enrichment to an already layered storytelling which breathes the psychologically sublime.

SUMMARY

Regeneration is the first volume of the trilogy, followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road (which I’m still trying to get at least PDF copies of). It was a story of the vitality of change in a collapsing world where the traditional values and roles of men are being deconstructed through the ailments of war and the emerging sexual politics in that period of history. I was happy to read something other than the usual violence and gore found in most works of fiction like this, and that was what made this book so unique and intimate to read. Still, I recognize that this biographical sort of genre on wars is an acquired taste so I’m taking that into consideration in rating this book. I believe that it can beautifully translate in a cinematic adaptation, however, but that would entail a film that relies on the strength of its character dynamics enhanced by symbolic visuals. To anyone interested in expanding their usual taste in literature, this book is highly recommended!

RECOMMENDED: 8.5/10

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Down, down the rabbit hole..


I should state from here on out that I intensely identify with Lewis Caroll's Alice and that I've considered her as a fictional counterpart, most especially Alan Moore's re-imagining of this character in Lost Girls. Last year, while working late night at our student publication's office, I came across a manual for artists which belong to the art section, and it listed Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland as one of the references. I was immediately intrigued because it was an Alice-based graphic novel, and I knew Talbot from his illustrations in The Sandman volume 6. I was able to download a .cbr copy and I only scanned through the pages and realized that it was not a linear narrative structure but more of a historical thesis in sequential art form.

It was only in the Manila International Book Fair that September when I was happy to see a singular hardbound copy of this book. I took it home and began to read. Alice in Sunderland is a challenging visual experience; it's engrossing in many parts but nevertheless an often historical lecture on the origins of Caroll's creation of the Alice/Wonderland lore that could be very trying for one's attention span. The stylistic language and presentation of this book resemble what Alice might have felt when she fell down the rabbit hole, and readers will get to experience the same stressful effect because reading through this is overwhelming at times. One thing I can guarantee is that this piece of work is not bland even when it's confusing. The writing is quite schizophrenic; one moment it's a documentary with an omniscient third-person narrator talking to the audience and the next it's split into anecdotes and flash fiction weaved into several disjointed arcs.

What I can suggest when consuming this book is to take a break every once in a while and don't attempt to read this in one sitting or it will dilute your appreciation for both its form and content. Talbot infused this tapestry of stories with pages and pages of allegory, alliteration and every kind of figurative language that it's often indulgent and verbose for its own good. Nevertheless, one can forgive the book's unreliable narrator, and truly enjoy the scope of Alice in Sunderland as an exceptional work of the imagination. The book also attempts to juxtapose Sunderland's history and the history of comics as influenced by Caroll's Alice legends.

This is not the kind of book a reader should expect emotional pay-off from. Upon finishing it, all that is left is the realization that Alice is Sunderland has better parts than its entirety, but it is nonetheless audacious and thrilling. The visual landscapes and setting are some of the best drawings and illustrations I have encountered. Those alone should be enough to make this book a worthwhile occupation.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10
* Visually challenging and sensually appealing all at once.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Going, going, going, gone


I knew little of Michael Cunningham’s work (I just knew that he wrote The Hours which was an Academy Award-winning film my parents loved) so I had no fixed expectations. I gave myself four days to finish this book but managed to do so in three days. That’s how captivating it was. Cunningham’s experimental fiction was masterfully told, like a musical composition that rises and falls with the right notes. In Specimen Days, he writes in three genres, dividing the book into three breathtaking novellas.

***

"A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?… .I do not know what it is any more than he.” ~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

(1) “In The Machine” A Historical Dickensian Tale

The first novella was written in the boy Lucas’ POV. It was set sometime during the industrialization age of America. Lucas’ brother Simon has just died and this left his fiancee Catherine uncared for and with child. Though aready shouldering the financial burden of supporting his parents, thirteen-year-old Lucas still felt it was his responsibility to watch out after Catherine. He was a peculiar boy, reciting Walt Whitman poetry as his way to express his feelings or to make conversation. Through Lucas’ narrations, Cunningham’s knack for weaving lyrical phrases is astounding. The paragraphs contain such breathless pacing and descriptive precision which magnified the strength of Lucas’ evocative insights about his surroundings as he tries to understand the concept of labor and death. He wants to de-mystify such adult concepts and it is Whitman’s poetry that guides him. At the very heart of it all, Lucas begins to explore the possibility that his brother’s soul was trapped inside the welding machinery that Lucas uses at his work in the factory. Believing that if men die and they spread out among the leaves and grass (as Whitman eloquently wrote), Lucas was convinced that ghosts dwell among the machinery across New York, including the sewing machine that Catherine tends to at her own workplace. He ventures on to save her.

For such a comical angle to the story, Cunningham was still able to approach it with great sensitivity, providing passages that brood over the simplest but unanswered questions about life which gives Lucas’ character a crushing sort of loneliness. He is a child who tries to make sense of the world by allowing poetry to fill the gaps. It’s a feat that manages to intensify the reading experience even more, and Cunningham drives it home by using Lucas’ “ghost” as an allegory of the American industrialization’s hovering presence, and the gradual withdrawal of human spirit from the organic towards the mechanical. Lucas’ belief of souls being trapped in the machines is a symbolism easy to pick up on, but Cunningham’s beautifully convoluted prose is rich with details that it was able to keep everything subtle. The climactic ending was even transitory to the next novella. Reading In the Machine was like stumbling in the dark, and trusting all the sensory directions given, but never truly seeing the big picture forming until the novel moves into the second story.

"And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

(2) “The Children’s Crusade” A Detective Psychological Thriller

The sudden shift of genre by the second novella was not at all jarring. This time it was set on a post-9/11 New York with Cat Martin, a forensic psychologist, as a focus character. She works for a hotline division who handles calls from possible terrorists. She got a message from a young boy who talked about “the family” and recites mantras like "Every atom belonging to you as well belongs to me," which she recognized to be a verse from a Walt Whitman poem. Days after, news of child terrorists have spread across the city, claiming both the rich and the poor as victims of homemade bombs. At first glance, this story doesn’t have any sort of connection to the first one until the reader realizes that Cat was short for “Catherine” and her boyfriend’s name is “Simon” and she has a son named “Luke” whom she lost to an illness. But these are differrent characters with the same names and are a century apart from each other, yet Cunningham weaves these two stories—one of the past and one from the somewhat present—as a dissonance of worlds that are created through the choices of these three central characters. Whatever the boy Lucas from the first story feared about then, those ghosts he talked about, have now taken shape into something horribly concrete in Cat Martin’s New York where a heightened sense of paranoia and grief is exploited by a terrorist cell composed of children.

It was a detective story, hard-boiled and suspenseful with every turn of the page—right until the moment of a chance meeting between Cat and one of the child terrorists. In this story, Cunningham delves into the scarlet thread so immensely significant in detective stories and The Children’s Crusadebecame a harrowing tale that overflows with the twisted reflections of humanity’s fears. It was by this installment that I started to tear up completely because Cunningham has a way to string along certain phrases that provokes such a visceral, emotional response that a reader just surrenders without even knowing it. It was juxtaposed perfectly with In The Machine, especially since he used the three characters (Catherine, Simon and Lucas) as representations of man, woman and child; three aspects poignantly enhanced by the last novella.

"Fear not O Muse! truly new ways and days receive, surround you,

And yet the same old human race, the same within, without,

Faces and hearts the same, feelings the same, yearning the same

The same old love, beauty and use the same.”


(3) “Like Beauty” A Sci-Fi Love Story About Birth and Destination

The final novella was set 150 years in the future in New York. Humans have already made first contact with aliens and they are lizard life-forms called Nadians who are now living as refugees in planet Earth. They are domestic helpers, treated as secondary citizens and enslaved by mankind. Simon—a biomechanical cyborg—is the focus character, and he was programmed as a mugger in the New York streets, sought after by tourists who want to be victimized because of the adrenaline release it provides. He was captivated by a Nadian called Catareen whom he starts an adventure with when they decided to escape to Denver. On the road, they met a homeless boy posing as Jesus in a Halloween costume named Lucas. This story was the most challenging of the three because it was science fiction and there is always a strange pull with this genre that Cunningham was able to give justice to. Simon was a biomechanical conception; half-human and half-machine (a literal representation of Lucas’ ghost of a brother from the first story) and his ‘maker’ has included Whitman poetry in his software which he recites every time under duress. What follows after is a redemptive tale about the power of technology and a more humane understanding of how it can enrich lives instead of destroy them.

There is an enduring quality to the prose of this story that was magnified by the previous events from In The Machine and The Children’s Crusade. It seemed to me that these versions of Simon, Catherine and Lucas are products of the past and present colliding together to form a future defined by beginnings and endings that mirror each other. So many imagery and symbolism come full circle by this last story. Religious allegories were also used. I was listening to Death Cab For Cutie’s “Tiny Vessels” so I was positively imbued with emotions and sensations that can only be expressed in tears. It didn’t feel cheesy at all because it seemed like a perfectly acceptable response to cry about this book because of its overwhelming poetry in its vitalizing prose.

*

Overall, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days is a treasure. As you read through, it feels like seeds are sprouting out from your heart and flourishes within, transforming you as a reader into a person more aware of transience and embracing its trappings.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Unlikely heroine defying gravity


This was a marvelously entertaining book and I certainly appreciated the re-imaginings of Maguire about Oz, its inhabitants and principal characters. I enjoyed the social strife among the citizens of Oz, that crisp political atmosphere that enticed me for pages and pages—yet I wasn’t really as invested as I hoped I would be when this book was recommended to me two years ago. I knew about the musical, sure, and I love that, but my enjoyment of this novel was not attached to that anyway so I mean it objectively when I say that I was not satisfied at all when I finished. It’s definitely a mix of good and bad parts.

This is in no way to say that Wicked is not as amazing as people say it is; I find it charming and philosophical in such a quirky sense that kept me reading. And I will keep reading the next two books as well because I wanted to see how Maguire managed to develop the plot from here on. Truth for the matter, my slight (and very slight) disappointment was more on the fact that I didn’t like Elphaba (or the Wicked Witch) at all, or at least relate to her in such a way that kept me excited and emotionally invested in her transition from the sly and individualistic adolescent to a progressive, powerful witch. I did like how Maguire re-told Oz through her, but I think I wasn’t as intrigued by her personal history as I was with the social strife happening among the secondary characters. I was expecting that I would consider her my favorite character as the story developed, but my fondness for her started to dwindle in the middle chapters. I know that Maguire wrote Wicked with the understanding that “good” and “evil” are not always what they seem to be, and so he wrote a lead character with a story that questions noble intentions and atrocities of human nature. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the point he’s making. There are far better fantasy-oriented books that tackled this dichotomy more intensively and perhaps this is why Wicked's appeal in that arena fell short to me. Elphaba is a great character for all her flaws and ruthlessness, her inquisitive mind and volatile personality. Her confrontations with the Wizard and Dorothy are immensely entertaining to read because of their absurdities which are beautifully tinged with sadness. But I just wasn't buying her character until the very end.

I personally think that the failing of making Elphaba a more believable anti-hero is that Maguire can’t seem to decide whether to condone or condemn her; and therein lies the conundrum, isn’t it? It would have worked too as an effective allegory for the treacherous dichotomy of people when it comes to morality yet on some parts of the book Maguire tries too hard to make Elphaba sympathetic that he sometimes antagonizes the other characters in the process. He had to heighten whatever monstrosity the Wizard is just so he could justify Elphaba’s choices. He had to trivialize Dorothy as well, as if by doing so it would make Elphaba the girl to root for, as well as emphasized that this work of literature is about the Wicked Witch not Dorothy. It’s forgivable, though, considering that Maguire must be more inclined to make Elphaba a likeable lead since most of the chapters are told from her perspective. Even when he’s narrating through other characters like G(a)linda, Boq, Fiyero or Sarima, all of whom are brilliant and well-crafted characters but were nonetheless pushed into the background abruptly in order to pave way for Elphaba. This was okay, considering the intention of the author, but as a reader who had been more interested in secondary characters lately especially in fantasy novels, I was starting to feel like my interest for them is being neglected, and that leaves me irritated. I know Elphaba is the titular character but it bothers me that Maguire created other amazing characters, only to be overshadowed by the Witch (Elphaba) who I maintain was not that enticing anymore as the story progressed. In fact, most times they just react to her character instead of standing alone by themselves. And when they do, it doesn’t seem quite enough. Their potentials have to be set aside because it’s Elphaba the author and the readers should be more concerned about.

My final criticism can be remedied in the following books, I hope. The socio-political conflict in Oz and the inhabitants need to be examined more. I’m sure Maguire can deliver that by the second book because that is the aspect of the story that I thoroughly got delighted about (and that’s partly because Elphaba’s charm was entirely lost to me at this point). Maguire’s premise about the nature of good and evil—how to define them, if there are similar planes of existence between them, or if they are forever entwined—is an interesting angle, but there’s still more depth and breadth to get into so I have no verdict on this aspect of the plot. The philosophical approach about it was more personal (mostly on Elphaba’s view) than transcendent, and that’s probably why I wasn’t buying the whole thing because there was nothing definitively transformative about Maguire’s concept. I was riveted, but it did not make me question my views of the world and people unlike when I read Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta which I think was the kind of message in his literature that Maguire aimed for but has not gotten to there yet, at least not in this book—or perhaps not for this story (I’m looking forward to reading Lost and Mirror, Mirror in my second Book Diet). I think it has more to do with the way he defines the dichotomy instead of going beyond that and without achieving that, the writing of such delicate subject becomes locked in the conventions of the fantasy-fairytale genre which Wicked is already limited to.

Yet for all the shortcomings that I’ve noticed in this novel, I know it can be redeemed by the next installments so I’ll pick the Wicked Years once more by next year. For a dazzling read, this is a good book and quite easy to enjoy.

RECOMMENDED: 7/10

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Dark wings, dark words

 
This is where the book series really escalates and there are tons of exciting, heart-wrenching events within these pages that shook me to my very core and even left me weeping on my bed for a whole day. A STORM OF SWORDS is how ASoIaF officially won me over. This book encompassed so many entangled tales among the most intricate characters. It was such a stellar accomplishment for Martin, to weave a cohesive plot within different narratives. I was blown away into tiny pieces just reading through. It took me at least two months to finish this masterpiece and it was the best 62 days of my life even if I had to struggle with the time. There is nothing like curling around a Martin book and be taken captive into Westeros and the prose that awaits to ravish me.

I am so lucky to have owned and known this literature. I can’t imagine how I managed to linger this long as a bibliophile without knowing A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps it was destined to be, to encounter and feel passionate about this book series in my twenties :) The books will continue to keep me hungry for more, that I know that for sure.

[MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS]

Favorite POVs: Tyrion, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, Jon

Second Favorites: Jamie, Catelyn, Davos, Samwell, Bran

Crowning Moments of Awesome: Jamie/Brienne scenes, Bran’s adventures, The Wall vs the Wildings, Davos learning to read and doing something awesome afterwards, the Trio of Nuptials, all of Daenerys’ scenes in Essos, Sansa’s exodus

Tearjerker Moments: RW, oh god almighty, RW.

Most favorite characters: Tyrion, Sansa, Davos, Bran

Second favorites: Arya, Daenerys, Jon, Littlefinger, Jamie, the Tyrells, Sandor Clegane “The Hound”, The Tickler

Sideline characters I enjoy: Bronn (forever FTW), Samwell, Brienne, Ygritte (kissed by fire indeed), Olenna “Queen of Thorns”, Oberyn Martell “The Red Viper”, Joffrey (for being the little shit)

Tiny moments I appreciate: The heartwrenching song “The Rains of Castamere”; Daenerys’ duplicitous self-reflections (she projects a persona as queen but is still a fragile girl inside); Arya’s getting more badass than ever, Jamie’s unraveling (he is surprisingly not as bad as people thought); Tyrion’s "I’ve been in trial all my life for being a dwarf" line and Sansa’s "My skin has turned from porcelain to ivory to steel" line; all the unexpected sex and violence in the least likely yet perfectly inserted chapters; Sansa’s final chapter and the epilogue that followed :p

RECOMMENDED: 10/10

Monday, June 18, 2012

This is thy kingdom come


I think it’s by this book that I completely fell madly in love with A Song of Ice and Fire series. AGoT was a great premise; the sweeping prose of GRRM in every character POV has a breathless poignancy and I must admit that after finishing the HBO series itself, I still chose the original novel because it was more powerful with the delivery, characterization and impact. I wasn’t all the way converted to a fan, however. But the second book—seven hells, the second book! I waited two months to start reading the sequel and so it took a while for me to get back to the story itself but as the plotlines progress in different directions and scattered about in every character POV—I was helplessly enthralled by the monstrosity of GRRM’s Westeros; the politics, the power play, the character developments, the brisk and seamless storytelling—everything about A Clash of Kings is to die for!

I was so hooked in every twist and turn of the plots. Character-wise, I have learned to love my favorites even more while I finally developed a strong liking to the ones I didn’t care much about in the first book. I mostly enjoyed the variety of warfare which expands in all of Westeros and in the lives of both major and minor characters. Each POV is relevant and intense; all the interactions have the right kind of tension, duplicity and connotations. I immediately bought the third book while I’m almost done with this. I’d probably reward myself the pleasure of journeying through ASoIaF again this summer. And by April 1st, the second season will be released and I’ve kept watching the trailer over and over and cannot contain my excitement. I want to see how well HBO can execute this book.

[MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS]

Favorite POVs: Tyrion Lannister, Arya Stark, Theon, Bran Stark, Jon Snow

Second Favorites: Sansa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Daenerys, Davos

Crowning Moments of Awesome: Anything with Tyrion, Renly’s demise, the battle scenes, Bran and Rickon’s exodus, the appearance of Brienne, Jamie’s snark talk with Cat, Daenerys’ tests and premonitions

Tearjerker Moments: Catelyn’s thoughts about her children, Bran’s coming-of-age and his curious dreams

Most favorite characters: Tyrion Lannister, Bronn, Sansa, Theon, Bran

Second favorites: Arya, Daenerys, Jon Snow

Sideline characters I enjoy: Brienne of Tarth, Asha Greyjoy, Shae

Tiny moments I appreciate: Tyrion-Bronn witty banter, Bran’s dreams and insights, Sansa’s deliverance, Cersei-Tyrion powerplay, Renly-Stannis feud, the seize of Winterfell, the overall mastery of language and assemble of characters; the tales from the Night’s Watch, consistent character interpretations and conflicts among them.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter has come with a vengeance

I was quite wary when someone was gracious enough to give me this book on my 21st birthday on April three years ago. I have heard nothing of this author at all. So I put it aside, though, because I was in no mood to read novels lately. But thanks to Spartacus, I was in search for a new historical/medieval drama to watch. And A Game of Thrones had been a stellar recommendation in the fansites I’m a member of. I have yet to watch the HBO series, actually. I decided that, in the interest of humoring said friend who gifted me with the book, to read it first after finishing Brave New World. I found myself terribly captivated by Martin’s quaint and lavish prose so far that I feel like the TV series might spoil me in some way. There is a certain charming quality to the expositions in the book that eagerly translated a beauty within each character development and made a reader like me pause and contemplate on the subtlety of it all. I was very bewildered by the way the prose reeled me in so seamlessly into the setting and plot. Not even The Lord of the Rings got me so instantly spellbound (save perhaps, small moments in Tudors and Merlin but even those stories don’t compete much with A Game of Thrones, storyline-wise).

So I devotedly place myself into this intricately-woven piece of literature. I was only able to watch the HBO adaptation as soon as I finished the novel. It was a marvelous TV series but the original book itself is ten times more riveting and chilling in all the right and dark places. I really appreciated the strength of GRRM’s writing when it comes to POVs. You get to understand the characters and their actions and personalities because it feels more intimate when you see things through their perspectives as oppose to chronological chapters which I think HBO used (but it also works best in a television medium).

Favorite POVs: Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark, Eddard Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Bran Stark, Daenerys Targaryen

Least Favorites: Jon Snow and Arya Stark

Crowning Moments of Awesome: Tyrion’s captivity and trial

Tearjerker Moments: Daenerys getting duped by a witch and paying for the price, Eddard’s deliverance, Sansa’s awakening

Most favorite characters: Tyrion Lannister, Catelyn Stark, Sansa Stark

Second favorites: Robert Baratheon, Daenerys, Eddard Stark

Sideline characters I enjoy: Bronn the sellsword, Varys the eunuch, Ser Jorah, and Khal Drogo

Torn-about-them: The Lannister twins Jaimie and Cersei, Littlefinger, Sandor Cleagne (The Hound)

Just hateful: Joffrey and Gregor Cleagne

Tiny moments I appreciate: The supposed ‘hero’ is not invincible or saved; the fact that a dwarf can be one of the most important characters despite his ‘handicap’; the politics of power that translates to our modern times quite easily; the different kinds of love for family (and the price to pay for loving too much); the struggle of honor and its doom because it’s surrounded by corrupt people and situations; and the clear-cut, interesting distinctions about what men prioritize most and what women want to protect.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cultural crosses we bear


The quality of life has always been quantified by one’s wealth. This is just how the world works—at least that’s what generations before us have imparted in classrooms and this lesson might be handed down just the same to the next generation after us. There is a truth to this statement which seems to be a continuous validation achieved through countless self-fulfilling prophecies done by the most ambitious, competitive and privileged of people everywhere. The struggle between classes of people is not a new concept, most notably between the rich and the poor that goes back from ancient civilizations. People used to believe that once you are born to poverty then there is no way to reverse that. The only difference now is that this belief has finally been defined more as a social condition attributed to many factors, and that people have also grown less apathetic and passive about the conditions they are born in.

The world has evolved—innovations and progresses of different types can attest to that—but what has yet to evolve is our way of thinking at least in a general standpoint. Now and again people still cling to old systems that have detrimental consequences, and other forms of parasitic practices that only benefit an individual’s ego while others, who are victims of a perpetuating cycle of circumstances, suffer in exchange.

In its publication around the 70’s, Slum as a Way of Life must have been groundbreaking because it was an extensive examination of the lives of people inside a concentrated slum area in Manila. The author F. Landa Jocano not only strived to challenge the way of thinking of the people then, but he also painted readers a most harrowing, poignant and diverse picture of what it truly means to be poor and what is not, and perhaps there have been changes that tipped the scale after its publication. Consider the timeline. The country and its citizens were more adept to learn and discover new explanations on how the world and environments work around them. The book certainly makes an interesting and insightful read because the perspectives are fresh and the readers then are more open to the experience. Consider the time students of my age or of this generation now live in. Young people are once again more comfortable about the situations they are born to, no matter how bad. Unconsciously, especially when they come from middle-class backgrounds, they see poverty not as an ailment but as an inevitable product of the modernization. Young people could skim through the pages of this book and arrive to the brilliant inquiry of “And so what?” because it really doesn’t concern them personally if there are people suffering in poverty because the only thing that matters if that they are not one of those people. I suppose I had the same reaction initially, especially when the book began to specify the kind of culture and practices ‘those poor people’ partake in order to live and survive. So yes, thank God indeed that I was born into a capable middle-class family, that I’m studying at a prestigious university, that I have all the means to satiate my needs for food, clothing and shelter, that I can happily type away in this laptop in a well-lit, breezy room while a girl of my age is probably a whore. Thank God indeed. This is the kind of mindset that is fixed and innate among my generation. And it’s not as if we choose to be this horrible. We were automatically conditioned to feel less bad so we can adapt while the poor have learned through a process to feel less good so they can adapt to their situations.

The Philippines is a developing country—that is to say if I want to be sugar-coated about it. The fact is we are still a third-world country and the problems we have are, more often than not, lifestyles we subscribe to readily because it is most convenient. One of them is the culture of poverty. The American anthropologist Oscar Lewis defined it as, “People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor.”

What I find interesting in this excerpt is how it struck me as a rationalization that wants to justify why poor people remain poor and how the blame never shifts away from them. I agree with Jocano’s statement that their data does not support this view at all. The poor are victims of their own choices because they do not know better. It’s certainly laughable. The statement also makes an excuse for people like us. It would definitely be easier to blame the poor for being poor rather than immerse ourselves into a rude awakening that we enable poverty by being close-minded and selfish. We have the means of education and opportunities and we are obliged to provide these to those who need them. That is not to say that the poor are faultless and neither are we. The phenomena of third-world problems rapidly increase with children and the youth who suffer most.

In reading Jocano’s book, it was like living among the Looban residents as well. That was how his dyadic language was both informative and imaginative. The accounts of the informants are also fascinating, particularly on the sex trade and gang initiations. I was fortunate that my middle-class upbringing has given me opportunities to correct my mistakes of the past but in contrast with the young people in the slum, their own bad habits are easier to break and can have lifelong consequences. Slum as a Way of Life also offered composition tables that were challenging to analyze at first until you have read the research data they were based on. The de-familiarization of Filipino family values are also elaborated on with a brisk accuracy that was enjoyable for me as a reader and student. In a nutshell, the book was a great way to learn about culture as well as the many stigma on poverty.

The quality of life has always been quantified by one’s wealth. This is just how the world works. The struggle between classes of people is not a new concept, most notably between the rich and the. People used to believe that once you are born to poverty then there is no way to reverse that. The world has evolved but what has yet to evolve is our way of thinking. People still cling to old systems while others are victims of a perpetuating cycle of vicious circumstances.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10