I buy books. And sometimes I read them. This blog is for the times when I do more than just store shelf candy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Para Kay B , Book Clubs, and other "Flippant" Matters

Our book club had its 12th meeting last Saturday. Quite an accomplishment considering:
- there is no compelling need to do this,
- members are all voluntary organizers,
- and we don't really get any material rewards for doing so.
I guess all those bullet points just want to say, we do this not because we have to but because we want to. And what amazes me is the energy that drives the members to stage the book discussion events in creative ways, each month's theme, mood, venue, treatment different from the previous months'.

In our book club, which meets once a month, we take turns moderating. The moderator, generally, gets to pick the book or the genre, with a great degree of influence from the members. This enables us to sample a diversity of genres and authors; there is no one voice that dictates what we're going to read.

This month, our moderator Sana Sta. Ana decided first on a contemporary novel. Then she chose Ricky Lee's first novel, Para Kay B. This was not the first time we tackled the work of a Filipino author; the first one was Carlos Vergara's Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah. But this was the first Filipino-authored novel.

Interestingly, our first Filipino novel is in Taglish. I, personally liked that it is so. It couldn't have been credible otherwise. Sana did not choose the book because she loved it and expected everybody else to love it too. She chose it because she knew the responses would be varied. Maybe even violent. And that would make for interesting discussions.

And the discussions were indeed interesting. Different takes. We liked and disliked different parts. No doubt our different personalities influenced our reactions to the book. What made it even more interesting was that the author sat with us to shed light on his intentions for the book. One could argue that the author's intentions are not relevant to the reading. Maybe so. My review here reflects my visceral reactions to the book before we sat with the author, and I suppose I need to let them be. Altering my review based on the discussion strikes me as a tad hypocritical. But I have to say that after that discussion, I can't help but see the book in a different light.

I wasn't fond of the ending of the book. Flipper Blooey liked it for its metafiction. Like I've said before, and forgive me if I dare quote myself, "Frankly, I wouldn’t recognize postmodernism even if it hits me on the face with a metanarrative." But Ricky Lee gave me a new way of understanding it. I still maintain what I said in the discussion that given that the central message and character reveal themselves in the end, I wish the author had injected more cleverly hidden clues in every chapter that would just thread the whole thing better and would make the ending more cohesive for the dense; yes, that's me. But Ricky Lee explained that that ending is what makes the novel Ricky Lee's, that it is his way of breaking norms; blurring boundaries; taking risks; cluttering what others might want to be neat; and then creating meaning, order, and substance in chaos. After hearing all that, I had a greater appreciation, not just for the novel, but for the writing process as well.

The novel is written is what may strike people as light, very colloquial, maybe even too low brow. But it takes talent, skill, a deep understanding of Philippine culture and language, an intelligent sense of humor, a million edits, and hard work to make the reading easy. "Constant rewriting," says Ricky Lee, was the not-so-apparent secret to make the language sound so natural and believable.

I also appreciated how intent shaped the story. Like why Ricky Lee used conventions and stereotypes so that at the end, those conventions can be shattered. I have never tried writing fiction, and after this discussion, I think I never will. It's intimidating how one needs to end a story convincingly. Ricky Lee did not start with the end in mind. But I suspect there was gut instinct that guided him through the writing process. Gut instinct that can only be developed through decades of writing.

But the part that had my inner geek aflutter was Ricky Lee's description of the novel's intertextuality. Okay, I had to wiki that and had to wipe the blood off the computer screen as my brain bled from all that talk about Saussure and Barthes. But I will just phrase what I learned about intertextuality from Ricky Lee in the best way I know how. He talked about the play of words and letters, like how all the women character's roles names start with a letter from the name Bessie. The title, Para Kay B, is also part of this whole thing about intertextuality. The Writer, a character in the book, who plays god by controlling text, letters, words in an attempt to control life, is actually controlled by the same elements in his supposed real life. "Natalo siya ng mga letrang minamanipulate niya." I love how Ricky Lee talked about how we use words to build ourselves up as well as to devastate us.

I do not have enough intelligent words to do justice to the ideas communicated by Ricky Lee. And this blog post could not sufficiently and succinctly capture all the other points I furiously scribbled on my notebook.

But here's my point. The book club is a great way of enhancing the reading experience. Whatever I got from the book was multiplied, magnified by the discussion that followed. And this happens with or without the author's presence because each member adds a new perspective, a twist in the interpretation, a strange conjecture, something you missed in your own reading. But in the case of Para Kay B, the understanding and the appreciation were greatly deepened by Ricky Lee's explanations.

Days after the discussion, I am still chewing on some of the points we discussed. Maybe without the discussion, Para Kay B, would just be a book I enjoyed. The book discussion made it so much more than that. And I learned new things about language and literature. And that's the reward that book clubs bring.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ang FFP Para Kay B

The Flippers had another fun book discussion. Talaga! Etong proof. http://tinyurl.com/dbtdmr

We discussed Ricky Lee's Para Kay B, his first novel ever.

One of the characters in the novel, Irene, has a photographic memory and is fascinated with facts. I'm going to channel her in writing this brief report.

Number of times the Flippers have met in a bookstore: 2 (The first one was our first eyeball sa Books for Less, Roces branch. And the 2nd time was today at Bestsellers at Robinson's Galleria.)

Number of times we've had the author/creator join the meeting: 2 (The first one was Carlo Vergara for Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, and the 2nd time was today when Ricky Lee, multi-awarded scriptwriter and author of the novel Para Kay B came to visit. He was very accommodating in answering our numerous questions. I was so enlightened.)

Number of Flippers in this meeting: 20ish

Number of times the Flippers have met for a book discussion: 12!!! Amazing.

The next Flippers book discussion: May 23, 2PM at Barbara's in Intramuros; read any Philippine history book.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PARA KAY B by Ricky Lee

Another book that would have lingered listlessly in Mt. TBR had it not been chosen as a book club book of the month. But no regrets. I was way overdue on reading a Filipino novel. And I’m a little glad that I did not have to read an emotionally charged Filipino novel replete with profound thoughts, penetrating cultural criticism, social relevance, and historical allusions, something with a convoluted plot spanning 6 generations. This is a light read. Campy, entertaining. Just about all that my mush of a brain can take these days.

And it’s written in Taglish. Kaya madaling basahin. Walang mga salitang mahirap arukin. Kahit hindi ko alam ang ibig sabihin ng burirak, kahit papano ay na-gets ko ang storya at tema ng nobela.

Each of the first 5 chapters is a love story. Some of which are love stories that delve on the idea of bawal na pag-ibig. The second chapter is a bit hard to take because of the incestuous theme. Medyo kadiri. Ang favourite ko ay ang 3rd chapter, yung tungkol kay Erica. Feeling ko para siyang Latin American magical realism chuva na hinaluan ng kabaduyan ng ABS-CBN at GMA 7 telenovelas. Parang Ricky Lee is poking fun at the realm and genres in which he makes his living as a scriptwriter.

The main theme that ties the 5 stories is the idea, ang teorya ng narrator na may quota ang pag-ibig. Sa 5 na iibig, 1 lang ang magiging masaya. Does the novel prove this thesis? I guess you’ve got to read the book to find out.

The best way to enjoy this novel is not to take it too seriously. It’s not meant to be intellectualized too much.

After all, Ricky Lee’s intention is really to make this novel as accessible as possible to the masses of Filipinos who might not otherwise read novels.

Imagine, nag FGD at nag-interview pa siya ng iba’t ibang tao in the process of writing this novel. Hmmm, and that could very well be the failure of this novel as well.

Feeling ko okay siya from chapters 1 to 5. Natuwa ako. Lumobo ang ilong ko sa kakatawa. Kahit medyo exagg and slapstick. But after those first 5 chapters, it became one gooey, incomprehensible mess. Masyado nang gumulo. Confusing. Drawn out. Ang labo. Maybe that is the point when the FGDs and other people’s comments got in the way. Parang nawalan ng control ang author over the story. Parang he tried to have an ending that would please everybody, which of course is not possible. This is also the point that you really have to consider that Ricky Lee has a strong cinematic perspective. That ending, with all the characters popping out of the woodwork might work best in a movie. But in a novel, it seems awkward, over explained. Medyo mapapakamot ka sa ulo, asking yourself, anoraw?!? Inadjust ko na lang ang thinking ko. In the movie in my mind, I imagined it to be something like Bayaning Third World. So ayun, natanggap ko na rin ang ending kahit papano.

Sa tutuo lang, ang nobela ay hindi lang tungkol sa pag-ibig. It’s also about writing, the power of the word, the power of the writer to move the world, to change history, to alter memory; to express ideology or not to; to arrange time, place, character according to one’s liking or to others’. To paraphrase what the novel’s Writer (also a character in the book)says, sa pamamagitan ng salita, he can stop movement, he can reveal the secrets of people, make rain fall, punish corrupt officials, and totally eradicate poverty from this county. But in the end, that power is finite. Futile. Powerless against reality. Kahit anong galing, ganda, o saya ng sinulat mo, haharapin mo rin ang tutuong buhay kung saan hindi mo kontrolado at malamang hindi mo gusto ang mangyayari. I like that message. And it's a message I, as somebody who has romanticized the power of that word, needed to hear. It struck me maybe because lately I’ve been finding myself in that quandary. Minsan gusto kong walang gawin kung hindi magbasa ng libro. Masarap eh. Masaya. I can escape into other worlds and feel for other characters without having to take the personal risks and all that drama. But the truth is real life has to be attended to. Kailangan magtrabaho, maglinis ng bahay, maglaba, madumihan, pawisan, makisama sa mga tutuong tao na hindi lahat ay gusto mo o gusto ka.

Our book discussion will happen in a few days. Ngayon pa lang, marami nang mga atungal at papuri. Iba ibang reaksiyon at pananaw. Gusto ng iba ang nobela. Ang iba, nangookray na. Nakikinita ko na, para silang si Bessie at si Ester magtatarayan at magdakdakan. Kaya parang si Sandra, tanggap at enjoy ko na rin ang real life. Parang tutuo.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Woohoo! Flippers for World Domination. Let the Geeks Inherit the Earth

Who would have thought that doing what we love best -- buying, reading, talking about books -- would land us in the broadsheet?

Thanks to Blooey for opening the opportunity to land in the papers and promote our love for books.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Take the Reading Challenge!

April 23 is UNESCO World Book Day – and just because the Global Voices team loves blogs, doesn’t mean we have forgotten other forms of the written word! In fact, because we think reading literature is such an enjoyable way to learn about another culture, we have a fun challenge for all Global Voices contributors and readers, and bloggers everywhere.

The Global Voices Book Challenge is as follows: Read here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Reading Nook Unveiled

It's still work in progress. Still have a few more books to shelve. And the rest of the room is still a mess. But I'm loving my reading nook. I pretty much read everywhere else, but this is where I read at night, a few steps away from the bed where my husband snores away. That floor to ceiling shelf filters the light so he does not complain so much now about the light getting in the way of his beauty sleep.

It is as cozy as it looks. And it is my corner. At least, it's mine until we get cable, and then this lounge chair will double up for TV watching, and the battle for the remote and the comfy chair resumes. In the meantime, this corner is mine.

I also do my knitting and daydreaming here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

NORWEGIAN WOOD by Haruki Murakami

So I have decided to be a Murakami fan. And this book made me do it. Not because it's the best one I've read of his thus far, even though it is. But because Murakami's voice is becoming a familiar one, and I'm liking it. Of course, a big part of that voice is that of translator Jay Rubin. And then there are the voices of his characters, each one distinct and to me quite endearing.

Toru Watanabe narrates in a voice reflective of Nick Carraway's in The Great Gatsby, Toru's favorite book. His is a voice that tries to subdue itself as the other characters assert themselves, loudly, emotionally. Just a few steps away from being a fly in the wall, he observes life around him and lets the other characters move him. He moves as the seemingly sane and stable character in a sea of broken souls.

I fell in love with the most broken among them, Naoko. Naoko and her beautiful sadness. And her hair slide. And her troubled past. And her attempts to set her life right in an asylum where the objective is not just to "correct the deformation" in their characters but to recognize and accept them, and still continue to live. "That's what distinguishes us from the outside world: most people go about their lives unconscious of their deformities, while in this little world of ours the deformities are a precondition. Just as Indians wear feathers on their heads to show what tribe they belong to, we wear our deformities in the open. And we live quietly so as not to hurt one another." She makes me think about my deformities, those I acknowledge and those I hide.

Like Toru, I was also torn between Naoko and Midori. Midori, the light against Naoko's dark spirit, the one who represents hope amid and despite a life filled with death and pain. Lively, wild, offbeat, her voice is a necessary one in a novel that would otherwise be too dismal for enjoyment. Her quirky language, her micro-minis, her bizarre dreams, her even stranger daydreams and fantasies, all lovable.

And then there's Reiko, the one who should have had the life of a successful pianist. Instead, she lives her days in an asylum to escape the outside world, a world which has battered her soul. Her voice is the most musical of all in a novel that's typical Murakami, heavily spiked with music. Reiko plays her guitar for her healing as much as for the healing of others around her. The Beatles' Norwegian Wood is among her repertoire.

There are other voices as well. The voice of Japanese youth in the 60s. Nagasawa's (Toru's college buddy and sexcapades mentor), charismatic, intelligent. The world is his for the taking, and he takes all that he possibly can. Kizuki's (Toru's childhood best friend and Naoko's boyfriend) voice from the dead, that continues to haunt and affect Toru's and Naoko's life.

But Toru speaks back to Hizuki: Hey there, Kizuki. Unlike you I've chosen to live - and to live the best I know how. Sure, it was hard for you. What the hell, it's hard for me. Really hard. And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind. But that's something I will never do. I will never, ever, turn my back on her. First of all, because I love her, and because I'm stronger than she is. And I'm just going on getting stronger. I'm going to mature. I'm going to be an adult. Because that's what I have to do... I have to pay the price to go on living.

These voices haunt me even weeks after the reading. And I've got Murakami to blame for it.


Japanese litfest continues.

3 novellas comprise Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool.

The first novella, with the same title as the book, is narrated by Aya. She is the daughter of a couple running an orphanage. Ironically, she feels the least privileged among the orphans living under their roof. They, at least, have the chance of being adopted and moving away. It's from that dreary perspective that Aya sees her world.

The only bright spot in her life is Jun, an orphan in their home. He dives to compete, but to Aya, he dives so she can watch his graceful body cut through air, water, time, and her emotions "to reach the deepest place inside of her." Stealthily, Aya watches him dive, admiring the grace of his motions, the line of his muscle, the alignment of his wrists. Ogawa narrates with a focus on the minutiae, on the languid but not innocent thoughts that run through Aya's head.

The other novellas are told with the same languor. Drama kept at a minimum. Emotions not over emphasized; merely suggested. The narration of events calm. Yet, the reader's reactions would be anything but. Because what the novellas have in common is the theme that danger lurks underneath a surface of tranquility, evil behind a facade of normalcy.

The second novella, Pregnancy Diary, merely hints at the diabolical. And it is the most sinister of the three stories. In the end, you're left to using your own imagination, which is probably more frightening than anything the story could narrate.

The third novella, Dormitory, is the one most likely to become an episode of Twilight Zone if that show were to be revived. Again, the ending does not spell everything out for you. You're left imagining the worst.

The Diving Pool is a light, easy read of themes that are heavy, disturbing, haunting. Not quite satisfying, because I'm left wanting more.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I Flipped Through Kazuo Ishiguro's A PALE VIEW OF HILLS

Another Japanese authored book. There are two more posts on the way. Our book club, Flips Flipping Pages, discussed Japanese literature last March. And we had the liberty to choose any title for as long as it fell under the broad category of Japanese literature. I read 2 books before the discussion, and followed up my JapLit education with 2 more.

Thus far, the one thing I found that all these books had in common is: cats. Cats figure prominently in every piece of Japanese literature I have read. The last one I read, Norwegian Wood, almost did not meet this criteria. Then, near the end a cat named Seagull entered the picture. In A Pale View of Hills, the loathsome creatures play a central role, symbolizing dispensable relationships and responsibilities. People who know me know that I hate cats - the animal as well as the topic. So, let's move on.

I also noticed that Japanese authors like to tell their stories the way they serve their tea. Slowly, lyrically, patiently. Maybe a bit mysteriously. Testing your ability to sit still, an underdeveloped skill in this time when people and events move in the speed of light just to catch up. Storytelling that forces you to slow down, linger, hold your breath, and wait for something to happen. A Pale View of Hills is self-indulgent narration. By that I mean, the author asks you to indulge him, to patiently read through the long meandering thoughts, and you just hope that somehow, somewhere, some time in the novel, there is a point. Halfway through the book, I still had no idea what this was all about. You just simply make a decision to drop the book or just enjoy the narration and hope that it would be worth it.

It's a bit like walking through the forest; trees, shadows, and mist obscure the path, and you're not certain if it's going somewhere...ah wait, I'm doing that right now, am I not? I am waxing Ishiguroesque. Ah, I am so easily influenced by the things I read. Anyway, let's get on with it.

A Pale View of Hills is about Etsuko. Transplanted to London, recent events have made her recall a summer after the war, right back when she was in Japan. She was newly married, pregnant with her first child, and like her fellow Japanese, trying to rebuild a life.

Two sub-plots develop, One concerns her neighbor, Sachiko, a single mother obsessed, but not quite upfront, with the idea of finding greener pastures in another land. Kazuo's Ishiguro's use of dialogue hints without telling that this is a woman you can't trust.

Sachiko's story is interspersed with a seemingly unrelated story -- the conflict between Etsuko's husband and her father in law.

These 2 stories move in parallel lines, and how they come together and affect Etsuko's present eventually emerges at the end in a surprise twist that reveals how her past shaped her present. History repeats itself. The generation gap between Etsuko's husband and his father is echoed in the strained relationship between Etsuko and her daughter, Niki. This time, culture differences, as well as a generation gap, test their kinship.

After all that, yes, there is a point. But you do have to slow down to enjoy the telling. Kazuo's gift for description, characterization, and narration makes the slow meandering journey through the pale hills worth it.

Friday, April 3, 2009


In the Introduction, Murakami likens the writing of short stories to planting gardens and writing novels to planting forests. In this book, he planted a lush, colorful collection of stories written from 1981 to 2005. The book is like Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook, containing studies for bigger works, studies that are complete art by themselves. One story, Firefly, is a study that he eventually developed into the novel, Norwegian Wood, the work that brought Murakami into the nova of international bestseller authors.

One gets the feeling that a lot of the stories are autobiographical. In Chance Traveler, for instance, he specifically names himself as the narrator and places himself in the story.

I’m not fond of short stories. Most of the time, they’re weird, vague, ending abruptly leaving me scratching my head muttering, what the fafaya was that about?!? (Interrobang intended.) And then there’s Haruki Murakami, known for his delving in the bizarre and surreal.

The combination of short stories and Murakami really intimidated me.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is very low on the weirdometer; not intimidating at all. And the biggest surprise is that most of the stories have very neat, complete plots, with dénouements not usually seen in short stories. Some are so well developed, they seem more like novellas than short stories.

Wiki describes Murakami’s work as “accessible yet profoundly complex.” With this book as basis, I have to agree. His prose is easily understandable, the narrative simple and fluid, and the themes universal. Though some stories have a touch of the bizarre and most exhibit Murakami’s style of magical realism, they are stories that are easy to relate to. Because underneath the fantastic plots are emotional themes most people can identify with.

The one that resonated with me best was the story of Tony Takitani, whose wife was obsessed with the accumulation of clothes. In my case, my obsession is amassing books. I’ll spare you the spoilers so I won’t say much about it except that it shows Murakami’s dry humor as well as his splendid way of taking what’s ordinary to weave extraordinary tales.

A Poor Aunt Story is more fantastic but still very easy to grasp, which is not to say that it is simplistic or dumbed down. The narrator in the story suddenly finds himself bearing on his shoulder a poor aunt that just won’t go away. It’s great how this metaphor can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. The shoulder-borne aunt may represent limiting mindsets, bad habits, debilitating fears, and counterproductive behavior. Or whatever you think it is.

So relatable are the stories that if you take away the Japanese names of people and places, these stories could happen to anyone anywhere in the world. Anyone who suffers loss, experiences love, and wonders at life. Maybe because of it being so universal, what is missing is the "Japaneseness" of it. If you look closer though, the issues can be those which are prevalent in Japan. Suicide, for instance.

Expectedly, the stories show Murakami’s obsession with death, particularly suicide. A character says, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” Even then, death is not trivialized; his characters ponder much on the loss of life and the sorrow that comes with it.

Before this, the only Murakami piece I’ve read was Kafka on the Shore, which wowed me with the writing but freaked me out with the oedipal theme. After reading this, I have not yet decided if I should become a fan. This might not be the book to convert me into a Murakamite. It is not iconic like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka on the Shore. It is rarely listed among his notable works. But if this well written book is not one of his best, then I would certainly like to read the rest of Murakami’s works.


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