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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I Gotta Wear Shades Because the Spotlight is on Me

I used to (and still will) blog as Islandhopper, in a blog that was supposed to be a catchall for all my personal angst as well as my restaurant and book reviews. By my standards, the blog got pretty decent traffic that made me feel loved and noticed. But the blog (and I) started having identity issues, and so I started this offshoot blog to focus on book reviews. After the shift, I realized that my friends didn't love me much for my brains but more for my gastronomic adventures and recommendations. :(

Though I mainly blog for myself (to document my life as a way of counteracting the ravages of age on my memory), my ego did suffer a blow. Nevertheless, I will continue to blog about my reading adventures, albeit intermittently, because uhm, well, why, oh, just to have something to show for all the time and money I spend book shopping. Thanks to Melange for her encouragement. She spotlighted me in her blog and made me blush and smile, and made me guilty for not updating more frequently, and just made me feel that there really is something worthwhile about this book blogging thing. Thanks, Melange. This recognition coming from one of my favorite book bloggers is much, much appreciated.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I Flipped Through the Pages of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

My copy: trade paperback
ISBN 0312282990
Purchased September 22, 2009
from The Bookstore,
University of the Philippines campus
Read: March 3, 2010

If it were not for the recommendations of my book club friends, I would probably not have heard of Michael Chabon and consequently would not have picked up this book from the used bookstore shelf. If it were not for this rather silly A to Z challenge, I probably would not have picked this up from my own shelf to actually read it. The heft intimidated me; a 1 1/4" thick trade paperback with 639 pages, this is the kind of book that would set me back in my 70-book goal for 2010. But I needed a C author, and this was the most attractive choice, so I took a deep breath and made the commitment to start the adventure.

Above is the reason I started reading TAAOKC. But why I continued reading it is all Michael Chabon's fault. That guy can write.

According to Wikipedia, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the author's magnum opus. It won for him a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. Okay, I don't really care about those things. What matters is that this guy can write.

He writes so well that reading 600++ pages was a breeze. He writes so convincingly that I felt I was reading about something that really happened. Like there really were these 2 Jewish cousins who lived in New York City and they collaborated on a comic book series about a Harry Houdini inspired superhero called The Escapist and they didn't make as much money as they should have.... oh, I'll shut up now and let you read the book yourself.

So as I was saying, Chabon can write. Several times I had to tell myself to stop crying/laughing/moaning because it was just fiction. It didn't really happen.

Well, some parts of it did. Chabon brings you back to a real time in the 40s, just before the United States plunged into World War 2, when the comic book has just been born and the industry was beginning to flourish. It was the golden age of comic books, and Jewish artists, denied work in other fields, found themselves dominating the industry. Chabon works in historical characters (like Hitler, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles) and historical events (WW2, the Congressional hearings against comic books) and weaves them into the fictional lives of Josef "Jo" Kavalier and Sam Clayman.

Joe Kavalier is one of the most likable characters I have had the pleasure of reading. I immediately fell in love with him. It was more like a crush, really. He got me when as a child he attempted his first performance -- what his flyer advertised as "an astounding feat of autoliberation by that prodigy of escapistry CAVALIERI" - and almost killed himself trapped in a sack thrown into an icy river in Prague. He lives through it. He lives through a hellish trip to New York, a leg of which he spent in a coffin. He lives through the tragedy of losing loved ones. He lives through a war assignment in the polar regions. He lives an extraordinary life marked by passion for the interests he pursues, marred by tragedy, enriched by romance, and of course, there is all that comic book magic. His character is gawky, geeky but also adorable and heroic.

His cousin Sam has his share of tragedy and adventure too. His deepest pains include insecurity about his physical imperfections, the absence of a father, his struggles with gender issues, and the agony of being duped and exploited by the owners of The Escapist enterprise. Your heart just goes out to him.

There is a host of other fascinating characters, but I don't want to talk about the characters and the plot any more as they're better enjoyed as you read the book. I want to talk more about Chabon's writing -- when he writes Sam's cliche-ridden comic book scripts, he writes in a cheesy, melodramatic manner that lends itself well to the theme. When he writes as the unnamed narrator of the the adventures, he is terrific - altenatively funny, wry, poignant, furious whenever necessary. You know how it is when you're in New York, and there's this buzz that rings in your ears? Chabon was able to communicate that frenetic, intense energy that draws from the big city commotion, a bustling social and art scene, the cacophony of nascent and burgeoning industries, and the controversy of an upcoming war. What Chabon really does well is to face the challenge of narrating through text alone a story, a theme that should convey itself better graphically - through a movie or even a graphic novel. How difficult it must have been to write about Joe's art -- the slugfests, the caricatured characters, the battle against evil fascists -- and enable the readers to see them all in their minds' eyes. And he does so successfully.

Wikipedia says that this novel received "nearly unanimous praise." Huh, just nearly?

Friday, March 26, 2010

I Flipped Through the Pages of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight

by Stephenie Meyer
ISBN: 0316015849
I read a trade paperback borrowed from my sister.
498 pages

I finally read this to find out for myself if it is as good/bad/thrilling/horrid/exciting/crappy as people say it is.

It's not.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Jenny loves to read: Announcing the 2010 Reading Resolutions Challenge

Jenny loves to read: Announcing the 2010 Reading Resolutions Challenge

I Flipped Through The Pages of A.S. Byatt's The Game

The Game
A.S. Byatt
ISBN: 0-679-74256-5
My copy: Paperback, 286 pages
Purchased: December 11, 2009 from Booksale
Read: February 2, 2010

"B is for Byatt. And Byatt is a biyatch." That's what I was muttering to myself while reading this book, the second for my A to Z challenge. It was a hard read; I struggled to keep awake and not to trade it for a Charles Baxter, or Elizabeth Berg, or just about any other B-surnamed author.

The Game is a good illustration of my contention that good writing is not enough to make a book likable.

Byatt is obviously a good writer. She is an intelligent woman, and she seemed hellbent to prove it to her readers. She obviously did extensive research on snakes and religion and the Amazon, and she was determined not to allow an ounce of research matter go to waste, as she filled her narrative with shedloads (British for truckload) of information that had this tranquilizing effect on me. Pedantry at its finest. Of course, I am willing to admit that all the fascinating, scientific knowledge just might be way beyond my capacity to understand and all my scathing remarks on the novel's obtuseness just indicate that I am not smart enough to be a Byatt reader. But since this is my review and no one can stop me as I type it at 1 o'clock this morning, I'll continue my Byatt-bashing.

I just felt that the knowledge-dumping was way too much and got in the way of the narrative. In a few instances, she delivers paragraph after paragraph to quote a TV host's script. Granted, it's a show about natural science and that this is set all the way back in 1967, but I think even way back then, sound bites, concise and catchy lines were more appropriate to TV than what sounds like what a science teacher would read in class.

The novel is thin on the plot and heavy on the pondering. Kilometers of interior monologue. Pondering, pondering, and more pondering. The kind of pondering that leads characters to kill themselves and readers to want to kill themselves.

But more than the pedantry and the sedative qualities of the piece, what really irked me most was that none of the characters were likable. I am not looking for perfection. Nor am I looking for one-dimensional goodness; I do appreciate the brokenness, the frailties of characters that give them human qualities. Sometimes, these faults are precisely what make them accessible and even lovable. I need to relate to them or even fall in love with one of them to enjoy a book.

Cassandra is the elder sister, an unmarried university don feared by her students . Domineering, somber, isolated from the real world by an aversion to the enjoyment of life. She wears staid and worn-out clothing that hide her personality and vulnerabilities, and she ensconces herself in academia to further detach herself from anything that can hurt her. Writer turned TV show art consultant Julia is a successful novelist but failed mother and wife. The more attractive, more charming sister, she is is self-absorbed, flirtatious, and as the story would prove, mean-spirited. As children, the two engage in a game they invented, a complex game filled with allusions to King Arthurian characters. Their close relationship is fissured by a couple of events that Cassandra perceives as betrayal. Time, distance, and resentment drive them further apart, and it takes a death in the family and a snowstorm to force them together again, at least physically.

Simon is the third party in this bitter love triangle. Both women spend a lot of time ruminating on this man who was partially responsible for their sisterly rift and by the time he actually enters the picture, I was desperately hoping that he would be drop-dead gorgeous, enigmatic, an irresistible rake who would inspire unbridled lust. No, he's a cad. A boring, nerdish (not in a good way), spineless cad who inspires rapid eye movement, aka deep sleep. The thought bubbles hovering above my head were screaming, you're fighting over this man?!?

The best part about the book is the ending, which is jarring, disturbing, gasp-inspiring. Probably the novel's redeeming factor. It hints of a wicked author's fiendish mind. But the big but is that this ending just makes you hate the characters more as it reveals their nasty, pathetic, selfish hearts.

Maybe this is not one of Byatt's best books. If I find a copy of Possession, the piece for which she is most famous for, I just might try it to give this revered author another try. But I assure you, I won't be in the active lookout in the book bins. In the meantime, I'll steer clear of Byatt.

On to letter C.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I Flipped through Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (HTGGLTA)
by Julia Alvarez
ISBN 0452268060
290 pages
My copy was purchased on March 11, 2008 from Booksale and read January 22, 2010.

This is my first review for the A to Z challenge. As usual, I indulged in my bad habit, reviewcastinating.
I also took my time before writing a review because I wanted to be fair to Julia Alvarez. You see, I read this book after reading Jeanette Winterson's The Passion, an exceptionally well written book. And HTGGLTA followed at the heels and suffered unfairly in comparison.

Which is not to say that HTGGLTA is not well written. Alvarez is an able writer, an entertaining story teller. She writes with a successful mixture of drama, humor, and depth. It's an enjoyable, engaging book with endearing characters who are easy to relate to. Alvarez picked up elements from her own life and from historical realities to convincingly write this coming-to-America meets coming-of-age novel.

The novel is a loosely woven collection of episodes that tell of the Garcia sisters' departure from the Dominican Republic and their life in America, only said in reverse chronology from 1989 to 1956. Alvarez engages us with stories of how they escape as political refugees; how they struggle in their new life in a land that is ironically a land of promise but where they have none of the power, influence, and stature they enjoyed back home; and how they assimilate into the American lifestyle.

Carla, the eldest, is the psychotherapist of the bunch, and she gets a lot of flak for her self-help jargon. Sandi or Sandra is the pretty one with an eating disorder. Yolanda is the writer and poet. And Sofia is the rebellious one who marries on impulse. And they all took turns being the wildest one. Though all the sisters shine through in the story telling, each one with a distinct character, it is Yolanda who plays the most important role, presumably representing Julia Alvarez herself. The novel starts with her visiting their birthplace many years after they left for America, and ends with a childhood story about a magnificent drum and a frightful cat.

The story that I found most interesting is Sandi's. Away in graduate school, she becomes obsessed with having to read all the great written works because she does not have a lot of time left before she evolves from human to monkey. She reads and reads and reads, and crosses off books from her reading list, and stops eating until she's "toothpick-thin," and reads and reads. Except for the parts about ceasing from eating and becoming a monkey, my book geek friends and I can certainly relate to the fear of leaving this earth without first having read all the books we must read.

And that is why I am taking the A to Z challenge. To read and to read and to read. And Julia Alvarez, though not quite a great work, is a pretty good read.


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