Happenings

I’m a creature of inertia, apparently. I always feel the danger and temptation of putting of things (like updating this blog, for example) because the more days come between the last time I post and the next time I attempt, the less likely I am to actually follow through. A part of me feels paralyzed with embarrassment, like I have to explain away why I seem to have done nothing since January.

But happily, I’ve been writing. Just not here. I’ve been a contributor for Book Riot since June. There’s not a lot there yet, but here’s my Author Page. This is probably going to mean that this poor blog is gonna languish even more, since I’ll be writing there on top of the day job. But I still do want to write about books, and I still want to have a space for myself.

Thanks for continuing to hang here with me, folks.

The Likeness by Tana French

(I’m going to discuss this book in ways that will be deemed spoilery, so please be warned if you like going into mystery books with a pristine mind.)

In the beginning of Tana French’s The Likeness, detective Cassie Maddox is nursing a wound from an old undercover case gone horribly wrong. Reassigned to a desk job after her old team imploded, she feels both frustrated and alienated from her career. Going into this second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series (the first novel is In the Woods), I did not know the particulars of the old case, but it sets up the extent to which Cassie has been emotionally and professionally compromised.

All this was before a corpse that looks exactly like her was found. By the time she agrees to impersonating a dead woman named Lexie and living inside a foreboding house with four murder suspects, you can kind of tell that this new thing is going to mess her up even more. Continue reading

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

This novel about the last game of a dying Go master was a gift to me by friends. They knew of my longstanding interest in Go and gave me this novel for my birthday. I’ve previously read a couple of Yasunari Kawabata’s short stories in anthologies but I’ve always felt his writing to be at least one shade more oblique than is comfortable. This book, which is apparently more straightforward than a lot of his other novels, is quite difficult to parse as an emotional work. But I still end up contemplating its themes, turning them over in my head as one’s fingers would fiddle a Go stone.

Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go is an example of the shishosetsu, a novel form that hinges upon the fictionalization of real events as experienced by the author. In this particular novel, the author is the newspaper correspondent covering the retirement game of the highly influential Go master Honinbo Shusai and the innovative younger player Otake (a thinly veiled fictionalization of eventual Go legend Minoru Kitani). Kawabata uses the actual game record in his storytelling, a recreation of which you can access here. Continue reading

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I like to think I’ve outgrown my youthful overreliance in wild hyperbole and dismissal of other people’s opinions when it comes to books and life in general. However, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte elicits such a knee-jerk revulsion from me that I fear I can never be generous or objective in my estimation of it. This despite the fact that several readers I know whose tastes have often aligned with mine thinks highly of this novel. I simply can’t move forward in a conversation about this novel without the other person agreeing to the premise that Edward Rochester is objectively The Worst.

Written in 1847, Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman that traces the life of the eponymous Jane as she builds her own self-identity despite her often dire circumstances. Orphaned early with no memories of her parents, she is forced to live with callous relations before being shipped off to a rigid boarding school where she experiences injustice and loss. As an adult with no inheritance or relations to support her, she takes on the job of a governess at a gloomy manor called Thornfield, where her life becomes enmeshed in the tempestuous affairs of its owner Edward Rochester. This relationship has become so totemic in literature that it’s the template of an entire literary tradition. The novel is told solely through Jane’s point of view, an unfiltered transcript of her thoughts and feelings as she struggles to actualize who she is and reconcile her passions with her own sense of morality. Continue reading

My Sort-Of, Inadvertent #ReadWomen2014 Reading Challenge

I’m starting with a little anecdote but I’m gonna have to eyeball the timeline, so I hope you’ll forgive the inaccuracy.

Around the middle of February (perhaps before the Vida Count 2013 reports was published, but I can’t be sure), I looked at my reading list on Goodreads and noted that I have been on a 4-book reading streak of all male writers. At that point the breakdown would have been 5 books written by men versus 2 books written by women. I picked up Ellis Peters’ A Morbid Taste of Bones to break the streak (written by a woman writing under a male pseudonym, natch). I then read 3 more books by women after a lengthy foray into Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I didn’t really articulate it at the time, but it was the moment that I began making a mental note to maintain some semblance of gender parity in my reading this year. This is where I tell you how well the Goodreads interface can aid an obsessive.

The impulse to do this may have come from the zeitgeisty moment going on in the culture that is putting a harsh glare on the the gender disparity in publishing. In January, Joanna Walsh wrote on The Guardian about challenging herself to reading all women for the year. The piece’s provocative title invoked the #ReadWomen2014 hashtag. It was much talked about in book world, with some people making personal pledges to read nothing but women this year. Among the entities that have been a the forefront of discussion is the previously mentioned Vida Count, which tallies the authors reviewed and reviewers of major literary publications. Jennifer Weiner has also been pretty vocal about this, to the point that she has been called “strident” by people who has tried to paint her with a jealous brush. Continue reading

My Year In Reading 2014 – Standout Books

2014 has been an exceptional reading year for me. By the end of the year, I’m set to have read more than 50 books, a feat that I haven’t been able to accomplish since I was in college. Recent years have pegged me at about 35 books read on average, and last year I only managed to read 22 books. I don’t believe that there is a minimum number of books that one must finish in order to be considered a “real reader” but I do make a conscious commitment to do it because I have a tendency to be distractible. Reading means a lot to my self-identity but without some overt effort on my part, I would have probably spent all of 2014 scrolling through corgi photosets on Tumblr.

With the exception of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I haven’t really written about any of the books I read this year. This blog is less a running update of books I’ve read in real time and more a challenge to myself to write reflective notes about books after some time has passed between the reading and the evaluation. As it stands, I have more than a year of backlog (reaching back to 2012) in my “reviewing” slate and I don’t really have any pressure to catch up except whenever I feel like berating myself about procrastination. I’m gonna highlight several books that have ended up being real gems from my 2014 reads.

1. True Grit by Charles Portis

As pure, crackerjack entertainment, no book has managed to surpass True Grit, a novel which I read very early in January. Told solely from the point of view by a young woman bent on revenge named Mattie Ross, it pairs beautiful, blunt writing, wry humor, and nail-biting action. It’s also a loving but unflinching depiction of frontier life with all sexist, racist, and generally profane baggage that went along with that milieu.

2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

I moderated the discussion of this book in October for The Filipino Group on Goodreads, a wonderful book club that has been my source of great book-related camaraderie for years. During our meeting, we tackled some particularly heady aspects of neuropsychology and philosophy. The book is a series of diagnostic sketches about unusual neurological conditions such as face-blindness, auditory hallucinations, phantom limbs and more.

Our book club meeting also generated an interesting debate on the responsibilities and values of non-fiction when it comes to accuracy, ethics, and other concerns, something that I’ve continued to mull over since. Not to mention a lot of raging for my brain-hurting questions. :P Continue reading

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Sometimes the impulse to fully represent how much a book means to you is almost enough to render you speechless. I feel this way about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that packs such potency that it still catches me unaware sometimes. Most admirers highlight the novel’s cerebral heft–it is, for my money, one of the most sophisticated thought experiments that touch on everything from extraterrestrial urban planning to theology, anthropology, and high-level geopolitics. But those kinds of reviews fail describe how well Le Guin wields wistful delicacy when she wants to, how unerringly she locates the beating human heart of this forbidding story.

The novel is told through a series of reports by an envoy named Genly Ai. He is nominally a human being (he refers to himself as Terran), but he comes from an advanced society called Ekumen that fosters intergalactic alliances and commerce among various alien entities. Genly arrives in Gethen, an ice-bound planet that can be considered a sort of backwater, in an attempt to persuade its inhabitants to join the alliance of planets. Continue reading

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

(This review spoils a significant subplot in the story, so proceed with caution.)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a beautiful title in search of a novel. Peter Cameron uses it as the jumping off point to tell the coming of age of an eighteen-year old named James Sveck.

The first few pages quickly illustrate James’s contrary and cynical nature, as well as his increasing alienation from his family and his privileged upbringing. He has acted out enough to warrant compulsory meetings with a psychiatrist, whom he stonewalls at every opportunity. He spends the last of his summer vacation before college working part-time at his mom’s art gallery. Slated to go to Brown University, he instead looks obsessively at real estate in the Midwest and plots his escape, all the while disdaining everybody in New York City, except for his grandmother and one of his mother’s employees.

I have a very contentious relationship with stories about the children of privileged New York families acting like utter snots. I like them in their trashiest incarnations, as illustrated by the distressing number of aggregate hours I’ve spent watching Gossip Girl. I know more gossipy information about Anderson Cooper (who is not a snot) and his Vanderbilt relatives (who were) than is frankly healthy. On a less morally dubious note, I also love Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Despite all that, however, I have found that the novels I’ve read so far that feature sophisticated yet brittle families leave me cold. Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Nanny Diaries. I don’t find the muted oppressiveness compelling, and neither do I muster much sympathy for the often unlikeable audience surrogate railing against the machine. I like drama that surround fictional royalty with much stricter sense of decorum and repression, but I don’t know, it just doesn’t tickle me in this particular setting. Continue reading

Bossypants by Tina Fey

If you are a liker of comedy, you’d be hard pressed to find reasons to justify why Tina Fey isn’t that big of a deal. She and Amy Poehler loomed large for an entire era of SNL, especially in Fey’s role as head writer for nine years. Their generation of improv performers cornered valuable TV and movie real estate that used to be reserved only for standup comedians. She also wrote the screenplay of the totemic film Mean Girls, basically informing the vocabulary of every human being in possession of a Tumblr account.

Her schtick as an often hapless, often harried nerd thrust into the spotlight is belied by the ferocious intellect, drive and savvy that Bossypants merely hints at. I’m slightly apprehensive that my post about her 2011 memoir will speak more of her place in culture than the actual content of the book. But Fey herself also deftly anticipates that readers coming into Bossypants are most likely aware of celebrity, and may already have their opinions of her hardened beyond modification. Continue reading

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books within it, but I am also unfamiliar with other iterations, whether on TV or in the movies. (Except for Justified. Is that a Western?) John Wayne for me is nothing but a name that personifies the cookie-cutter Hollywood Hero. My only way in is country music and… that’s about it.

It’s also a genre that seems so heavily nostalgic for the geographical and historical specifics of the United States to the point that it lionizes episodes of systematic institutional violence such as Manifest Destiny, the uprooting and genocide of Native Americans, and so on. So I guess it’s appropriately ironic that my first foray into the Western is a novel written by a Canadian writer. (Though to be fair, he is a current resident of Oregon according to Wikipedia.)

The premise of Patrick deWitt’s Booker-nominated novel The Sisters Brothers is as simple as it is thrilling: notorious siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired by an Oregon bigwig called the Commodore to travel to California and kill a man. What transpires is an archetypal roadtrip story, except the protagonists are on horseback. Continue reading

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Let’s get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.

There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.

But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets’ Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.

Continue reading