Mad Women*: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

IMG_5695Right at the onset of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I knew I was reading a work by a truly skilled writer. The prose is effortlessly emotional. The language is profound and simple, yet incredibly insightful.  Few writers could make you think and feel so much with so little.

It’s a cleverly-crafted book that takes place on a single day of three women: Clarrisa, Laura and Virginia Woolf, as their lives take shape in light of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It is a powerful look at the influence of literature both on those who create it and those who consume it.

The Hours is also a wonderful meditation on consciousness and the meaning of life. The suicidal undertones that well up from loneliness, from disease, or from failing mental health were heavy as they were beautiful, but at the core of it, The Hours is a celebration of life despite its misery. It helps us deal with making sense of the mystery of why some people choose to go on living amidst the seeming hopelessness of it all.

“A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself.

There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.

Heaven only knows why we love it so.”

* This is the last of Mad Women series for August after Shopgirl and Wide Sargasso Sea. I didn’t really plan on reading successive books on women with mental health issues, well, I don’t really have much of a reading plan (I leave that to the book bargain gods), but this was fun!

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Mad Women*: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

wide sargasso seaI picked up Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for three reasons:  (1) Penguin Modern Classic, (2) that beautiful, beautiful cover, and (3) a 30-peso price tag.

So, Wide Sargasso Sea is an unofficial prequel to Jane Eyre. In this novel, Rhys considers an unanswered question in Jane Eyre – who is that mad woman in the attic and how did she get there? She then puts this tale in the middle of important issues plaguing a recently emancipated Jamaica, the misplacement of post-colonial white Creoles, and the racial and cultural superiority of the new British arrivals.

This book reads like a dark dream. The energy and atmosphere of the prose is listless, sexual and intoxicating. Jean Rhys weaves words that engage all the senses – the strong, almost nauseating scent of the night-blooming moon flowers, the sight of the heap of chicken feathers in the corner of Christophine’s house, the wooziness of the islanders as they chugged their white rum, and the feeling of total despair as Antoinette discovers her mother’s horse lying dead under the frangipani tree.

Seeing most of the story unfold through Antoinette’s eyes tells us the internal warfare of a woman trapped between race, class and circumstance. The intermission of Rochester’s narration also shows us how the foreigner struggles to make sense of everything in the Caribbean Islands – the post-slavery politics, the rules of upper class economics, and least of all, the woman he has agreed to marry.

My copy had a very comprehensive discussion about the subtleties that every detail in the prose conveyed.  This is great because getting subtleties is not my strongest suit and some underlying messages go right over my head sometimes. With that out in the open, Rhys is a very particular writer. Every phrase has a meaning and the nuances that you get from the sentences reminded me how awesome the subtle but vast difference between “tsokolate eh” and “tsokolate ah” in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere was.  Wide Sargasso Sea just feels like Noli , with Rhys’ mastery in playing with mystery, decay, racial, social and sexual conflicts to make a novel that is as much lyrical and literary, as it is political.

With Wide Sargasso Sea, we  are not merely being entertained with the romantic drama between Antoinette and Rochester, we are also given a historical and societal exercise to remind us about the harsh transition from slavery to emancipation, and the tragedy of how human beings try to own each other, without pity, in slavery, marriage or parenthood.

BONUS: There’s a TV adaptation!

* I’ve read three books this month chronicling lives of mad women (or women with mental health issues). To other two are The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and Shopgirl by Steve Martin.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Consumerism

But whatever, right? These are good books I bought at a bargain in that crazy National Bookstore Warehouse Sale from the last weekend. The hardcovers were the most expensive at Php100, which is a deal for hardcover copies of books I’ve been eyeing for months.  I did not pick up some good titles (Mieville’s Kraken in hardcover gaah!) because I make bad decisions in my life.

Not pictured is Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, because, I dunno, another bad decision I guess.

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Mad Women*: Shopgirl by Steve Martin

Shopgirl by Steve Martin

People were surprised when I told them I was reading Shopgirl by Steve Martin. “By Steve Martin?” they ask and yes, Steve Martin. The same Steve Martin that gave us… Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther!

I honestly didn’t expect much from this novella so I was somewhat amused at Martin’s proficiency and the elegance and freshness of his prose.  His description about love and relationships is a delightful mixture of quaint and caustic:

Jeremy does have one outstanding quality. He likes her. And this quality in a person makes them infinitely interesting to the person who is being liked.

Shopgirl is essentially chick-lit (albeit relatively well-written).  It contains all the hallmarks of an entertaining chick literature – we follow the life of Mirabelle, awkward and flawed Mirabelle, clinically depressed Mirabelle, and her despondent foray into love and life.

Mirabelle is not affected by a man’s failures to approach her, as her own self-depreciating attitude never allows the idea that he would in the first place.

The story plods but each Serzone-powered day that Mirabelle struggles with is neatly stacked and elegantly intertwined with those of her lovers. I liked this book, it is the best (somewhat) romantic book I’ve read this year but it isn’t without limitations.

Mirabelle, Ray and Jeremy were written more as literary constructs than as blood-and-flesh characters and I understand how that may turn people off. However, for me, character development in Shopgirl is second to Martin’s contemplations on desire, romantic need and arrested development in different stages of life.  The characters were written in an obviously analytical fashion – I didn’t care about anyone, and I felt like I really wasn’t meant to.  Mirabelle’s interactions are mere backdrops to show us how relationships can be difficult and beautiful, sometimes, both at the same time.

Shopgirl was weirdly sad and self-affirming and it feels like Lost in Translation but in written form. There was no theatrical bang at any point, but life often doesn’t get any more cosmic as finally knowing what you like and going after it in the end.

* Shopgirl is the first of three books I read this month chronicling lives of mad women (or women with mental health issues). To other two are The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Reviews to follow.

A Childhood Farewell of Sorts

IMG_5650 I’m giving away my children’s books mostly because I’m running out of space for new ones, and also because I have not re-read any of these for so long that they’ve started looking sad.

I’ve been collecting Newberry medalists for a few years now – I fancied myself building a respectable library for my future children, but since all maternal instincts have escaped me and I cannot/don’t want to find a justifiable reason to make a human, there really is no point in amassing books that just end up gathering dust for years. Besides, if I finally decide to bear spawns, I could always buy more of these books. Or send the little ones off to the library.

I’m giving these books to a friend who’s a mother who loves books. I hope she and her boys enjoy them as much as I did.

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I read The Egypt Game last weekend because I couldn’t remember what it was about. Well, it was about children fascinated with Egypt (d’oh!) which I would like to think all nerdy children had a phase with at some point in our their childhood.

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I read this when I was in college and at a very bad time (night before finals) because I started it and couldn’t stop and go back to my college textbooks without finishing the story. It was a bad time to read a book for pleasure but The Door in the Wall was so good.  A great book of adventure and excitement. 10/10 will read again.

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From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has got to be one of my favorite childhood books ever. It’s one of two books from this pile that I’ve read more than twice, and it’s still as fun and still as charming as when I first read it so many years ago.

It also bears one of my favorite quotes about learning:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.

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Roald Dahl is one of the most clever and fun writers with his odd but endearing characters.  I see more Dahls accumulating on my shelf for the years to come as one of my personal reading goals is to read (and write about) all of his works. Matilda and the Charlie Bucket series are probably his most popular books, no?

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A Wrinkle in Time is also one of my childhood favorites. I used to hunt for the entire Time Quartet series in my grade school library and talk about them with the only other person I knew back then who was as crazy about the series as I was (hello, Zerah). I still remember staying up late at night to finish this and daydream about the book all through the next school day. This copy is so old, torn and battered (but so pretty). I tried re-reading this last week but I can’t seem to get past the first few pages.  Curious.IMG_5641 I also read The Midwife’s Apprentice in college and it’s quirky and quaint. It reminded me a lot of Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, another grade school Newberry favorite.

The Business: A Minor Banks

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So I finished The Business by Iain Banks last night, proving once and for all that I can read a dry book from cover to cover if I really wanted to.  So a dry Iain Banks book, I did not expect that. I was blown away by The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory and this was one book that surprised me in its dryness.

Now what is dry? I don’t mean that it was too dense or academic (it wasn’t), the book simply failed to pull me in or captivate me, and it was work to get through. Dry is also a lack of plot in that it talks too much of the universe (or in this case, The Business) and the settings and the characters like they are mere caricatures in the grand world the author created, without them really doing anything. The plot only picked up at about page 175 and the mystery element that was masterfully presented on the first chapter was sadly underused.

Looking back, I was never really convinced that there was much of a plot to be had. There was too much contemplating that the “plot” became a bit too tenuous to follow, then the last 50 pages struggled to dump all the details together leaving the mystery poorly explained at the end.  It felt rushed, with having so much potential in the first few chapters, to having almost no meat. It’s like a lost opportunity rather than a fully formed novel.

It lacks the emotional weight of The Crow Road, and the thrill and mystery of The Wasp FactoryThe Business is perhaps Mr. Banks’ weakest book ever.

OCD by Neil Hilborn

The first time I saw her..

Everything in my head went quiet.

All the ticks, all the constantly refreshing images just disappeared.

When you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you don’t really get quiet moments.

Even in bed, I’m thinking:

Did I lock the doors? Yes.
Did I wash my hands? Yes.
Did I lock the doors? Yes.
Did I wash my hands? Yes.

But when I saw her, the only thing I could think about was the hairpin curve of her lips..

Or the eyelash on her cheek—
the eyelash on her cheek—
the eyelash on her cheek.

I knew I had to talk to her.

I asked her out six times in thirty seconds.

She said yes after the third one, but none of them felt right, so I had to keep going.

On our first date, I spent more time organizing my meal by color than I did eating it, ortalking to her..

But she loved it.

She loved that I had to kiss her goodbye sixteen times or twenty-four times at different times of the day.

She loved that it took me forever to walk home because there are lots of cracks on our sidewalk.

When we moved in together, she said she felt safe, like no one would ever rob us because I definitely lock the door eighteen times.

I’d always watch her mouth when she talked—

when she talked—
when she talked—
when she talked;

when she said she loved me, her mouth would curl up at the edges.

At night, she’d lay in bed and watch me turn all the lights off.. And on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off, and on, and off.

She’d close her eyes and imagine that the days and nights were passing in front of her.

But then.. She said I was taking up too much of her time.

That I couldn’t kiss her goodbye so much because I was making her late for work..

When she said she loved me, her mouth was a straight line..

When I stopped in front of a crack in the sidewalk, she just kept walking..

And last week she started sleeping at her mother’s place.

She told me that she shouldn’t have let me get so attached to her; that this whole thing was a mistake, but..

How can it be a mistake that I don’t have to wash my hands after I touch her?

Love is not a mistake, and it’s killing me that she can run away from this and I just can’t.

can’t go out and find someone new because I always think of her.

Usually, when I obsess over things, I see germs sneaking into my skin.

I see myself crushed by an endless succession of cars..

And she was the first beautiful thing I ever got stuck on.

I want to wake up every morning thinking about the way she holds her steering wheel..

How she turns shower knobs like she opening a safe.

How she blows out candles—
blows out candles—
blows out candles—
blows out candles—
blows out—….

Now, I just think about who else is kissing her.

I can’t breathe because he only kisses her once—he doesn’t care if it’s perfect!

I want her back so bad..

I leave the door unlocked.

I leave the lights on.

Book Acquisitions

I’ve mentioned somewhere that I’ve been staying away from bookstores and I have, BUT books have an uncanny way of sneaking up into my shopping bags, so let’s just leave it at that.

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Spotted Mary Balogh’s At Last Comes Love on the same shelf as Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. I’ve always wanted to get my hands on the Wheel of Time series, and this is a good omen. As for the romance novel, I’ve been reading quite a few these days but all have been mediocre at best. I hope this doesn’t blow just as hard.

The Neverendng Story, Alicia, Lanterns and Lances, and Shopgirl were all from this list. I went to work yesterday with these waiting for me in the lobby, and I haven’t paid for them yet so please let me know how I can pay because the guilt is actively distressing (!!).

Easy Escapism

The last two weeks of July had been pretty grim, and I felt dead throughout the whole month. Wraith-like and ashen – romance novels and my cats were the only thing keeping me alive.  Romance novels are great books to cleanse an over-worked brain too – you just have to find the right ones that don’t suspend your belief too much because that can be just as exhausting.

Since I am too cheap to buy some actual romance books, I settled with some Kindle freebies:

Runaway Heart by Claudy Conn

This historical romance novel didn’t feel too realistic. I’m up for a sassy girl any time but I felt like Chelsea’s naivete and flirtatiousness weren’t too balanced. The author was obviously ignorant of Regency customs too – the male lead removing the female lead’s glove and placing a kiss on her knuckles and wrist, in front of her guardian and other people in a party? That is vulgar.

I’m all up for a roguish Lord falling for the naive girl, but when it’s as poorly executed as this, it really isn’t worth putting up with. I was glad when it was all over at about 75%.

An Engagement in Seattle: Groom Wanted/Bride Wanted by Debbie Macomber

This one was a surprise. I was all too ready to give up on the first novella (Groom Wanted) because people marrying for a visa is too cliched for my Pinoy heart, but when Aleksander Berinksi did the unthinkable and married on top of the green card issues, I was sold. That was fun.

Bride Wanted was forgettable, but it did make me want to trek again with Debbie’s vivid description of a trail.

Both novellas were light, quick reads and I was glad I read them. Now, I’m not really all that familiar with good and recent romance novels, so any suggestions?

Am I still reading?

I actually am! Just not as religiously and obsessively as a few months ago. I can’t remember the last time I reviewed a book but I did finish Frank Herbert’s seminal work: Dune, and I am feeling mighty proud of myself. It’s such a tricky book to appreciate – I had fun while reading it but its greatness sneaked up on me only a few weeks later when a friend asked me what it was about.  Trying to summarize the book in a conversation that would encompass all the layers and subtleties it has was a damn struggle. And it was in that exact moment that I was blown away by the scope of Dune. There’s nothing I can compare it to but the closest metaphor would be like:

Renaissance Italy politics set in the far future disturbed with Islamic awakening of the Arab-ish peninsula by a Messiah with powers, coupled with OPEC machinations around oil and large-scale terraforming.

It is truly a fucking epic of unrivaled proportions. It contains more ideas in its single volume than most trilogies and fleshes them out and presents them better than most.  I can go on and on, and maybe end up writing a thesis about it and it wouldn’t be enough. Psh, I am gushing, I know.

Moving on…

I also finished Luna by ___. It’s a decent read but not memorable enough for me to keep it in my shelves so I gave it away. I’m hoping to do the same for more books this year. I really want to get rid of my thrift finds (I’m anti-hoarding now) but I can’t do so until I actually finish reading them. It’s harder than it sounds.

Currently, I’m reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – my second non-fiction book this year, and it’s a hoot so far. I’m really enjoying it and I’m eyeing a psychology and a medical book to read for the rest of the year. I’m far from my 25 books target for 2013 (5 non-fiction, 5 poetry), but oh well, that’s life.