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Book Report: October 2015

Book Report: October 2015

There’s not much to report on since I only managed to finish one book last October. Great. So am I going to kiss my Goodreads challenge goodbye? It says I’m five books behind schedule, and I’m not making a lot of progress with my current reads, which are both heavyweights. Perhaps I can pick up a handful of skinny books for the remaining months of the year just so I can make it through. Consider that cheating if you like, but really, I don’t think book length is an issue.

I could read a stack of lightweights and exceed my goal of 52 books, but I don’t think I can anyway. The issue is that I’m not that inspired to read a lot lately. There are a lot of things that distract me now. I’ve reverted to my eight-year-old self: playing computer games and watching gymnastics videos. I’ve already discussed my addiction to games lately, so let’s skip that. And yes, I so wanted to be a gymnast when I was a kid. I wanted to be like Vitaly Scherbo, one of the most successful gymnasts in the history of summer Olympic games (six gold medals in one Olympics) and the only gymnast to have a world title in each event. I perfected my cartwheels and hand stands, and I would have mastered a Chinese split had my father not forbidden me from my “training.”

I’ve hung out a lot with my sisters and cousins, who are all living in the province. Planning for my trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand also kept me away from books. Finally, I’ve dealt with a devastating sadness, the kind that makes you cry uncontrollably when you’re simply washing the dishes. But! I’m okay now. There’s nothing to worry about, except the back log of books and short stories to read and to review, podcasts to listen to, work to finish, etc.

Books Finished:

  • The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving – It’s a nice novel about an eccentric family living in hotels and about their changing relationships through the years. It was enjoyable but it just didn’t stick to me that well. I would have rated this one star higher had I not changed my rating policy, which is to delay the rating until I finish another book. 3 out of 5 stars.

Currently Reading:

  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – On page 413 out of 500. It looks like this will be the book that I will be moderating in January. I know I should have been done with this before I put it up in our book club’s poll, but I like it enough for me to discuss it with my fellow bookish friends. It’s just slowing me down because I’m listening along the audiobook version, and this I highly recommend.
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – On page 221 of 870. I’m crawling through this. I don’t know. I don’t find it as exciting as the earlier books. It could be my least favorite in the series, but that’s too early to tell considering that I’m not even a quarter through it.


  • Being Dead by Jim Crace
  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
  • Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

New Books:

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – A Folio Prize shortlistee. Even though the award is suspended for next year, I still want to collect the Folio Prize nominees. It’s a shame, really, about the suspension. The Folio Prize, which will probably be renamed after the Folio Society ended its two-year sponsorship, holds a lot of promise. The nomination and judging process is credible. Its two winners are wonderful (Tenth of December and Family Life). But does it really need to give away GBP 40k to the winner? It doesn’t have to be a rich award. Just look at the NBCC Award for Fiction. I think it doesn’t have a cash prize, and yet its list of winners is impressive. TFP just has “to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible.” (Php 350.00, Read Up Manila, October 22)
  • The Last Interview and Other Conversations: David Foster Wallace (Php 200.00, Read Up Manila, October 22)
  • A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr – I’ve already read this and I just want to have my own copy. (Php 250.00, Read Up Manila, October 22)
The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Book Club Book Review – The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The Quiet American is a quintessential book of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. It is seen by some as Greene’s anti-American sentiments. Americans should have known better than to get mixed with the affairs of Vietnam, and now look at what happened. That’s what it seems to be telling me, at least on the surface.

But if you chip away that surface, there’s a tale of moral complexity that takes the form of a murder mystery. Alden Pyle, the eponymous American, is a well-meaning CIA agent who’s out there to put into practice the theory of his favorite political author. He keeps on preaching about York’s Third Force that will solve the problem that is Vietnam. He blindly follows this York fellow and doesn’t know that his ideologies are going to be murderous. These are going to make not only his pants and boots splattered with blood but his hands as well. He will pay for his rallying of the Third Force with his life.

Which shouldn’t come as a spoiler because how else would one interpret the title? The Quiet American is not literally about an American who is shy and who doesn’t talk much. On the contrary, Pyle has a knack for talking. He is even confrontational, going as far as asking permission to court the beautiful Phuong no less from her lover. He’s nothing but quiet until a string of circumstances silenced him for life. A dead American would of course require the investigation of French officials, and who gets interrogated?

Thomas Fowler, a British journalist and the novel’s narrator, is one of the key persons during the investigation. He could have saved Pyle’s life. But why should he? Pyle is, on many rounds, a better and more suitable man for his lover Phuong. He could marry her and bring her to America. He’s younger and he has a more promising career. Whereas Fowler, he’s getting old, undivorced, and smokes a lot of opium. And he’s scared of being alone when he is so close dying.

So why should he save Pyle when it would mean a different kind of death for him? This is basically how the murder angle of the story goes, which is easily achieved in a rather short novel. But what’s more amazing is that it’s packed with a lot of questions on war mingled with Greene’s American criticism. He shows us the adolescent and innocent worldview of the Americans in this novel. Yes, he insistently describes Americans as innocent, a word which has, since finishing this novel, had a new dimension for me. Does it mean a lack of regard for putting one’s self in a situation where one is not needed? Or does it mean an inability to have any understanding of the outcomes of one’s actions? In this case, innocence isn’t much of a virtue in this novel. It is used with the same sarcasm that dominates the tone of Fowler’s narration. Fowler even goes as far as describing innocence as a disease.

I stopped our trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phuong, ‘Go in and find a table. I bad better look after Pyle.’ That was my first instinct–to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

Regardless of what the word may come to mean to you later, one thing is clear. Greene has long figured out what a mistake it had been to be rash and bold and vain and blind to the disaster that marching into the tricky war of Vietnam would bring to all. It should be learned that it isn’t a light task to take a side on the war of people whom we barely know.

[Read in July 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[180 pages. Trade paperback.]

F2F43: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

F2F43: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Book Report: August 2015

Book Report: August 2015

Whenever I’m the assigned discussion leader of our book club, I don’t get to read a lot. It’s not supposed to be that way but still, I could only focus my energies on one book. The Ubik book discussion took place more than a week ago. It was a fun book to talk about because you get to throw around all these theories on what really happened without fearing that you’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s because all theories are acceptable; the book doesn’t offer one single conclusion.

So now that my moderating duties are done, I should be catching up on my reading back log, yes? Unfortunately, I’m not. It’s not that I can’t read or don’t want to read. It’s just that I’m distracted with games. Gosh. Let me go off the bookish track here. Ever since I learned that there’s going to be a remake of Final Fantasy VII, one of my favorite Playstation games, I just couldn’t stop thinking of those early teenage years when I studied strategy guides instead of my lessons and I hung out with the guys to talk about the progress of the games that we were playing. This Playstation nostalgia made me want to play games again. To soothe this longing, I downloaded this free to play game called Final Fantasy Record Keeper, and now all I want to do is to make my characters stronger. It keeps me up until 4:30 AM. Please tell me that I’m not the only one playing this?

And before that, I was also distracted with another meme/game going on at our book club. It’s a game where everyone races to post two book titles relevant to the keyword provided by the previous player. You’ll have to provide a new keyword along with the book titles to keep the game going on. Good thing that there isn’t a big project at our office or my productivity would have suffered big time.

So yes, games. I love games. I guess I’ve never really outgrown them. As expected, my reading life suffered a bit.

Books Finished:

  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – So yes, I achieved the 300th book milestone with this. 5 out of 5 stars.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Revisiting this book 17 years later is really something. I no longer read it as a kid who really believed that Boo Radley is a scary monster. I now read it from the perspective of an adult. Obviously, I have matured, or at the least changed, as a reader. 5 out of 5 stars.
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick – Yes, I’ve read this three times. This last time though, I binge listened to the audiobook version the day before our book club discussion. I weaved in and out of sleep. It’s like the half-life experience speculated in the novel. Well, this kind of reading doesn’t really count but I just like to share this experience. 5 out of 5 stars.

Currently Reading:

  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – On page 165 of 278. Our book of the month. I was quite uneasy reading this but I’m happy to say that it has not destroyed my Mockingbird experience. Yet.
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling – On page 79 of 870. Untouched.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – On page 137 of 274. I wanted to read another Dick novel for our book discussion but alas, I didn’t finish it on time. (Php 656.10, National Book Store – Shangri-La Plaza, August 3)


  • Being Dead by Jim Crace
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma
  • Rabbit Redux by John Updike
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

New Books:

  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – I’ve been long lusting for the gilt-edged hardcover edition. I’ve delayed buying it for so long. In fact, there are trade paperbacks already available. Now, I found a reason to buy this. I might campaign for this book for my next moderating duty in 2016. Wait, I just finished my book discussion, right? (Php 1,058.40, Fully Booked – SM Megamall, August 20)
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf – Something to add to my Vintage Woolf collection. This is the fourth. (USD 11.24, The Book Depository, August 24)
  • A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf – And this is the fifth. Yes, slowly but surely. (USD 10.38, The Book Depository August 24)
Book rating details

On Book Ratings

I’m a little obsessed with book ratings. They matter to me. A lot. When I check bookish social networks for recommendations, I look at the following details in this order: the average rating, friends’ reviews (if any), the most popular 5-star rave, and the most popular hatchet job. So to contribute to the bookish community, I rate the books that I’ve read and redirect users to a review link, if available.

I always think in terms of numbers. Instead of disputing whether I like or love a book,  I decide between 3-stars or 4-stars. I’ve adopted the Goodreads rating system, which I think is pretty decent. This is not true for many people, of course, seeing that they’ve adopted their own rating systems. The most common ones are changing the descriptions of the numerical ratings and the inclusion of half-stars. I have no issues with these, but with regard to the latter, I tend to round the ratings down (i.e. 4.5 to 4, and so on). I often encounter 3.5’s and 4.5’s, but I have yet to see a 1.5. I think it’s bizarre, but I won’t dwell on it.

Some people have book rating policies aside from the 5-star rating system. Some only rate books that they like. There’s a certain charm in this. It’s like a gesture of goodwill particularly to budding authors. However, I tend to be wary of people who do this because I also like knowing what books they find tepid or don’t like at all.

And there are some people who have no rating system or policy at all. Of course, they might find it distasteful to reduce their feelings to mere numbers or descriptive phrases. Sure, they have elaborate feelings that they vividly explain in their reviews, but sometimes, I just want to know the darn number before plodding through a review.

A few months ago, I had an issue with the Goodreads rating system, which isn’t pretty decent after all. I posted it on Facebook. Here it goes:

The God of Small Things is the book I had the most difficulty in giving a star rating. In an attempt to get over this, I summon W.H. Auden:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five:

  • [a] I can see this is good and I like it;
  • [b] I can see this is good but I don’t like it;
  • [c] I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it;
  • [d] I can see that this is trash but I like it;
  • [e] I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

So how do we assign star ratings to these verdicts? [a] and [e] both look good with 5 and 1, respectively. But my verdict is neither of the two. So what should we do with [b], [c], and [d]? Are these verdicts quantifiable?

Going back to the book, it seems that I have to choose between taste and judgment, but I think they should not outweigh one another.

I got a few comments about this, three to be exact. The first one added more criteria on evaluating books, the second one felt that Auden’s verdicts are complicated, and the third one argued that a truly mature reader will have no difficulty in evaluating a book based on taste and judgement. Oh well, I guess that according to this argument, I am not a mature enough reader. Which is true, and I have no bad feelings about it. I have a lot more to read to make me a keener and more insightful reader, but I am pretty sure that I won’t do away with the star ratings. I don’t think they are silly, and if people think they are, I’m not going to go about rallying for the star rating’s cause. To each his own.

Okay, the real reason I’m yakking about book ratings is this: I’m thinking of rerating the books I’ve read and shelved on Goodreads. There are times when I check out my 5-star books and see some titles that feel less stellar now. And then there are those 4-stars, and even 3-stars, that seem to scream at me for begrudging them of a higher rating.

Again, I went at it on Facebook. I posted a poll about changing book ratings: do you or do you not? Here are the results:

  • 6 – Yes, feelings and opinions change.
  • 15 – Sometimes, when rereading the book.
  • 0 – No, as in never.

Most respondents stressed that the ratings change only after a reread, and they rarely reread, which is basically saying no, if you ask me. So that zero is an illusion. Some of those who answered yes stressed that time can dilute or even heighten one’s judgment of a book. Either they can get too enthusiastic or overwhelmed after closing a book, or they can be haunted by a book that they initially thought was just okay.

Further interesting comments that I found are changing the ratings only to deduct stars and adding different editions of books to record the different ratings. I find the latter ingenious yet cumbersome, and that’s because I don’t like keeping duplicate records. The former is understandable. I know what it feels like to have a book hangover, for lack of a better term, but if I ever get on a rerating spree, I would not only deduct but also add stars.

I have this tendency to rate a book one star less if I feel that I have not fully grasped it. Examples are the works of William Faulkner and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Oh, I’d love to rerate them now with 5’s, but I’d be tongue-tied for a justification. Because yes, there’s always that why that comes after, and I feel the need to explain. Perhaps I could just say that there’s this certain pull that I felt while reading them, and would people take it against me? Would they feel that I’m just going with the flow? The fact the Infinite Jest is one of those books that are bought by hipsters but never finished kind of adds to my anxiety, a befitting feeling for a book populated with anxious characters. And perhaps I’m worried that people will not believe me, that I will be accused as one of those pretentious hipsters. Heck, I can’t even bring myself to write a review of it.

I guess the problem is why do I have to care about what others think of my ratings. Credibility, I suppose. I keep this blog mainly as a record of my reading adventures and partly as a way to recommend books to people who bother. To make people pick up a book or dissuade them from it, they would have to believe you and therefore, be convinced. The art of book reviewing is the art of persuasion. You put your taste and judgment in a string of persuasive sentences and yet, these two change even after a short span of time. So why would someone bother listening to someone who is wont to change their mind?

If you’re as inconsistent as I am, take comfort in the notion that at least there’s a record that once, you’ve felt and thought this and that way. So I suppose that if I ever rerate books on Goodreads, I won’t bother to edit the reviews on this blog. It would be interesting to see the differences. But yes, I’ll let time go by, at least for the books that I’ve read recently. In this matter, time is, ironically, a friend. And maybe I’ll even reread some, like Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. I’ve met the ire of some people because of my callow interpretation of it.

Sure, life is too short, but I can’t read all the books that I want anyway.