Book Rhapsody

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Book Club Book Review – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things is a novel that defies the power of blurbs and summaries. In fact, my copy only has praises from high brow publications and the critic/writer John Updike, no less. It’s “a novel of real ambition” that “invent[s] its own language.” True enough, its ambition left me feeling dizzy after finishing the last page and made me write the following lines after the last paragraph: how can I be conflicted about an amazing novel? I love it, and yet I have so many complaints. It’s all the small things.

Whatever I exactly meant by that escapes me now, but I distinctly remember my smugness accompanied by a bitter aftertaste that I refused to swallow. I wanted to spit it out because yes, I get that this is an important novel, but my mouth forces the bitterness in because I somehow feel that its importance is derived from its self-importance.

The fraternal twins Estha and Rahel return to their childhood home a couple of decades after being separated from each other when they were still kids. The narrative shifts back and forth to the past and the present and forms an intricate web of memories, and it is indeed the amorphous shape of memories that the novel’s structure resembles. Reconstructing the series of events that leads from one tragedy to another is most likely a means for the twins to purge themselves of a past strewn with guilt.

I will not detail the events as they happened since I want you to feel and understand the workings of the shifting storylines. While figuring out the 5Ws and 1H, one will figure why this is an important novel. It is set during a politically tumultuous time in an Indian province and depicts the struggle between the middle and the working classes, the horror of the caste system, the cultural clash between the Indians and the British, and forbidden love in its many forms, which I will no longer divulge for the spoiler sensitive.

The characters are all fleshed out. I have no complaints about them despite the motivations that lead them to do evil things. That, I really like because it bares the dark blotches that stain our souls. My biggest complaint is the novel’s tone and diction. The repetitive and cyclical use of Capitalized Phrases seem to allude to Important Things so one gets distracted too easily, wondering if there’s something that’s missed when in fact, they are just Small Things. The repetition is another way to imitate the way memory works, but it just gets tedious and exhausting. It’s almost like an exercise in lyricism that achieves the sort of lines serving to show off a writer’s talent.

There are many moments when the language shifts to wry humor, but like an overly repeated joke, it becomes stale. I feel that the literary gymnastics becomes too contorted that it starts to look like not an evocative performance but a carnival freak show. But don’t get me wrong. The writer’s talent cannot be denied, especially when she sums up the novel in this single line:

It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined.

In the end, I say that this is a must-read. Never mind my feelings. It is, after all, the book that so far earned my most number of marginalia.

[Read in March 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[321 pages. Trade paperback.]

F2F39: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

F2F39: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Book Club Book Review – Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Love Walked In is my first stinker of this reading year. People who know me can easily assume that I didn’t like this novel because of its genre. I disagree. There must be romance novel out there for me and I just haven’t read it yet, obviously. I’ve found young adult and science fiction novels that I’d gladly recommend to anyone who wants my opinion. I’m thinking that Possession by A. S. Byatt could possibly be my romance book, but really, the romance that it defines for itself is not the romance that we’re talking about.

So the search for my romance goes on. Maybe I’d like my romance to be a little gritty. This one is very neat. I don’t remember a single loose thread left hanging. Cornelia, the protagonist, goes on a date with a Martin and later finds out that he already has a daughter. Cornelia and Clare, the daughter, form a bond, and you’d imagine that maybe the three of them can all live happily ever after, right?

Of course not. That would be too predictable, yes? Instead, something happens that lets Cornelia meet another man. No, this is not Just Another Man. He is The Perfect Man. He has been there all along. And because he has been in the peripherals of Cornelia’s existence, she is able to experience something:

A sea change. Transubstantiation. One minute, I was woman not in love with Teo, and the next minute, I was a woman in love with him. Bones, blood, skin, every cell changed over into something new.

So there, I just spoiled the whole thing. And please don’t let me even get started with this transubstantiation thing, which is a fancy yet ultimately pedantic way of saying that she has been in love with The Perfect Man all along and just suddenly, suddenly realized it. Oops, I just got started but I’ll stop now. Anyway, I would like to believe that the romance is not the most important thing in the novel because the friendship between Cornelia and Clare, is given a lot of focus. But one cannot ignore the Cornelia-Teo romance because it runs strongly along the side of the Cornelia-Clare friendship. Besides, this is still a romance novel.

Another issue that I have is that the characters are thin. Not physically, you. They are all flat. The ways they interact with each other are incredulous. Their actions and decisions are unreal. They get pitted against various conflicts but somehow, they manage to fix everything as if they were gods. You see, Teo is married to Cornelia’s sister. But that nasty little problem gets resolved just like poof, magic.

Wow. How could everything work out so perfectly in novel with insane storylines? Wait, I haven’t talked about Clare’s crazy mother yet, but that’s enough. I felt cheated. I like happy endings as long as my capacity to think is not insulted. Accuse me of taking myself too seriously or for taking my cynicism notches ahead, but I am now convinced that toxic fluff exists. It can kill in so many ways, I tell you.

[Read in February 2015.]
[1 out of 5 stars.]
[Epub.]

F2F38: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

F2F38: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Book Review – Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why comprises seven cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a troubled high school student, and received by Clay Jensen, a classmate who has a crush on her. The cassette tapes tell the story of her suicide. These are sent and passed along a number of people whom Hannah thinks has a part in her decision to end her life. Each side of the tape is labeled with a number, except for the B-side of the seventh cassette, and focuses on a particular person who caused an incident contributing to the snowball of events that led to Hannah’s end.

The novel is structured as if the reader were holding a Walkman instead of a book. The chapter titles are labeled according to the cassette number and side (Cassette 1: Side A, Cassette 1: Side B, and so on) that Clay is listening to. There are two running narratives as each cassette is wound: Hannah’s story and Clay’s reactions to her story. I would usually give a nod to such a form. It’s creative and one has to laud the author for such ingenuity. However, the narratives clash against each other and therefore, it didn’t work for me. There are many times when Clay’s thoughts serve as mere barricades that I am tempted to gloss over.

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo.

I don’t believe it.

No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests.

No, I can’t believe it. Hannah Baker killed herself.

I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to theses tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.

What? No!

Shut up, Clay, will you? And it’s not even that I’m absorbed in Hannah’s story. It’s far from that. Hannah’s suicide story is a sappy melodrama. Clay’s story is a grand affectation. The narratives feel forced and insincere. Also, Clay seems to zone out a lot, as if he weren’t truly listening to Hannah’s cassettes.

I like reading about suicides. In fact, I have in mind some memorable characters who committed suicide, the one true philosophical act (that’s paraphrasing Albert Camus, who is not necessarily a proponent of suicide). But in this novel, even with thirteen reasons, I can’t see any philosophical insight on Hannah’s suicide.

Suicide is acceptable for me if the alternative, which is to continue living, is worse. But Hannah has to prove in her seven cassettes that she’s better off dead. She has alternatives, she has people whom she can talk to. But she claims that these people do not see the signs. Well, is it people’s jobs to always look out for signs? Is there any help for people who have already made up their minds? Can one reach out to people who cave in and shut the world out? Hannah is just as blind as she claims the people around her are. In fact, she’s the blindest person among them all.

And so I don’t buy the theme that this book is telling the reader. Sure, people must be socially responsible, people must be aware of the effects that their actions have on others. But people must not blame others for their misery especially when they have set themselves on wallowing in misery.

I am also offended that the suicide question is reduced to a game of pass along with … a map! If there’s anything good that Clay does in this novel, it is to crumple and throw that map away, but that doesn’t happen soon. And he doesn’t even do so for realizing that the map is ridiculous. Great, now we can simplify many Big Questions with manila paper and markers. Let’s plot out something with X and Y coordinates. Mark this with an X, if you will. And by that, I don’t mean the map, but the book.

[Read in May 2015.]
[1 out of 5 stars.]
[Epub.]

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Book Review – The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book is a chillingly charming novel about the childhood of a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. How is this possible, the reader might ask. It may not be possible but the possibility of it is welcome, I say. Nobody Owens, not his original name, totters into the graveyard near their house while a mysterious man murders the rest of his family. He is no more than two years old. Fortunately, kind and matronly Mistress Owens, one of the resident ghosts, finds the boy and takes him as her own, but this is not without the approval of the graveyard community.

A graveyard is not normally a democracy, and yet death is the great democracy, and each of the dead had a voice, and an opinion as to whether the living child should be allowed to stay, and they were each determined to be heard, that night.

But how can a live boy survive in a world where there are only dead people? What about his food? His clothes? His education? The Owenses are now Bod’s parents, but the graveyard community still assigned him a guardian who could take care of his living human needs. This guardian is Silas, an entity who is not quite living and not quite dead. Gaiman mentioned in interviews that Silas is a Very Important Person to Bod, and allow me also to leave it at that.

After Bod Owens is granted the Freedom of the Graveyard, which allows him to essentially live among the dead, stories from his growing up years follow. The chapters can stand alone as individual short stories as each one happens in a particular year of Bod’s life. Two of the chapters that I like the most are the second (The New Friend), where Bod is introduced to his first living friend, Scarlett, and the fourth (The Witch’s Headstone), where Bod is introduced to his first ghost friend who is not from their graveyard. Both chapters are more than stories of friendship. They also tell of courage, giving, and learning with a little fantastic adventure to entertain the reader.

Bod’s childhood is a strange one but there is still the pattern of defying what the adults say and learning from mistakes. It is inevitable that Bod would leave the graveyard, so as much as it is a childhood novel, it is also a novel where Bod comes of age.

Sleep my little babby-oh
Sleep until you waken
When you wake you’ll see the world
If I’m not mistaken.
Kiss a lover,
Dance a measure,
Find your name
And buried treasure…
Face your life
Its pain, its pleasure,
Leave no path untaken.

The ending is tender and bittersweet, which is to be expected but I’m nevertheless struck by it. Bod understands that there are those who must leave and those who must stay. It’s a banal platitude but it’s one of the important lessons that must be learned at young adulthood to help one’s self go out into the world and follow dreams. Bod still has many things to learn but he’s one step ahead. It looks like he will be on a promising journey.

[Read in April 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[312 pages. Trade paperback. A gift from one of TFG’s White Elephant Book Swap.]

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Weekend Book Review – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic and dystopian novel that traverses between the past and the future, which is set 20 years since the Georgia Flu wiped out the world’s population. Some readers label this as a sci-fi novel, but I don’t agree with them. The Georgia Flu, the only scientific part of the novel, is, I daresay, only a tool used by the author to put the characters in a bleak future where boundaries are erased and technologies are obsolete. In such a situation, themes on the insufficiency of survival, the preservation of art, and the perseverance of humanity can be explored.

But these themes strike me as beside the point. The overarching themes that I see in this novel are nostalgia and regret. Some parts in the past are written in the present tense while the parts in the future are written in the past tense. I find this a curious thing to do. Writing in the present tense gives a sense of urgency, and is the author trying to tell us that the past must be given our utmost attention to understand the things that come after it?

This is also apparent in the novel’s central character, Arthur Leander. He is a successful Hollywood actor who is thrice married and thrice divorced. He often looks back at his life, something that he feels has slipped away from him, and tries to make sense of his fortune and failures. He regrets a lot of things, and as he comes to terms with these, he dies of a heart attack during a stage production of the Shakespearean play King Lear, just right at the cusp of the Georgia Flu pandemic.

At that moment, Jeevan, ex-paparazzo and future paramedic, performs CPR on him but to no avail. This image has a huge impression on the eight-year-old child actress Kirsten. These two characters survive the pandemic but they are haunted by the memory of Arthur. Kirsten, still an actress in the future, collects articles mentioning Arthur as she and the Traveling Symphony move from one settlement to another. Jeevan, locked up in his brother’s apartment as people die at an exponential rate, recalls the day when he interviewed Arthur and, further than that, the days when he snapped photos of him and his first wife, Miranda.

There is a mystery story arc in the novel involving a prophet in the future that is well-thought but the discerning reader will have no problem in figuring out who is who and what is what. Clues are neatly planted along the way so it isn’t much of a surprise when the reader figures out things. In fact, there isn’t even a grand revelation, and I suspect that the mystery is also beside the point.

This novel kept me reading chapter after chapter, but I feel a slight disappointment at the prose. The images are vivid, but they somehow miss the target. Also, the horror of the pandemic and the bleakness of the future do not feel that horrendous and desolate. That doesn’t mean though that there are no luminous moments.

But first, there’s this moment, this lamp-lit room: Miranda sits on the floor beside Elizabeth, whose breath is heavy with wine, and she leans back until she feels the reassuring solidity of the door frame against her spine. Elizabeth, who is crying  little, bites her lip and together they look at the sketches and paintings pinned to every wall. The dog stands at attention and stares at the window, where just now a moth brushed up against the glass, and for a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.

There are only a few copies of “Station Eleven,” but maybe coincidence will make me come across one.

[Read in April 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[333 pages. Hardcover. A gift from TFG’s Christmas Auction.]