Book Clubs

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Book Club Book Review – The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon is one of those books that I approached with a mild hesitation because the last time I read a proper crime fiction, I nailed it as the worst book of that year. That’s two years ago, and I’m not obviously over it. Private Detective Sam Spade is hired by a beautiful woman to track down her sister. That’s the first chapter, and the second chapter kicks in with a murder. You’d think that a murderous death and a beautiful woman’s plea for help are just coincidences, but of course they are not.

Before anyone can make any connection, a bunch of suspects are thrown around because it isn’t palatable if there aren’t red herrings served on your plate. But what are these people killing each other for? Yup, point your finger at the Maltese falcon, the prized object in this novel, which I’m not going to talk about. But seeing that some editions of this novel have an image of a perching black falcon in the cover art, it’s safe to say that this statue is worth a lot of money.

I could have chosen another word aside from money but it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of greed. Either that or power, but we’re not talking of any mystical or paranormal things here in case one gets that idea. Greed in this novel sets off a lethal pursuit in roads strewn with schemes and lies and deceit, but whether or not the efforts of this chase have a point, monetary or otherwise, is up for debate.

Also debatable is Sam Spade’s code of ethics. I haven’t read a lot of detective novels so my fickle mind easily imagines that detectives are on the side of the law. But could one imagine a character described like the following on the good team?

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

At the end of the novel, one would wonder why he did what he did. The surface makes it appear that Sam Spade is acting out of professionalism. He’s a law-abiding detective after all, but if you peel off that veneer, there are layers of other motives that are surely less impressive. There’s moral ambiguity there. It’s not easy to get the compass working because the poles of his rightness and wrongness are undetectable. Which is fine because had he been the perfect detective with honorable principles, valiant actions, and all that, there would have been just another trashy novel.

If one considers when this novel was first published (1930), one has to applaud its boldness and its wit for outdoing the censors (check out the history of the word ‘gunsel’ and note how it’s used in the novel). You may hate this book for its perceived misogyny or homophobia, but well, it’s a product of its times. And I had a rad time reading it while listening to the audiobook, its speed set to a frantic 1.5x. Don’t judge me.

[Read in June 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[217 pages. Trade paperback.]
[Audiobook narrated by William Dufris.]

F2F42: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

F2F42: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Book Club Book Review – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel about family and friendship between two teenage boys who come from different walks of life. Ari is an angsty boy from a family composed of a loving mother, a quiet father, and an absent brother. Dante is a pretty smart aleck raised by a pair of well-educated parents who touch and hug and kiss a lot. The two boys meet at the local swimming pool and the rest, so to speak, is history.

What could I find interesting in a coming-of-age young adult novel? Surely, we’ll see the characters forge their identities in their critical teenage years and the role of the family during this transformation. I’m not terribly excited about these two things. Sure, they have to be addressed considering that this is a young adult novel. But here’s what I looked forward to: there are gay characters, which is not uncommon today but which can still pique the interest of some people. I wanted to see how Mexican and American gay kids from the 80s are depicted in a young adult novel. Is there going to be kissing? Masturbating? Dating? Bullying? Hating?

Yes. These topics were discussed and experienced by the lonesome Ari and the confident Dante. The contrast between the two makes their conversations rather one-sided since Dante does a lot of the talking. But since the novel is told from Ari’s point of view, the reader also gets a lot of introspection from him.

Another thing that interests me is the author. Sáenz writes novels, short stories, and poems for three audiences: children, young adults, and adults. This, for me, is a hallmark of great authorship. This is evident in the way the novel is written. It employs short chapters, succinct dialogues, and simple prose.

I waved bye. He waved bye back.

As I walked home, I thought about birds and the meaning of their existence. Dante had an answer. I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea as to why birds existed. I’d never even asked myself the question.

Dante’s answer made sense to me. If we studied birds, maybe we could learn to be free. I think that’s what he was saying. I had a philosopher’s name. What was my answer? Why didn’t I have an answer?

And why was it that some guys had tears in them and some had no tears at all? Different boys lived by different rules.

I finished reading this inside a noisy café with nosy patrons taking a peek at the book that I’m smiling at. Sure, it’s not Woolf or Faulkner but it’s nevertheless a sweet book. It’s easy to like it and although I feel a little iffy about the neat ending, I just gave in. It’s okay to need someone and it’s a wonderful feeling to be needed. I was still smiling at this thought when I put the book back inside my bag.

[Read in May 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[359 pages. Hardcover.]

F2F41: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

F2F41: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Book Club Book Review – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

High Fidelity is about Rob Fleming’s transition into adulthood. From what? Instead of answering that in one phrase, let me describe who Rob Fleming is. He’s the novel’s narrator, a thirty-ish funny and whiny guy who owns a record store that specializes in hard to find vinyl records. His favorite hobby is making mixtapes for people. He is obsessed not only with music and mixtapes but also with lists, Top Five lists of something he comes up with, to be exact. Obviously, he’s big on music, having shelves and shelves of records that he sorts and re-sorts in an order dictated by his mood, as if his life depended on it.

Is it so wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colourful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.

And he has been recently dumped by his girlfriend.

The novel opens with a list of Rob’s Top Five breakups, which excludes Laura, the recent ex-girlfriend, from it. The prose, full of energy and practical wit, will surely make one read on to find out why Laura left the self-deluding, self-conceited Rob. Why indeed?

Surely, there are many details omitted, and delayed, by Rob. On the surface, Rob seems like an overgrown teenager who wouldn’t man up. Or a racehorse whose blinders have never been taken off. Is his life a mess? Probably some would say that and more; he’s an immature man who doesn’t think of a good future, who is wasting his talent by refusing to snap out of misery, and who is too blind to see that he is dragging Laura down with him. But, all things considered, I’d rather say that he doesn’t have a clear goal, which makes him meander back and forth, from his list of past ex-girlfriends, whom he all blames for what has happened to him, to Laura.

The novel has a confessional feel to it, like the narrator is letting you in on the big secrets of his life and that he’s letting you help him sort things out by merely listening. You get invested in the goings on of his life but sometimes, you just get tired. Had his miseries about his past reflected the novel’s language instead of the vibrant, jaunty one that pulls it along, this would have been a depressingly shitty book that draws too much from self-indulgence. But it’s not, thank goodness, and I think the author did very well to adapt a voice that people of this generation, a sizable audience for the book, can see themselves in.

Considering the maleness of the narrator, sentimentality is consciously shunned from his storytelling. But look, there are little slips of cheesiness here and there, which says something about machismo and the changing attitude of people on it. Men, at least some men like Rob, may have big and bloated egos, but they will act like little boys when they are trying to win back somebody whom they realize they love.

If it seems like you can’t stand a narrator such as Rob but think of yourself as a person with very good taste in music, read the book still. I didn’t recognize most of the music references but that’s just me. My musical preference is kind of limited but it didn’t stop me from listening to samples of songs that Rob mentions here and there.

[Read in April 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[245 pages. Trade paperback.]

F2F40: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

F2F40: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

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