Book Reviews

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.]

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Weekend Book Review – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows one day in the life of 19-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn and the rest of the Bravo company. This one day is the last day of their Victory Tour, a national celebration for Bravo’s defeat of Iraqi insurgents, a feat filmed by a news channel and uploaded to YouTube. In this age, people can be YouTube sensations by recording themselves singing songs in the hopes that key people from the entertainment industry will stumble upon their videos, but in the case of Bravo, not only has their battle video made them into household names, it has also turned them into revered and honored national heroes.

Their three-minute video inspires a producer to rally at Hollywood for a movie out of the event, a cause for celebration for Bravo. Why not? The promise of a hundred grand for every surviving member can turn his life around. They wouldn’t be infantry men if they had at least enough money to sustain a living, right? Even Billy, who is sent to the Army not for financial difficulties, can do a lot with that money.

During the Victory Tour, the Bravo men mingle with ridiculously rich and powerful people. During the last leg of the national tour, the owner of the football team Dallas Cowboys mingle with them, along with other rich and powerful people. With thigh-slapping hilarity and chin-rubbing profundity, Fountain portrays the stark difference of the rich and the poor. Bravo realizes how displaced they are in this world of business and political cocktails, and how strange it is that they ended up there. This is only one of the harsh realities that Billy has to absorb soon, because right after the Dallas Cowboys’ game, they are heading back to Iraq.

Despite Billy’s headache, a multitude of questions plague him. What would people think of him if he decides to escape Iraq and plead insanity? Would people think him a coward? Has he not fulfilled his obligation to his country? Doesn’t he owe to himself and to his family to exhaust all options in order to stay? Would it be a betrayal to his Bravo brothers if he turns his back on the war for the sake of his own life? Would it weaken his bond with Shroom, the fallen compatriot whom Billy has learned to love the most?

Shroom is like a wise and guiding brother, a brother that Billy never had. There’s a poetic and zen aspect to Shroom, and as it is with poets in fiction, he died in action at Billy’s arms. When Billy feels like crying because he is envious of the rich who don’t have to go to Iraq and because he is scared, he is reminded of Shroom’s words to him: don’t be scared. Further:

Fear is the mother of all emotion. Before love, hate, spite, grief, rage, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all, and as every combat soldier knows there are as many incarnations and species of fear as the Eskimo language has words for snow. Spend any amount of time in the realms of deadly force and you will witness certain of its fraught and terrible forms.

Further questions: Is Hilary Swank really going to play the lead role in their movie? Will they meet Beyoncé and the other girls of Destiny’s Child right after halftime show? Will somebody ever give him an Advil? Will the cheerleader whom Billy found a connection with wait for his return from Iraq? Will he even join Bravo back to Iraq or not?

[Read in April 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[307 pages. Trade paperback. New.]

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Book Club Book Review – Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early is one of those books that I might not have bothered to read had it not been our book club’s first selection for this year. It’s a middle-grade novel about Jackie, a 13-year-old Kansas boy who moves to a boarding school in Maine, and Early, an eccentric classmate who lives at the school basement. One might have thought that the title is a descriptive action, such as Waking Up Early or Sleeping Early, but no, “Navigating” is a transitive verb and the direct object is the person Early.

I tend to treat a novel differently when I know that the intended audience for it is younger than me. I am either more forgiving or more flexible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I found this rather fun. If I had a nephew or a niece, I would like him or her to read this novel about a friendship that is strengthened by the boys’ adventure.

At first, the friendship didn’t seem to have a chance because Jackie is that kind of boy who can be in the “in” group if he wants to and Early is that kind of boy who can never be in that group in spite of any effort. But he’s happy enough not being in that group. Besides, he’s too busy plotting a story out of the (in)finite number of pi.

The first parts of the novel are concerned with school activities. There’s nothing adventurous, only episodes of boys dumping their friends so that they could prove to the rest that they are cool. One is inclined to think that, aside from the parallel story based on pi, more episodes of friendship tests will go on. But fantastical elements are introduced when Jackie tags along Early in his quest to find his brother, long believed to have died during WWII.

There are pirates, hunters, centenarians, bears, rattlesnakes, and more stuff that creates action and that also threatens to suspend the reader in disbelief. Who would have thought that the river voyage, which at the core is a navigation through Early, would involve all of these? I know that this is for younger readers who might still enjoy playing outdoor games, but really? That’s a lot of adventure. It sure looks that they had more fun than Huckleberry Finn, who is name-dropped by a semiliterate visionary of sorts whom the boys meet in the woods. This guy, the Norwegian Gunnar, mentions some of the lines that I like best in the book.

“No one say anything about knowing the names of the stars. No, the sky, it is not a contest or an exam. The only question is, can you look up? Can you take it all in? As for names of constellations, they are not the be-all and the end-all. The stars, they are not bound one to another. They are meant to be gazed upon. Admired, enjoyed. It is like the fly-fishing. Fly-fishing is not about catching the fish. It is about enjoying the water, the breeze, the fish swimming all around. If you catch one, good. If you don’t … that is even better. That mean you come out and get to try all over again!”

This is the first book that I read in the electronic format. I’m pretty sure that it has affected my reading. It felt like I was plodding through a TL;DR-ish post. My eyes hurt a lot. Good thing it isn’t that bad, but I wish I were 12 or younger.

[Read in January 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]

F2F37: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

F2F37: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Weekend Book Review – Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a huge book. I’m not only talking about the sheer size of the physical book. The cast is huge and yet, each of them, the major ones anyway, are fleshed out in such a way that you think that the characters are real and that you’ve been transported to their century to take a part in their provincial lives. The themes are huge. I don’t think that a 500-word blog post will suffice to tackle each of them but I will try to point out a few.

I suppose it might have been seen as an ambitious novel during the time of its first release in serial form. As modern readers, we have the advantage, or the disadvantage, of having the book in its singular form. I’m at the side of feeling the advantage because one does not have to wait for weeks for the next installment. The plot rolls well enough without sacrificing other elements, and this lets the reader keep turning the pages while gleaning the insights of people from a 19th century society.

The people who voted for Middlemarch as one of the ten greatest books of all time have given it justice, if not reverence, for how can one ignore the accomplishments of this Victorian classic? How can one forget the virtuous Dorothea Brooke, a woman who thrusts upon herself tasks that she thinks will help realize her ideals? The people of her times find this an exercise in folly because she’s a woman who is supposed to make the best marriage instead of pushing through with her plans.

But as it is with a sprawling novel, there are more characters that we will care about, such as the unfortunate Will Ladislaw, a tempestuous yet determined young man with a promising career as a politician. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a young physician with unconventional yet effective methods of treating patients. And there are the members of the Garth family, the poor yet kind family that I believe is the hope in this novel.

The novel is propped with this singular and overarching theme: expectations in its different forms. Marital expectations are different from what the characters have imagined it to be. They marry for different purposes and they find themselves struggling as the vision of marital bliss fades with the shedding of time. Social expectations are rigid in this novel. Veering away from what one is expected to do is sure to create a scandal, but some characters strive to transcend from the norm to achieve their passions and their ideals.

A lot of characters are also concerned with social status. They will do everything, even close to murdering, to make sure that their reputations are untarnished, and it sometimes seems like status is what fuels life in Middlemarch. People would rather die than face disgrace, but then, there are some who can keep their heads with pride despite coming from low and ugly births. But in this novel, pride has a more important role:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts— not to hurt others.

It is understandable if one is daunted by the length of this book, but I recommend you to conquer that fear for this is one of the most worthwhile reads ever. The writing is good and accessible for a classic novel. There’s enough plot and character intrigue to keep the curiosity piqued. The characters will stay with you. One just needs to take a leap of faith and take part in the life at Middlemarch.

[Read in March 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[826 pages. Trade paperback. Used.]