Novels

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.]

Book Report: April 2015

Book Report: April 2015

This is a great month for all things bookish. I’ve finished five books, reviewed five books, still reading four books, bought more than a dozen books, and hosted a bookish giveaway. Also, I’ve started using Goodreads again. I mean, I’m not just using it partially, like searching for reviews or joining our book club’s online activities. I’ve added all my books and shelves again. Not the reviews though; I’ve just resolved to put the links. Leafmarks is just too slow, which is unacceptable in this day and age.

Anyway, I’ll stop babbling now so that we can all enjoy the local holiday.

Books Finished:

Currently Reading:

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – On page 233 of 359. TFG’s book of the month this May. (Php 615.60, Fully Booked – The Fort, April 19)
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson – On page 16 of 261. On hold. I haven’t touched it since March.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – On page 27 of 271. I’m putting this on my list of science fiction books for my book club discussion in August because two of my official selections have not arrived yet (and I only have three weeks left to scramble).
  • October Light by John Gardner – On page 154 of 498. Funny book!

Maybe:

  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma – This year’s winner of The Folio Prize, so I must have it and read it soon. (USD 12.72, The Book Depository, April 22)

New Books:

  • Plains Song by Wright Morris (Php 115.00, Book Sale – SM Megamall, April 6)
  • The Dream of the Red Chamber/The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin – I got Volumes I, III, IV, and V. Please help me find Volume II. (Php 200 each, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace (Php 350.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (Php 300.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell – Seriously, why did they sell this for an amount cheaper than the shipping fee? (Php 25.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • The Hunters by James Salter – I’ll be damned if I don’t like Salter. This is my fourth and I don’t even have an idea how the man writes. (Php 175.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Php 175.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Php 225.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery (Php 250.00, Undertow Books, April 7)
  • The Blue Fox by Sjón – Sjón is Icelandic and he is Björk’s friend. It might do me a lot of good to check out his works. (Php 180.00, Bookulaw, April 19)
  • From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Php 160.00, Bookulaw, April 19)
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.]