Saturday, December 25, 2010

To truly love and lose someone

This is one of the four books I purchased through a 'buy-one-take-one' bargain sale when I took a sabbatical leave from college to explore my options. My attention was caught by the reviews and summary at the back, as well as the eye-catching mysterious cover. Intrigued, I bought it and managed to finish it within the day. The thing about bargain books is you have no expectations whatsoever pertaining to the material you're about to read so I'm always careful with the stuff I buy from thrift stores. Luckily for me, Martin Sloane was as beautiful as a book could get, written with such melodious prose that the reading experience that entailed it just flows through the senses.

An impressionable college student Jolene has admired a middle-aged artist (the titular character) and decided to exchange mail correspondences with him. After writing each other letters, they finally meet and start a relationship. Jolene then becomes Martin's muse, and she unknowingly shone light to some questionable parts of Martin's life that he was forced to forget and get away from. In reflection of his personal history and chaos, Martin Sloane creates intricate miniatures inside boxes which are filled with references to his childhood woes. They were stunningly described by the author that I could really picture what's within every box.

As their love deepens, Jolene tries to understand better why Martin and his art are the way they are. But one night, without any explanation, he gets up from the bed and leaves her for good. The novel then becomes Jolene's tell-all quest to find her lost lover again which took her over ten years. In that expanse, she travels to Toronto where Martin Sloane lived, and then ends up in Ireland, where he grew up. Jolene uses the pieces of art Martin gave her before he disappeared. But the more she puts together remnants of Martin's life, the more she realizes how much you can never truly know people no matter how much you love them and want to connect with them.

Redhill's novel was, in theory, a detective story. But the prose has a more sentimental tone than that of the logical; readers are invited to experience the burden of one's memories, and that oftentimes some of the events we have experienced in the past are not always accurate or worth remembering. Martun Sloane's tale is that of an echo for every loss we had at one point in our lives, and the stubborn ways we try to preserve memories and the feelings that they inspire. The metaphorical significance of Martin Sloane's art pieces is overpowering both for Jolene and the reader, guiding the journey as well as dismantling us with every transient glimpse at Martin's mind space.

This is a haunting novel that offers no resolution, mirroring how real life can be without meaning or finality, especially when it comes to the complexities of human experience. The passages in the books are some of the strongest and vivid descriptions I've ever read, and they often leave me distraught and helpless as I too try to stare into the abyss of my life and wonder if my story ever mattered to anyone; and even if it did, the interpretation would still be subjective, dependent on the outsider's perspective and own set of experiences.

Martin Sloane invites us to question the way we love and hurt each other; the ways we try to assign meaning in everything that is, in the grand of scheme of things, eventually irrelevant. The novel seeks to make us probe at the empty holes in our souls and why we try so hard to have them filled when perhaps we are meant to be incomplete after all.

* There are books you read that are visceral and unforgettable in the most inexplicable sense. This is one of them.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A mystery wrapped inside an enigma

I have a younger brother with autism, and for a time I struggled to understand his condition which made me unable to accept who he is while we were growing up. Fortunately, I managed to read three magnificent books that helped me change the way I view him as a person over the years, and one of them is Mark Haddon's novel about a savant who attempts to solve the murder of his neighbor's dog.

What made me instantly connect with this book are three things: (1) the first-person accounts of the lead character, Christopher Boone whose third name is 'Francis' which is also my brother's; (2) he idolizes Sherlock Holmes like I do; and (3) the logical but also absurd observations and theories that Christopher comes up with to make sense of the world around him.

The narrative voice is peculiar, disjointed and hilarious all at once and that's really the charm of Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher may possess a supreme kind of intelligence but he also has a discernible lack of social graces and that disables him from comprehending the subtleties of daily human interactions. I was also uncomfortably familiar of the tension, disgrace and pain of his home life situation especially since I can contextualize them with my own experiences with Francis (who is not a savant like Christopher at all; he only has the mental capacity of an eight-year-old).

Though the protagonist is apathetic due to his autism, it doesn't make his narrations of his relationships with his father and other people any less painful and confusing for both him and the reader. The power of Haddon's prose is hard to miss; he deliberately highlighted the fears and horrors of a mind like Christopher's so readers will know exactly how it feels to be so blatantly different from everybody else; as if you are a prisoner of your own gifted mind and no one else could ever hope to decipher and unravel you.

More of a character-driven story, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has a ridiculous premise for a plot but it nonetheless has a very emotionally satisfying pay-off for its protagonist. The struggle and journey of Christopher Boone as he tries and fails to understand concepts that are beyond his means but do come easy for ordinary folk like us are worthwhile reading experiences that should not be missed. There is a lot of poignant moments in the book and Christopher's inability to feel the extent of emotional burdens could be strange but it only makes the whole thing sadder for the readers. Still, Christopher is not merely a shell of a person who operates in a different level of logic; he is a real person with real feelings although he can only express them in ways that are unique to his misunderstood yet very enigmatic kind.

I could not be objective about this book personally because I know how it feels to love someone who cannot return your feelings with the same degree and intensity, and I suppose that's why this book resonated inside me. Loving people like Christopher and my brother is never easy but thanks to authors like Haddon who are willing and compassionate enough to tell stories in their points of view, being able to read a story like this makes it less painful for family members and relatives who know the trials and blessings of loving a special child.

* It could prove a challenge to understand and relate to Christopher and his inane quirks and mental patterns of thought; but it is an experience you will not trade the world for.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The disquiet and ephemeral

Brief Lives was personally perfect in every way. It was the volume of The Sandman that solidified my love for the entire series. Not only was it a sublime story about brevity and forgiveness; it was an affirmation of what the Endless was supposed to stand for (and all seven of them too, because we finally get to meet the prodigal sibling who abandoned the responsibilities of his realm). Jill Thompson is the collaborative artist for this volume, and hers are my most favorite depictions of the Endless, their realms and the overall tone and atmosphere of Gaiman's settings.

The thematic resonance of this volume was all about mortality and endings, and how each Endless functions in their duties, knowing that even they could only do so much for the lives of the creatures they govern and have the power to influence--even destroy. There are quite a number of secondary characters whose appearances in the subplots and major arc are highly suggestive of the titular significance itself. Gaiman highlights the tragedy of choices unmade, and the wasteful quality of a human life when a person does not own up to it and deal with its milestones and corresponding consequences.

This was the first ever volume where we get to see all the seven Endless and the meaningful interactions between and among them are certainly insightful of the complex dynamics and roles of each one. Dream and Delirium (my favorite) are the central characters that readers are following over the course of the major arc, and theirs has a more disapproving-father and awkward-daughter aspect than simple sibling dynamic. While dealing with a recent break-up with an unnamed paramour, Dream travels to human world with Delirium, in hopes that he will glimpsed said former lover. Meanwhile, Delirium seeks out their long-lost brother, Destruction.

The subplots that surround this quest are where the other Endless took part; the painful dichotomy of Desire and Despair was given more substance in this volume alongside Dream and Delirium's inability to completely make sense of each other. Dream will always see Del as the youngest and most unruly and unpredictable of his siblings, and would rather not have anything to do with her. Delirium, however, was inexplicably both immature and wise, alternating between seeking the approval of her elder siblings, and questioning their fixed perceptions about things, and none is more rigid and overbearing of his stifling beliefs than the Dream Lord. This created an immediate rift between him and Delirium, but it also helped both of them to exert more effort in trying to understand each other's point of view.

The appearances of Destruction in Despair, Delirium and Dream's collective reminiscence paint the kind of Endless creature he was; this was a personification not just of chaos but of creation. In fact, the only reason he was able to bear through the first centuries of his role as a destroyer was because he knew that with endings, come beginnings, and Destruction is a self-proclaimed lover of all living things . There are separate panels that showed the readers just how likable he is; his warmth and pleasantness seem to contrast how we would picture someone who destroys worlds. This was an appealing revelation then; the presence of Destruction and his awareness of his duality clearly illustrate that his other siblings have that duality as well.

Delirium was once Delight, a personification of joy and innocence but it was a mystery why she has changed, and perhaps too much optimism and light have rendered her insane and unstable, therefore shifting to Delirium. Desire and Despair are the obvious representation of dual forces that complement each other--and yet they were separate entities. Perhaps it's because they are too much of individual extremes to ever compose a one whole existence.

Destiny appeared in the later pages. Ever the walking-spoiler-alert, he reveals the pathways that Dream must take because it was an obligation he must fulfill, much to the Lord Shaper's utmost despair. No other pair of siblings feel as duty-bound as Destiny and Dream after all. The confrontation between Destruction and Dream only helped seal this deal. The climactic event that follows was one of the most bittersweet conclusions in the series. It was the most suitable and harrowing way for everything in Brief Lives to come full-circle.

And what of Death herself? One can say that she was the encompassing presence that we feel in Brief Lives. She is the mother of endings, and the one who transcends her role because she understands the the meaning of life since she represents its counterpart.


* A brilliant and beautifully-illustrated volume, it allows readers to appreciate the Endless and their relationships with mortals, as well as the breadth and enduring quality of life and living itself, no matter how brief they are..

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More mediations and dreamscapes

I was not a big fan of the third volume Dream Country which was composed of short stories. With the notable exception of A Midsummer's Night Dream, the rest of the stories did not interest me in the long-term.

Thankfully enough, Fables and Reflections is an anthology which I thoroughly enjoyed. This volume had a lot to offer, and I devoured the tales with much content.

My favorites are definitely Three Septembers and a January, The Parliament of Rooks, Soft Places and Ramadan. But the rest of the stories were also commendable.

Stories like Thermidor, The Parliament of Rooks, and The Song of Orpheus are ones readers have to remember since chief characters there will make appearances in later volumes, particularly the Greek hero Orpheus whose connection to Dream is astonishing and yet very appropriate, if not tragically rendered on page. Meanwhile, August, The Hunt and Fear of Falling are all self-contained stories; the first one is a historical allusion pertaining to a well-known Roman figure and his darkest secret; the next one is the genre-savvy folklore which demonstrates the beauty of storytelling; and the last one is a general story about symbolic dreams.

As for my favorites, Three Septembers and a January features Despair, Desire and Delirium making bets against Dream, and their older brother showcases in the end why dreams have such a magnitude of importance even to an ordinary mortal. Soft Places follows the adventures of Marco Polo who got trapped in the sands of a desert and found himself intersecting with the sands of the Dreaming where Dream had just recently escaped captivity from the first volume. Finally, there's Ramadan and it's definitely a story that pierced through me in ways you have to experience for yourself to understand.

Gaiman's unique take on mythology, dark fantasy and gothic themes is what makes The Sandman series so easy to enjoy and even harder tor resist once he starts getting under your skin by writing stories with layers and depth that one could not imagine is possible in a comic book medium.


* This volume collection of short stories definitely helps secure The Sandman's rightful place in influential works of fiction.