Monday, February 24, 2014

"Climb your walls and meet you halfway"

When I read Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? and Childhoods's End, I was deeply moved. Then came F. Sionil Jose's Po-On which left me so raw and distraught that right after finishing it, I spent a few minutes under my blankets, crying silently to myself. Naturally, I thought I don't have any more tears to shed for books, so when I ventured on with Flowers for Algernon this time, I was so livid to be proven wrong.

I looked back at the notes on my Reading Progress below and I realized that I poured out all my deepest feelings about the story because it was able to bring out the regrets I had growing up with my brother who has autism. I was so affected because I know firsthand how agonizing it is to love someone who is mentally, if not emotionally, incapable of returning it. This novel just reminded me of that, and the painful introspections that came after for me was like a deluge that I couldn't stop from flowing out. I pause every once in a while betweeen pages just to wipe my tears, and I even had to stop reading for two nights just so I can recover from the ways it almost tore me apart.

Flowers for Algernon is told in the perspective of Charlie Gordon, a mentally-challenged man in his thirties who agreed to undergo an experiment to make him "smart". His progress reports in the beginning weeks leading to the operation are filled with grammatical and spelling errors in order for readers to fully grasp his simplicity and limited mental capacities. After the operation, his writings have significantly changed and improved, not just in structure and content, but the way he would express his innermost thoughts and feelings about himself and the world around him. The sudden and frightening ways Charlie begins to make sense of his memories with his family in the past, as well as the general treatment of his co-workers, are immensely emotional. Most of the time I would find myself getting really angry at passages depicting the way people with special needs like Charlie are mistreated in the time when this novel was written, since there was hardly that much positive public and media attention for special kids then. It was a slap in the face for me too, considering I have been just as cruel with my brother before, and it took me a while to forgive myself for the things I've said and done during our childhood.

Keyes' first-person prose is uncanny and infectious in its scope and range of emotions. It's a diary of someone's insecurities, self-discovery and painful memories, which only makes it harder for any reader not to feel something so overwhelming for Flowers for Algernon. You get to put yourself in Charlie's shoes yourself, and the world is not a loving place for someone like him at all. The higher his IQ got, the more self-aware and discerning Charlie became. But the people around him did not become any more accepting than when he was just a simpleton. They resented him for his higher intelligence this time; the only difference now is that Charlie can actually understand the sadness and unfairness of it all because intelligence also means bearing the burden of things you'd rather not know. For the first time in years, Charlie really felt that he was alone and unloved.

I'm really not exaggerating when I claimed that I cried so hard while reading. It was just too much for me. It's like I'm reading what my own brother would have said if he could only make sense of things the way normal people do. And if he ever could and he confronted me about it, I would be so ashamed of myself for all the bad things I used to put him through when we were kids. Just thinking about that while I read on became so crippling that I have to give up reading altogether for that night. It's as if Flowers for Algernon is a mirror, and it showed me my shortcomings in the past I'd rather not re-live and think about again. Looking at the reflections it presented was so upsetting.

I cannot express how this work of fiction will change certain perspectives in your life as well, even if you don't have my own personal baggage to contextualize it with. It's an important story because it can make its readers feel like they should protect Charlie from those who hurt him too. I do hope that after finishing the book and you'd meet someone like Charlie yourself, you would treat that person with compassion and kindness because that's all that they ever needed to live and survive the harsh conditions of the world we live in. I certainly learned once again that I'm the only thing Francis has in his life, and I will do whatever it takes to keep him happy and safe.

* A heartfelt and tragic parable and celebration of life; a truly valuable literary work meant to be preserved.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"All Creatures in the Miasma"

I don't know why I waited this long to read this book. I've bought this a week before I met F. Sionil Jose himself in the Cavite Young Writers event back in 2010. He recognized my surname and knew how to spell it, which doesn't happen often since my twelve-lettered surname is an uncommon Spanish last name. For a man who is almost ninety, his memory was astounding. Though I haven't read his works at that time, I knew of his legacy, and the excitement and anxiety at that moment upon meeting a national icon were palpable and overpowering. I thought I was going to have a panic attack right there.

Here I am three years later after that fateful day, and I finally started reading the first book of his critically-acclaimed Rosales Saga, Po-On. The series itself follows different protagonists for each novel, but the stories of the five books are interrelated across chronological boundaries. Set in the Philippines during its most notable and tumultuous times, F. Sionil Jose takes us into the heart of the common Filipino man, who has yet to establish a clear national and identity. The best thing about his books is that they are written in English, which is the language of my soul. That's a good thing too, I guess, since it's arguable that most readers of my generation in the country are more used to reading English novels after all, so Po-On will be more than accessible to them, not to mention it's affordable (under 300 bucks).

Po-On is an important book not just because it has international recognition and because it's a historical fiction about our country. As a work of literature itself, this was an impressive achievement. F. Sionil Jose's stylistic language is distinct, and the quality of his prose is straightforward without the need for extravagant verbosity. In Po-On, the central figure his Eustaqio "Istak" Salvador, a promising acolyte who idolized a Spanish priest as his mentor. His prominent characteristic is that he's an educated man, a rare accomplishment for an "indio", let alone an Ilokano, who are considered to be mere docile farmers. His parents and two brothers were also significant players in the plot, as well as the elusive and admirable Dalin who became his wife later on.

Driven from their lands, the Salvador family, together with their relatives (because extended families are still considered to be of close ties for your typical Filipino) traveled across mountains and forests in search for a new place to call home. My favorite thing about Po-On is that it's rife with religious allusions, particularly on the Old Testament accounts of the Book of Exodus. There is a sublime connection between the plight and cavalry of the Salvador family with that of Moses and the Israelites. There were many instances of parallelism between them, and they are the most heartbreaking moments of the book. Their new home "Cabugawan" might as well have been the "promised land" for these Ilokanos.

Another beautiful aspect of Po-On is Istak's constant struggle to define his faith within and outside the context of the Catholic Church's influence. He's always torn between his loyalty to his family and his people, and the values he had learned from his late Spanish mentor. The book is divided into two parts; the first part was the exodus while the second one was about the upcoming final war between the Spaniards and the new colonists, the Americans. Istak meets historical figures, Emilio Jacinto, Apolinario Mabini and Gregorio Del Pilar. His interactions with these men are striking and heartfelt.

Through Istak's character, we became acquainted with ourselves. The Filipino then and the Filipino now are still similar; we are creatures who aspire for greatness but remain a race divided. Istak's general apathy about the war-torn situations of the country then can still speak to our own inner conflicts. But once his life was touched by these remarkable, patriotic men willing to fight and die for independence, Istak himself has found the courage to do his part, as small as it may be. Mabini, fondly called as the Cripple in the book, rationalized why it's difficult to unite his countrymen. We identify more as Ilokanos, or Tagalogs, or Batangeños instead of one Filipino nation. Once Istak embraced that he doesn't simply belong to his family but to a higher, nobler purpose, he took up arms with the rest of the outnumbered soldiers led by General Del Pilar against the Americans, in the memorable battle of Mount Tirad.

There are many instances in this book that made me tear up in spite of myself. I realized that this is an important work, and it saddens me that it only has 8 ratings (including my own) here in Goodreads. We should all pick up the Rosales Saga because F. Sionil Jose is a prolific artist who dedicated his lifetime in writing us these books so our generation and the next can read and see their lives in the pages. This is a book of great importance and will definitely give you a sense of national pride like you have never felt before.



"Evil is often a creation of our minds. It starts as a spark and then it is fanned into a fire, self-willed and self-sustaining. That is not to say there are no evil men, but our best protection against them is our innocence and our truth"

"No stranger can come battering down my door and say he brings me light. This I have within me."

"There was no measure for love of country except in sacrifice, and why ask the poor for more sacrifices? It was the comfortable, the rich, who should express it with their wealth. The poor had only their lives to give."

"He was valuable to them--teacher, healer, patriarch, but now he realized with seeing sharpness that they were valuable to him not just as cousins and neighbors--they were the earth, the water, the air which sustained him."

"Duty comes in many forms; at times duty to country can be conflict with duty to family. But in the end, duty becomes but one, and that is duty to value justice above everything--to do what is right not because someone ordains it, but because the heart which is the seat of truth decrees it."

"I have been blinded, as many of us have been blinded by our needs. I had thought only of my family--this was the limit to my responsibility and therefore my vision."

"The whole history of mankind has shown how faith endures while steel rusts."

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Kill the boy and let the man live"

I have posted my thoughts during the reading process in three parts, and they are located below this official review. It's quite hilarious coming back to them because in the first 500 pages or so, I was riveted and excited with the events that are in A Dance with Dragons, but then as I ventured on and reached the middle parts of the book, I was becoming increasingly frustrated and bored. But nevertheless, I soldiered on and the reward was satisfying enough. The last 100 pages have been great because just when I thought my attention span will slip once more, GRRM surprised me with the comeback punches.

For my further analyses of the events in the entire book itself, just view the comments on my Goodreads review page (but there are spoilers in them so proceed only if you have been reading the book yourself, or have already finished it).

A Song of Ice and Fire series has given me the most amazing reading experience ever in literature. It was challenging and multi-layered. The character-driven narratives with the major story arcs enrich each other that you always remain emotionally invested in the story as a whole. The ensemble of casts for every book is staggering not just in quantity but in quality. GRRM takes good measures in character developments, writing everyone with a lot of depth while enabling them to grow and change by making sure that each has his or her own quirks, insecurities and struggles. The most definitive aspect of ASoIaF for me remains the characters who are the heart and soul of his narrative. The structure and scope of his novels are gargantuan too, that you can't just be a passive or casual reader; you must be a part of the experience which is the best thing that GRRM has accomplished in this series. It allows readers to interact with the events, to care about the subtleties of politics and the personal journeys of his characters.

And that to me is the reason why if one has only encountered the HBO adaptation, I certainly must insist that they read the books too because there is so much more that GRRM offered in his literary material that the Game of Thrones show itself has only touched the surface and then condensed for viewing purposes.

That said, A Dance with Dragons failed where the previous books (even the almost tepid fourth book A Feast of Crows) have succeeded. The length of the book was not justifiable as oppose to the third book A Storm of Swords. I do agree with most fans who said that it should have been edited better. There is an anomaly in the balance of major character POVs and minor character POVs. I really would have preferred some minor POVs taken out and put in the fourth book instead. Although the beginning and the last portions of the book were rewarding, the middle part proved to be a challenge to get through because it contained mostly minor characters that only appear once and such POVs weren't action-oriented at all, and did not even give any important insight (and relevance) to the major events. I suppose GRRM included them as side instances just for additional background, but they that don't affect anything in the long-term so they were more or less read as updates or different angles that personally for me didn't matter because I can't bring myself to care for them.

Nevertheless, A Dance with Dragons was still a great book even with its obvious flaws in narrative scope compared to the previous books. I decided to objectively give it three stars because I still have to take into account the parts that I did not enjoy as much, and therefore affected my reading experience as a whole. But I definitely look forward to what happens next to Jon, Daenerys, Tyrion, Arya, Cersei, Jaime and Bran next. Come at me, The Winds of Winter!

* This book is better appreciated as a sum of its parts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Lovemaking laterns and detonating ink bottles"

As soon as I started perusing through the vivacious prose of this surprisingly delightful anthology of some of the most unusual cosmic folklore and tales I have ever encountered, Catherynne M. Valente was more than effective with the spell that she cast on me which at times feels like a precision instrument probing at the areas of my imagination that are better left untapped. It was an exhausting reading experience that kept me on my toes and amused me to no end.

Valente's literary machinations began with the titular poem which briskly established that this is going to be metaphysical examination of post-modern themes about Japanese folklore and obscure nerd culture. The Melancholy of Mechagirl in its entirety is a searing, uninhibited sensual experience. The prose makes love to you with unbridled energy and elusive mystic but the more you try to hold onto any logical semblance in each story, the more frustrated and unsatisfied you get. But that's the appeal of Valente's anthology, for sure. The constant personifications within the pages are staggering in quality; Valente enlivens dead things as if they have been breathing alongside us all this time and we just never notice. Much like the ancient people carve and interpret their deities with human qualities, Valente would usually imbue such careful passions into the most mundane objects with some of the most decadent symbolic meanings imagined.

Some of the most mind-boggling stories written in the most indulgent and luscious prose that ever existed are "Ink, Water, Milk", "Fifteen Panels that Depict the Sadness of the Baku and Jotai", "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time" and One Breath, One Stroke". They are focused on Japanese mythologies with a contemporary science-fiction spin. Fifteen Panels was a personal favorite because I was entertained with the autobiographical accounts of the Baku, a supernatural being who devours dreams and nightmares found in the Japanese lore. Thirteen Ways reads as collective anecdotes pertaining to the origin of the world based on different cultural accounts across the globe. Valente has a knack for vivid and pensive landscapes as well as uncomfortable illusions and musings infused in the characters that are barely human in scope.

The more self-contained stories have to be "Ghosts in Gunkanjima", "Story No. 6", "Killswitch", and "Fade to White". The first three are urban legends respectively about a haunted factory, a recurring phantom appearing in movies and an apocalyptic video game that might have been a gateway to the underworld itself. The last one is my most favorite of the anthology and deals with the advertising trends that gloss over the terrors of the second World War between the Americans and Japanese, and how a falsified image of home and perfection are the only modes of comfort and denial with the inevitable possibility of nuclear annihilation.

The three other poems in the volume (The Emperor of Tsukiyama Park, Memoirs of a Girl who failed to be born from a peach, and The Girl with Two Skins) are ludicrous but intelligently executed if not curiously witty. They definitely require a more vocal recitation by yourself if not multiple readings. The only stories which really puzzled me yet also annoyed me were "One Breath, One Stroke" and the novella at the end entitled "Silently but Very Fast".

It's safe to say that Valente's prose is much stronger and better appreciated when it has a lingering brevity as oppose to unstoppable verbosity since the latter characteristic certainly dissuades readers from fully engaging in the narrative, and if that happens, the quality then suffers and dwindles. Valente could be quite relentless with her self-indulgent imagery and in those two pieces, I was vaguely turned off from enjoying the tales she's trying to weave and unravel.

Still, this was entertaining and touching in many other areas and you should not miss out on what The Melancholy of Mechagirl has to offer.

* A sizzling and absurd collection populated by the funkiest and saddest bunch of characters and themes in speculative fiction ever. The stories are all bundled up in shockingly engrossing prose packages that will chill the fertile areas of the mind.

"The stars are not for man"

My words in this review would continue to remain insufficient to fully describe the phenomena within the pages of this book, and the breadth of literary experiences that Arthur C. Clarke had given me when he wrote Childhood's End. This is a science fiction novel that explored the complex relationship between beginnings and endings, and the unfathomable scale of the evolution process. Clarke, however, tried to capture the essence of such bold concepts in his story, and so I feel that I also have a duty to do the same in writing the review.

I first saw this book two years ago and the cover (as you can see in the photo opposite this review) was so captivating. It was this particular book that jump-started my hunt for other SF Masterworks (I have 12 of them in my collection so far). I have no regrets about buying this book, and reading it at a point in my life where I'm also voyaging through new horizons while saying my goodbyes to past lives.

I always read the introductions when a book has one so I was spoiled earlier on about the staggering revelation concerning the alien "overlords" who have come to Earth and, instead of invading the planet, the overlords launched a long-term strategy to save it from falling into its own nuclear destruction. If anyone has watched the sci-fi series V, the second chapter of that event resembled the first scenes of the pilot episode of that show, and perhaps Clarke's book was the inspiration for it. But that's the only thing this book and that show share. Childhood's End stands on another level of storytelling altogether. And it's one so subtle in delivery that when it expanded across the pages without warning, I almost wanted to clutch at my chest just to make sure it's still beating.

I don't take it lightly whenever I describe a book as "beautiful" and most of the time, I would use that general description to convey beauty not as an abstraction but more of an expression of spiritual fulfillment that such a story can only cause. I'm not sure if that is enough of an appraisal for Clarke's masterpiece, so perhaps I could do one better by saying that not since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen had a literary piece left me raw and reeling from the experience. In just 237 pages, I was transported into a world that is ripe with possibilities which is the endgame of a genre like science fiction. Clarke's story was beautiful not because it revealed some apocalyptic wasteland so often depicted in futuristic stories that also serve as cautionary tales that deal with everyone's fears concerning our world's mistakes and negligence.

No, Childhood's End, despite of its misleading, ominous title, is about a future that leads inevitably to transcendence. Human beings will evolve even if it means ending the chapters of greatness that humanity was recognized for. It's also a reassuring message that we should not fear our mortality for every ending always leads to new beginnings and that in itself should be comforting enough.

The build-up to this pay-off was suspenseful enough though there are times you would think it would be uneventful. I felt like Clarke played a cruel trick on me, too. He would alternate between focusing the camera lens of his writing with the general atmosphere/environment of what the future looks like thanks to the Overlords's continuous supervision among human nations, and then zoom in to the focus characters that help contextualize and humanize the events and changes that the planet is undergoing. I was almost ready to believe that nothing so astounding will happen once the story nears a conclusion--and I was dead wrong.

Since the illuminating final moments of the book caught me off-guard, all I could do was close my eyes and imagine if whatever Clarke has created in Chilhood's End will ever happen someday--and I actually want it to. There's just a sense of wholeness, of balance and equilibrium, in the way the story reached its climax. It was then that I was also thankful that I read the introduction because I was able to appreciate the way Clarke approached and weaved the concepts of parenthood and childhood in his story with a discerning and poignant interpretation. I do recommend, however, to just go read the story first then come back to the introduction to avoid the spoiler therein.

Childhood's End enabled readers to experience not just scientifically but philosophically what exactly happens when children outlive their parents; how generations in the past need to decay in order for future landscapes to be had. It certainly made me think about the way my parents raised me. It made me wonder if they see me not really an extension of their genes but as the death to their own existence and relevance--and it must be so terrifying that we just don't acknowledge it.

Still, as cruelly eye-opening that epiphany was, I was glad it happened to me because of this book, and now I can love my parents more fiercely than before, knowing fully well now that my survival means that their lives ultimately will not be in vain.