Monday, August 29, 2011

ReaderCon/Filipino Friday: A Book Lover Outside NCR

As a countdown to our 1st ReaderCon, I'm joining the other Pinoy bloggers in doing this Filipino Friday meme. Every Friday, we're asked to share our answers on different questions, and this week, we're taking on what it's like to be a book lover in the Philippines.

I don't usually find new books in Aklan. Yup, I live outside of Manila, where the nearest city is an entire province away. It was only last year when Book Sale opened its first branch at the Gaisano Mall. Imagine how thrilling that was for me! It certainly replaced those days when I'd get my secondhand books from a few shelves at a local bookstore.

Still, I don't find it too hard to get the books I want. It used to be really frustrating when I was younger, but now I just wait for my next trip to Manila or Iloilo to find the latest titles that have caught my eye. If they're unavailable then, I try to shop online through Book Depository. When I visit bookstores outside of the country, I immediately take note of the titles I like that I can't seem to find in Manila. But all things considered, I'm still good with what we have.

Sometimes it's not as easy as it sounds (I once had to wait for a long time for a Ted Chiang title to reach an affordable amount before I could buy it) but with a little patience, good things will still come.

The ReaderCon is presented together with Vibal Publishing House, Inc, and sponsors Primetrade Asia, Flipside Digital Content, and Scholastic.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Little Black Book of Stories (AS Byatt)

It's been years since I last read any of AS Byatt's works, so when a friend handed me Little Black Book of Stories I immediately jumped at the opportunity. My friend claims that the book is actually mine -- something I had lent her many many years ago (probably close to a decade) -- but it had completely slipped my mind. Upon re-reading, only two of the five stories in this collection came back to me; the rest all felt deliciously brand new.

'The Thing in the Forest' is one of those familiar ones, the tale of two girls who meet as evacuees in World War II Britain. During one of their respites, they wander into a nearby forest and briefly witness a strange and terrifying creature that will stay with them through adulthood. Whether the creature is real or imagined, it remains a strong metaphor for the horrors of war, changing the girls' lives even when they choose to go on different paths.

One thing worth noting is that as they travel through the countryside, Primrose and Penny note that hey pass by 'tiny stations whose names have been blacked out' and feel that 'the erasure was because of them, because they were not meant to know where they were going or, like Hansel and Gretel, to find the way back (p6)'. Though this sentiment is voiced in that first story, I feel that it is a common thread throughout the rest of the book. The tales seem to end right after their respective climaxes, leaving the characters in the middle of the tension, often after a pivotal point or decision. Each time I encounter it, I think back on those blacked-out signs, giving the characters no choice but to travel down the paths on which they have found themselves.

My words feel woefully inadequate when trying to capture the essence of Little Black Book of Stories. For such a spartan title, the collection itself is lush with images and descriptions. Consider the other stories: A doctor who encourages a young artist to explore her craft ends up curtailing her freedom in more ways than one ('Body Art'). A woman finds herself slowly turning into stone and journeys to a far corner of the world ('A Stone Woman'). A writer finds a rare tranquil voice among his class of tragedy-crazed students ('Raw Material'). A man encounters the ghost of his living wife ('A Pink Ribbon'). Each tale is populated with Ms Byatt's rich observations ('a necklace of veiled swellings above her collar-bone which broke slowly through the skin like eyes from closed lids, and became opal (p140)' and dark undertones ('the final two arms were crocheting something in an immense tangle of crimson plastic cords (p104)'. Her images pile themselves upon each other in wonderful layers.

I also felt that the stories showed the different ways that a woman's power can be suppressed by history, society, and circumstance. Ms Byatt features a gamut of female characters at various points of their lives and yet they still struggle to free themselves from their oppressors. I suppose this is why the last story, although not my favorite, drives home one of the strongest ideas of the collection (at least, personally): the spirit walking freely. Does it make me, a female reader, feel triumphant in the end? With all the darkness of the book, I'm still not sure. Despite this, I'm glad I re-read Little Black Book of Stories; it would have been such a shame if I had truly forgotten all the painfully chaotic elegance that this book has.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Anniversary.

Each moment gathers and thickens like awareness between the tips of fingers, explaining how the present can be plausible and lovely, even when later, returning once again to its monastery, the heart sounds the brown notes of its bell-clapper, shaves its head, lies down to sleep with the sorrow of what it will love but cannot keep. - Luisa Igloria, from The Return

Soon it will be five years since I started this blog. I thought it would be a good time to change the look into something a little more mine (in those five years, I've changed the blog look five times, but all of them relied on a pre-existing free template). Not this time though, thanks to my awesome friend, Cla who created the header and the sidebar buttons and fixed the whole look just for me. She did the photography and the calligraphy as well. :)

Five years, wow. This used to be such a private little space that only C, Camille, and Leki read. I'm glad that in those five years, I've met new people online who also enjoy the same interests I do and who have encouraged me to share more of my thoughts. If you're reading this, thank you. Have a virtual sorbet.

Days like this really make me look back on old times and old friends and how things have changed. But the present can be plausible and lovely, Luisa writes. I'll take it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Once on a Sunday.

Edith L. Tiempo (April 22, 1919—August 21, 2011)

All that I love
I fold over once
And once again
And keep in a box
Or a slit in a hollow post
Or in my shoe.

All that I love?
Why, yes, but for the moment ---
And for all time, both.
Something that folds and keeps easy,
Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,
A roto picture of a young queen,
A blue Indian shawl, even
A money bill.

It’s utter sublimation
A feat, this heart’s control
Moment to moment
To scale all love down
To a cupped hand’s size,

Till seashells are broken pieces
From God’s own bright teeth.
And life and love are real
Things you can run and
Breathless hand over
To the merest child.

Be at peace, Ma'am/Mommy Edith. Thank you for your passion and your poetry.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Mischief of the Mistletoe (Lauren Willig)

'In all the annals of romance, it was never the court jester who got the girl. It was always the knight in shining armor, dashing to the rescue in shining breastplate on a snowy white steed,' muses the hero in Lauren Willig's The Mischief of the Mistletoe. He has reason to -- he is more jester than knight, and it will definitely take more than his clashing clothes and social ineptitude to win the girl.

I've always enjoyed the Lauren Willig books for their mix of contemporary romance, historical romance and espionage. I guess after seven books, I've grown used to this mix. A friend pointed out that one of Ms Willig's plots was derivative of a Georgette Heyer title but that hasn't kept me from following her work. Fans of Ms Willig will note the absence of Eloise and Colin in this title but I didn't mind at all since there is still plenty to rave about here.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is the fifth book in the Pink Carnation series, at least chronologically speaking (it was written after Books 6 and 7). It features Turnip Fitzhugh, a character who turns up in The Masque of the Black Tulip and is finally given a novel of his own. It is the holidays, and Turnip is visiting his sister at Miss Climpson's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, where he literally runs into Arabella Dempsey, the new instructress. In the rush of activity around the school, they come into possession of a Christmas pudding with a mysterious note. Their curiosity gets them embroiled not only in each others' lives, but also in a plot to save the nation's secrets from getting into the wrong hands.

In this book, Jane Austen waltzes in as Arabella's best friend. In fact, it is intimated here that Ms Austen's unfinished work The Watsons is inspired by Arabella's situation. She was expected to be adopted by a rich aunt, but when Aunt Osborne decides to marry someone half her age, Arabella is sent back home to the country. To augment her family's income, she takes a teaching job at Miss Climpson's, not knowing how this is about to change her life. I really enjoyed this device.

But what makes this a winner in my book is Turnip himself, certainly a different kind of romantic lead. He is far from the dark and brooding type, he dresses outlandishly, and he unintentionally creates humorous situations for himself. One of my favorite romance titles, Jude Deveraux's The Raider, features a similarly foppish character, but in that book, the colorful dandy is merely a front for the timeworn dark and brooding stereotype. But Turnip Fitzhugh is really cut from a different cloth. What you see is what you get: a genuinely endearing and guileless romantic lead. His manner of speaking is markedly different from other heroes in the Pink Carnation series. He is also a very learned man, but Ms Willig allows the readers to discover this for themselves, rather than have another character point out how clever he can be. I like that everyone else (except Arabella, of course) tends to dismiss him as a buffoon.

It's lovely to see a hero who can genuinely make a woman laugh and swoon. There were so many times that I smiled throughout the text. Not only did Turnip and Arabella get themselves into a lot of amusing situations, and bumbling through their encounters with French spies and their own feelings. Reading this was a heart-melting experience, not at all far from what I'd feel after seeing a cute dog. Very refreshing.

Arabella's wards at Miss Climpson's are also a delightful addition to the Pink Carnation family (and I do mean family -- a trio of friends here are the younger relatives of old Willig leads). I hope I'll see more from them in latter books, but since there are only two left, this wish might be a longshot.

Friday, August 19, 2011

ReaderCon/Filipino Friday: Reading Influences

As a countdown to our 1st ReaderCon, I'm joining the other Pinoy bloggers in doing this Filipino Friday meme. Every Friday, we're asked to share our answers on different questions, and this week, we're revealing who/what influenced us to read.

I grew up surrounded by books. My mom used to be an English teacher at an all-girls school along Katipunan and she taught me to read at an early age. When I graduated from picture books, my mom would buy me the Ladybird editions of Greek myths and classics like The Wind in the Willows and The Last of the Mohicans. When I was in first grade, she bought me my first Nancy Drew books, a collection which I cannot part with now. Her youngest sister was the one who encouraged me to appreciate literature. Some of my earliest memories are of my aunt reading The Little Prince, Hope for the Flowers, and To Kill a Mockingbird out loud to me (I was about eight or nine when we took on that last book). We still have the battered copies of the first two books, which bear a lot of my doodles. The copy of the Harper Lee classic was eventually lost and replaced, but I recall quite clearly how much I wanted to be Scout and Jem's friend.

My mom and my aunt were very patient with me as they helped me understand what I was reading and appreciate each book. What's funny is that as I write this I realize I don't recall ever thanking them for this amazing gift. I really can't imagine my life without reading and it's all thanks to them. Reading takes me to lives I would never have, places I haven't seen. It makes me see, page by page, how rich the world is.

The ReaderCon is presented together with Vibal Publishing House, Inc, and sponsors Primetrade Asia, Flipside Digital Content, and Scholastic.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Lions of Al-Rassan (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Friends have always encouraged me to read Guy Gavriel Kay but somehow I haven't gotten around to following their advice until now. I have copies of The Lions of Al-Rassan and Tigana but I always thought that I would start with his latest book Under Heaven, a Tang-dynasty inspired piece. During my last trip to Manila, I couldn't find a handy version of the book so I turned to the ones that were already in my library. I'm glad I did. The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of the richest and most engaging things I have read so far this year.

Mr Kay is known for works set in imagined realms that are loosely based on real places at a particular moment in history. The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in an analogue of the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, a campaign to take back territories from the Muslims. Though Al-Rassan's fictional war does not last hundreds of years as the Reconquista did, it still spans a generation. Armies move under the banner of religion but the war is largely a political one, a reclamation of power and territory and rightful claim. The Lions of Al-Rassan depicts the hardships and consequences of war, its risks and its sacrifices.

It is the story of three peoples: the Kindath, a dispossessed race who revere the twin moons, their lands invaded many generations ago and still ostracized despite their renown for skill and trade; the Asharites who worship the stars, divided into the decadent city-dwellers and the fierce nomadic tribes; and the Jaddites, followers of the sun, the former conquerors who have been embroiled by petty battles and disputes within their own kingdom before one of them decides to turn his gaze towards the entire peninsula.

This is a war told through different eyes. Not new, some might argue. But anyone new to Mr Kay would appreciate that each of his characters are effective and engaging narrators. At the forefront are two of the greatest military minds of their time: Ammar ibn Khairan, the poet-assassin who is responsible for killing the Kaliphs of Al-Rassan, and Rodrigo Belmonte, the fearsome Jaddite captain who commands 150 of the best and most loyal horsemen and warriors. Ammar and Rodrigo are very different in lifestyle, temperament, and beliefs but when they find themselves exiled from their respective kingdoms, they form an unlikely bond. They are well-matched in skill and firm in their principles, which fuels their mutual respect for one another. Caught between these two great men is Jehane, a Kindath physician and the only daughter of the most famous doctor in Al-Rassan.

There are also other characters whose perspectives give us more insight into the brewing war, and it speaks of Mr Kay's skill that even his minor characters are well-developed. You see the impact of war on an orphaned peasant boy, on an idealistic soldier, on a former merchant. You see the passions of a conquering king and a foreign adviser among men whose religion shuns his. You see two boys on the verge of growing up ahead of their time. But what's interesting to note is that although the war is purported to be a religious one and crimes are made in the name of gods, we hear little from the wadjis and clerics, the story's religious zealots and segregationists. They are often mentioned but are largely relegated to the background in an almost one-dimensional depiction. On one hand, it makes us dismiss the extremists' singular purpose as destructive, with few avenues for literary exploration and justification. On another, it may be that the relatively limited exposure of religious figures in this 'religious' war will draw us away from seeing faith as a truly dividing factor; it is how people act in the name of faith that is called into question here.

One of the most important themes of the book is of religious/cultural tolerance and understanding. Mr Kay likes putting his characters in situations where they would have depend on each other, defying the dictates of their cultures. Though I'm not a fan of how every other male in the book seems to fall in love with Jehane, I do recognize that she serves as a link between Rodrigo and Ammar, who symbolize the novel's opposing forces. She herself stands for the open-mindedness, steadfastness, and empathy needed in a world of fear and hate. It then becomes tragic to see how these different characters, who have come to earn each other's trust and respect, have to succumb to the call of war.

If you are looking for a moving epic, then I'd thoroughly recommend The Lions of Al-Rassan. It is epic and sweeping, but more importantly, it is contained in one book. (Fantasy writers, it can be done!) Despite the scope, it also has its moments of restraint and introspection. It digs deeper into the hopes and fears of its individual characters to form a truly rich, thoughtful, and rousing tapestry.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fan Girl (Marla Miniano)

At first glance, Marla Miniano's Fan Girl has a similar plot to Summit's last book, Popped. They both feature girls who go to another country in pursuit of their celebrity crushes. But in tone and approach, both books cannot be any more different.

When Cosmopolitan Philippines commends Ms Miniano for her 'heart-wrenching angst,' I have to agree. Fan Girl's story begins in college, when Summer falls for Scott, the half-Pinoy frontman of a local band. Over the next few years, we are privy to all the things that Summer does for love -- the open relationship she agrees to, the devoted stalking, and even that momentous decision to leave everything behind and follow him to the US.

Summer's passion for Scott is all-consuming. She often fails to look beyond what she wants to see. She doesn't listen to reason. There were many times that I wanted to hit her in the head, but I think this is testament to how realistically her character is written. I've known plenty of girls who have let their lives revolve around a man; I suppose there were times when I was no exception either. I think that Ms Miniano does a great job of letting Summer's insecurities come to the forefront. She gives us hints of why Summer acts the way she does. After years of being relatively isolated from the world, you can really understand why she clings to any form of affection from Scott. She may not be the kind of girl I would normally root for but I think Fan Girl depicts an intensely vulnerable character with a hidden tenacity, one who is a pretty good mirror for a number of women today. I think that in its own way the book is both a defense and a rebuke of Summer, which can really leave you with something to think about.

Ms Miniano's writing has a very measured pace and an introspective tone. It is almost episodic in the beginning, giving us short chapters of Summer's life throughout college and the kind of relationship she has with Scott. The writing comes across as almost quiet -- there are no frantic celeb chases here, no big dramatic scenes -- and it's the kind of voice that I'm really drawn to when I read.

Fan Girl is a story of self-discovery, of choice and consequence. But it tells us that growing up doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes we really have to keep on repeating our mistakes before we learn, whether we're bright-eyed college freshmen or thirtysomething career professionals. Some truths we are just meant to discover ourselves.

Friday, August 12, 2011

ReaderCon/Filipino Friday: An Introduction

As a countdown to our 1st ReaderCon, I'm joining the other Pinoy bloggers in doing this Filipino Friday meme. Every Friday, we're asked to share our answers on different questions, and this week, it's all about introducing the kind of readers we are.

I read everything. Back when I was a Literature major and fancied myself a writer, a college professor told me that I had to be more discerning with my choices. The rationale behind it was that if I read good books, I was likely to write better. I really didn't listen. I cannot imagine not reading things that interest me. So yeah, now I guess I'm a reader and not a writer, and I'm cool with that!

Fantasy: I read Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger when I was about nine or ten. My older cousins, who were into Pern and Terry Brooks' Shannara, thought it was a good idea for me to add some fantasy into my reading choices and I was hooked. I finished most of the Pern series in grade school, was hooked on Dragonlance, checked out every fantasy-related YA book from the school library (mostly Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, John Bellairs, Susan Cooper, Fay Sampson). In high school, I moved on to JRR Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, William Goldman, Peter S. Beagle, David Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, Robert Jordan, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card (okay, obviously I began reading sci-fi as well). I went through doorstoppers like crazy. Still do. In college, I read George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Pratchett, Stephen R. Donaldson. Post-college: China Mieville, Ellen Kushner, Robin Hobb, Neal Stephenson, Jeff Vandermeer, Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Sergei Lukyanenko. Hay naku, tama na, di ako matatapos. What was the question again? Sorry, I really tend to ramble when it comes to fantasy stuff. Sell me anything and I'd buy it.

And the rest, quickly now.
Asian Literature: I love books by Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Yukio Mishima, Dai Sijie, Ma Jian, Anchee Min. I also enjoy Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, and Orhan Pamuk. I wish I can read more from Southeast Asian authors (I'm only halfway through my first Indonesian book).

YA: I used to read as many of the American Newbery winners and honor books as I could: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, Strawberry Girl, The Westing Game, and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. My favorite authors were EL Konigsberg, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and Katherine Paterson. I still read YA fantasy like Shannon Hale and Patricia McKillip but thanks to my teenage sister, I read more of the contemporary titles now.

Romance: I devour Regency bodice-rippers and chick lit. Recently discovered Julia Quinn and I'm loving her books to bits. This was all thanks to reading Sweet Dreams on the sly in fourth grade and then graduating to Sidney Sheldon by the time I was a freshman in high school.

Poetry: Should that count here? Too late, I'm answering anyway. Luisa Igloria, Eric Gamalinda, Edith Tiempo, Billy Collins, Wislawa Szymborska, William Carpenter, Philip Levine, Ted Kooser, Pablo Neruda, and Rumi.

My favorite authors, in no particular order: Peter S. Beagle, Haruki Murakami, Harper Lee, Ellen Kushner, Kelly Link, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, Umberto Eco, Banana Yoshimoto, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, Elizabeth Hand, Patricia McKillip, Patrick Ness, Lloyd Alexander. I think our Filipino genre writers rock. Yvette Tan and Crystal Koo are among my (many) favorites.

Here are some books I'd read over and over again:
LM Montgomery's Anne of Green Gable series and The Blue Castle
Eva Ibbotson's The Morning Gift
Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, The Truth, and Soul Music
Sharon Shinn's Summers at Castle Auburn
Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Wendy Mass' Every Soul a Star
... and should shoujo manga count?

Finally you'll have to forgive me if not all of these books were released in 2011; they just happen to be a list of fabulous books that I've managed to read this year:
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas
Peter S. Beagle's Sleight of Hand
Patrick Ness' A Monster Calls
Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others
Sara Zarr's Sweethearts
David Markson's Reader's Block
Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan
Benjamin Tammuz' Minotaur

Whew! Probably my longest post ever (and I'm hoping I don't get too long-winded next time). But if we happen to have common favorites and you'd like to chat, let me know. I hope I'll see you at ReaderCon. :)

The ReaderCon is presented together with Vibal Publishing House, Inc, and sponsors Primetrade Asia, Flipside Digital Content, and Scholastic.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Manazuru (Hiromi Kawakami)

Don't turn your head. Keep looking at
the bandaged place. That's where the
light enters you.

And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself. – Rumi

This short verse from one of my favorite poets kept resonating with me as I read Hiromi Kawakami’s Manazuru, translated from Japanese by Michael Emmerich. Twelve years after Kei’s husband disappeared, she is still haunted by the loss. But that’s not the only thing haunting her. As she makes regular visits to the small seaside town called Manazuru, she finds herself constantly dogged by a mysterious spirit. Kei doesn’t know what is in Manazuru that draws her nor does she know what it is about her that draws the woman. In this restless year, Kei allows the reader a glimpse into the chaotic memories that invade her quiet, contained life.

It is easy to say that Kei is looking for closure. She remains adrift, trying to make sense of why her husband Rei left, uncertain whether to divorce him or have him declared legally dead. She still bears her husband's name though she lives with her mother (both surnames appear on the nameplates in front of their home). She has a long-term affair with a married man. She is unsure of how to deal with the changes in her teenage daughter. Rei lingers in every relationship that Kei has, and thoughts of him still follow her even when she escapes to the secluded fishing town of Manazuru provides a good backdrop for Kei's introspection.

There is an aimlessness to this whole novel. If the prose was meant to have that almost disjointed yet still poetic quality, then Mr Emmerich’s translation succeeds: 'As we were paying at the desk, I suddenly pictured the daybreak tangle of our bodies, and became wet. The rainy season was unusually long that year. We sauntered through a light rain, sharing an umbrella. Nesting dolls were arrayed on a glass shelf in a souvenir shop(p60).' From sex to rain to Russian matryoshka. I actually liked this strange jumble of images, as if I were joining Kei flit from one thought to the other, from the remembered to the tangible. I thought that this seeming incoherence and meandering underscored the surrealism in the text. You tend to ask yourself what is real and what is imagined, almost an echo of Kei's own questions about what had happened to her marriage.

I'm not sure if this is a characteristic that will be well-received by other readers. In the opening scene, Kei stays at an inn run by a family named Suna, which means sand. For me, the image aptly establishes the tenuous links between the events in this story, but I still found myself looking for something to anchor my reading experience. In the end, I found it in Kei's relationship with her daughter Momo. There is something so broken and disconnected and convincingly real about them, apart and together, and I was really invested in what happens to them. Many things are left unanswered (like who the woman is or what really happened to Rei), but then maybe that's not the point. Maybe the point is that closure comes not as door slamming shut, but as a boat disappearing into the horizon, gradually drifting away until you are no longer aware where it is. Or maybe that's just my overly simplistic way of making sense out of a very complex journey.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The 1st Filipino ReaderCon

I've been blogging since 2006, but it was only late last year when I found out that there was an entire community of passionate Filipino book bloggers. I was largely unaware that a number of them even have a healthy international audience. I hope none of the local publishing companies and their marketing departments share my ignorance, but on the off chance that they do, then this would be a great way for Filipino readers, authors, and publishers to get together and forge stronger ties.

Presenting the 1st Filipino Reader Conference: Filipino Readers Make It Social!

The ReaderCon celebrates reading in the Philippines, especially in this digital age. If you're a Pinoy reader, this is a good opportunity to learn the ins and outs of book blogging. Know how to run your own book club. Most importantly, see how you as a reader can help promote Philippine literature. Being so new to this community, I'm really excited to see what will come out of this event. I'll be posting more updates on the ReaderCon soon, but in the meantime, here's the Twitter account that you can follow.

The ReaderCon will be held at SMX Mall of Asia Meeting Room 2 on Sept. 14, Wed, from 1-6 PM. It is presented together with Vibal Publishing House, Inc, and sponsors Primetrade Asia, Flipside Digital Content, and Scholastic. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

List-erature: This Astronomy Lover's Essentials

August brings much rain and cloudy skies so there is little reason for me to stay outdoors at night. In between waiting for the skies to clear, I've come up with a short list of astronomy-oriented books. Please note that this is not meant to be the definitive guide for any astronomer; these are merely my personal favorites that have helped me embrace the field.

1. The Firefly Encyclopedia of Astronomy (Edited by Paul Murdin and Margaret Peston). This is a really extensive collection of facts about the history of astronomy, phenomena, theories, space missions.... I'm tempted to say everything under the sun but that would be inappropriate -- and hyperbolic. What I love about this encyclopedia is that it contains pages of practical advice on imaging, solar observation, radio astronomy, and other things that would interest an amateur like me. It doesn't have detailed coverage of constellations, but I can forgive that because I know how thick it would be to fit everything in. Good thing I have...

2. Burnham's Celestial Handbook (Robert Burnham Jr). I'll truly be lost without this three-volume set. Not only does it have very, very, very detailed information on the more popular constellations and its stars (variable, multiple and double stars), it also includes the different nebulae and galaxies in each. It has accompanying charts, graphs, and photographs depicting magnitude, celestial coordinates, and nearly everything else you would be interested to know. No wonder Mr Burnham couldn't settle for just one book. If you're into deep-sky astronomy, you really should pick up a set.

3. Sky and Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas (Roger W. Sinnott) . This practical and convenient guide is one of the most important things in my astronomical library. It's easy to use when you're in the field and contains the best viewing months for different objects. It's almost like going on a road trip with the most reliable map around.

4. Cosmicomics (Italo Calvino). A lyrical collection about the origin of the universe. Each tale begins with a brief piece of astronomical interest: information on the moon, the expansion of the universe, early life. Then what Mr Calvino does masterfully is to depict the universe as seen by an early speck of life -- cellular structures but I'd like to imagine the narrator old Qwfwq as a piece of stardust -- and mold it into twelve poetic/philosophical moments. One of my favorite lines is Qwfwq recalling that gradually, living among signs had led us to see signs in countless things that, before, were there, marking nothing but their own presence; they had been transformed into the sign of themselves and had been added to the series of signs made on purpose by those who meant to make a sign (p38)' that would lead to signs like 'fire-streaks against a wall of schistose rock' or 'the badly inked tail of the letter R in an evening newspaper'. The entire book made me shiver with delight and purpose.

5. Every Soul a Star (Wendy Mass). It may have been The Little Prince that first got me gazing upwards, but it was Ms Mass' YA title about how a total solar eclipse changed three kids' lives that really inspired me to take my interest in stargazing a step further. In this wonderfully introspective story, Ally, Jack, and Bree are at the Moon Shadow Campground run by Ally's parents, the only site to view an oncoming solar eclipse. All three have various reasons to be there -- some more reluctantly than others -- but in the end, their encounter changes them profoundly. I can relate to powerful and moving astronomy is. Now I'm a member of the Astronomical League of the Philippines, learning so much more than I could have on my own, and I don't know if I could have done it without this book.

Bottom line? Reading has truly helped me find more loves and more passions, and even in these grey, rainy hours, I cannot be more grateful.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Child Thief (Brom)

I've always admired works that subvert and twist the classic fairy tale. In The Child Thief, a darker retelling of JM Barrie's beloved Peter Pan, Brom reminds us that the dark elements are already present in the original story. His task is to lay that darkness bare while bringing the story into the twenty-first century. Here, Peter is still stealing kids away but he's now in the New World, choosing instead to lure young teens from abusive families, bullying, and other violent situations in downtown New York. Fourteen-year old Nick is only the latest in this centuries-old game, a boy running away from druggies and dealers who are guaranteed to kill him on sight. The story alternates between Peter and Nick, giving readers a chance to understand the cost and the dangers that come with living in their version of Neverland. The story also adds Celtic and Welsh legends into the retelling, providing a well-anchored backdrop to the more fantastic elements.

As with many fractured fairy tales, it is easy to twist and turn the charismatic Peter into the bad guy. But Brom doesn't do simple role reversal here. I think his characterization of Peter is intuitive and nuanced, and for the most part it gives us a fair understanding of what spurs a boy like Peter on. The Child Thief is rife with moral ambiguity. Brom's Peter is an excellent character, an unreliable narrator perhaps, but that only serves to strengthen the Peter Pan mythos. As a reader, I was convincingly drawn into his struggles and his beliefs. Nick serves as a good foil for Peter, as he sees the world of Avalon with more trustworthy eyes.

Brom does his best work with horror; he certainly makes this nightmarish realm come alive. The gore is satisfying, and Brom's accompanying artwork does a great job of complementing the story.

The story is not without its stumbles. I found the narrative clunky at parts. Not only does the perspective shift between Peter and Nick (that doesn't sound like a bad thing), but it also presents us with Peter's flashbacks. There's the Peter hoping to steal another boy into Neverland (an extraneous element, I feel), a Peter and his life in the world of men, and a Peter in Avalon. The story moves back and forth between all these elements before it settles into the more comfortable Peter-Nick narrations, but at that point it has already taken up a lot of the book.

In this world, however, it seems that the moral ambiguity doesn't extend to Christianity. The fire-and-brimstone antagonists were rather tired and very one-dimensional, doing nothing at all to further The Child Thief's subverted themes. It seems like the takeaway was anyone who trumpets his own goodness is evil; everyone else deserves our understanding. It was this uneven treatment that kept me from fully enjoying the book especially when it makes well-drawn characters lose their edge and revert to their respective roles in the battle between good and evil, old and new, pagan and Christianity. Of course, it could just be the Catholic schoolgirl in me talking; don't let that stop you from picking up a copy of this book and coming to your own deliciously dark conclusions.