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BOOK REVIEW: Gagamba by F. Sionil José

Gagamba The Spider ManGagamba The Spider Man by F. Sionil José
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short novel revolves around a real world event, the devastating earthquake that struck Luzon, wreaking havoc on Manila, in July of 1990. The novel is written in an unusual format. The chapters could be described as character sketches offering insight into various people who were in (or next to) the Camarin building when it collapses in the earthquake. Rather than the usual narrative approach, F. Sionil José offers captivating slices of the lives of these individuals that include insight into what brought each of them into the doomed building.

In the book, the Camarin Building houses a popular Spanish food restaurant called “the Ermita” that attracts wealthy movers and shakers both for its cuisine and for the ladies-of-the-evening who ply their trade there. The book presents an interesting contrast between the powerful military officers, businessmen, politicians, and expats who came there to dine and the common folk who work or live in the shadow of the building. The latter includes the character for which the book is named. Gagamba means spider in Tagalog, and it’s the nickname of a beloved man who sells lottery tickets outside the Ermita (because his deformity gives him an appearance reminiscent of a spider.) We see how all become equal in the cross-hairs of Death.

What makes these stories about the victims all the more intriguing is that we know from the book blurb that two of the characters (in addition to Gagamba) will survive the building collapse. The author does a good job of creating characters who are intriguing and who we want to know more about. There is the military officer who is aide to a high-ranking General but who is made a lucrative proposal from a superior officer to mule drugs (this being pre-911 days in which VIPs and their assistants might plausibly be exposed to little to no screening.) There’s a Filipino-American who is taking a priest and family friend out for a fancy dinner. The priest’s ominous discomfort with the setting of the meal – a feeling that we can’t tell is (as he says) because he’s uncomfortable with the cost or because he has an unspoken discomfort with the vice know to occur there – makes one wonder. There’s a homeless couple who lived in the alley beside the Camarin with their infant child.

I enjoyed this book. I think it offers some insight into Filipino culture and the chaotic nature of disaster. I’d highly recommend the book for readers of literary fiction, particularly if one also has an interest in foreign literature.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s lead character, George Orr, runs afoul of the law for borrowing the prescription cards of friends and acquaintances. But Orr isn’t a run-of-the-mill junky out to get prescription painkillers. Instead, he’s taking medications to keep from dreaming, because Orr’s dreams change reality—sometimes in subtle, and sometimes in drastic, ways. Of course, the world would be chaotic if the dreams only changed the present, but they also retroactively change the past to be consistent with the new present. Orr is the only one who remembers both the new and old timelines, but he’s not happy with these god-like powers–especially given the chaotic and unpredictable possibilities that arise from the subconscious mind. Not unexpectedly, Orr is reluctant to tell anyone this because they will think he’s mad.

Orr gets assigned to voluntary therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. Orr tells Dr. William Haber about his unique condition, but, once the doctor recognizes Orr is telling the truth, Haber draws the opposite conclusion from Orr. Haber thinks that Orr should be using his “power” to make the world a better place, rather than being scared of it and trying to avoid it. Haber presents the classic example of good intentions gone awry. While the doctor does use the hypnotically induced sessions to improve his own career situation, the worst outcomes result from the doctor’s attempts to help Orr (without Orr’s approval or prior knowledge) to improve the world. The law of unintended consequences is ever-present, and the dreams guided by Haber often result in “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situations.

This is an interesting premise in a highly readable book. The contrast between Orr and Haber reflects a broader societal tension between those who think they can engineer a utopian future and those who think that one’s attempts will always blow up in ways that one can’t anticipate. It should be noted that the title comes from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” and the virtue of “wu-wei” or “actionless action” in contrast to the corresponding vice of trying to manhandle the world into a desired state is central to the story.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a short novel with a clear theme that is thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book for fiction readers, and highly recommend it for readers of sci-fi and speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There’s a famous quote that has been attributed to various individuals, including both Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal. The wording varies, but the gist is: “Sorry for writing you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” While it’s a witty comment, the humorous subversion of expectations doesn’t mean there’s not an underlying truth. It takes work and / or brilliance to convey an idea persuasively with few words. “A Christmas Carol” is an outstanding example of a tight story that powerfully conveys its theme.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a cranky banker who wants nothing to do Christmas. He won’t give his employee, Bob Cratchit, time off so that Cratchit can spend the holiday with his family—including his ailing son Tiny Tim. He chases off charities. He won’t even accept an invitation to attend the Christmas party thrown by his nephew, Fred. Then one night, he’s visited by the ghost of his recently deceased business partner—Jacob Marley. Marley, who was as cheap and crotchety as Scrooge, is burdened with horrifying chains, and the ghost warns Scrooge that if the old man doesn’t change his ways, he—too—will end up wandering through eternity in a similar set of chains. Before disappearing, Marley tells Scrooge to expect visits from three more ghosts.

The three subsequent visits with the famous ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future don’t require much discussion. First of all, the names of the ghosts (e.g. Ghost of Christmas Past) are self-explanatory. Secondly, this story is iconic in pop culture and it’s been remade in every medium in every way imaginable from modern adaptations (e.g. “Scrooged”) to “Simpsons” episodes. At any rate, the first ghost shows Scrooge that there was a time when he wasn’t such a curmudgeon while reminding him that he once had an employer, the beloved Mr. Fezziwig, who was a much better to Scrooge than Scrooge is to Bob Cratchit. The second ghost takes him to see the Cratchits and their meager but blissful Christmas festivities and then to his Nephew’s party as well. The final apparition, The Ghost of Christmas Future, takes Scrooge to the end of his own line. In the wake of the four ghost visits, Scrooge makes some changes to avoid the fate he’s been shown.

The Puffin Classics version that I read has an introduction by Anthony Horowitz and some artwork. That said, I don’t think it matters much what version one reads. It’s about the story.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles

The Oedipus TrilogyThe Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One needn’t be educated in the Greek classics to know that somewhere in this trilogy there is a man who gets intimate with his mom. However, the common conception of Oedipus —as in the Oedipal Complex—probably has more to do with Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis than it does with this story.

The three plays of this trilogy are “Oedipus the King” [a.k.a. “Oedipus Rex” or “Oedipus Tyrannus”], “Oedipus at Colonus,” and “Antigone” [pronounced “an-tig-o-nee” rather than “anti-gone.”] Of the three plays, the first is the most well-known.

In “Oedipus the King,” the titular character is facing a crisis in his kingdom. When the oracles are consulted about how the calamity might be brought to an end, Oedipus is told that he must banish the killer of his predecessor, i.e. the previous king of Thebes. Oedipus consults his own oracle to find out who the ne’er-do-well is who murdered the last king, and the fortune-teller tells Oedipus that he’ll never say who committed the killing —but acknowledges that he does know who it was. Oedipus mocks and threatens the oracle until the fortune-teller gets fed up and tells the king that it was he, Oedipus, who killed his predecessor. Oedipus doesn’t believe it at first, thinking it’s an attempt to facilitate a coup. Far ickier than the accusation of murder is the fact that —if true— it means that Oedipus has been getting busy with his own mother and has even sired children with her. Oedipus calls for an investigation. When a peasant who saw everything is called to testify, his story strikes Oedipus as disturbingly familiar. It turns out that Oedipus’s blood father (the previous king) had been told by his own oracle that his son would kill him and steal his wife, and so he had baby Oedipus sent away to die. Oedipus (who had been rescued from being staked up on a mountain) was coming through Thebes, not knowing it was his homeland, when he had a skirmish on the road with the man that he didn’t realize was both the king and his father. Later, Oedipus marries the queen (apparently there were no busts or portrait paintings of the last king anywhere) and becomes the king without knowing that the man he’d killed in self-defense was the last king / his father. When the truth revealed, everything goes south. The queen kills herself, and Oedipus’s response is almost as severe. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and goes into exile. Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, says she will be the ex-king’s guide, and because the old man is blind and not familiar with where he’s going, he doesn’t have much choice but to accept.

In “Oedipus at Colonus,” Oedipus and Antigone arrive at neighborhood on the fringes of Athens, i.e. Colonus, and are planning to take up residency. The locals are welcoming until they find out the blind man is Oedipus. The story of the ex-king who killed his father and got it on with his mother has spread far and wide. The townspeople agree to call in their king, Theseus, and let him decide. Theseus decides to shelter the Thebean ex-king, being moved by his story of how Oedipus was unwittingly ruined and how the former king accepted his punishment when his offenses were brought to light. Theseus’s support becomes more complicated when Creon, a royal from Thebes, shows up and says they need Oedipus back because an oracle now says that the location of his burial will determine the outcome of a future conflict. Oedipus says no way, and Creon has Antigone and her sister (who joined them at Colonus to warn Oedipus) kidnapped. Theseus faces a serious challenge because now his actions might bring the city-state to war, let alone offending the gods. However, he sticks to his guns and rescues the daughters and agrees to personally oversee Oedipus’s burial (so that no one can grave-rob and move Oedipus’s body to a position that would create a more pleasing forecast from the oracles.)

“Antigone” takes place after the death of Oedipus. The dutiful Antigone is now back in Thebes. When her brother Polyneices is killed and Creon orders that the prince not be buried, Antigone refuses to accept the decree. She steals the body and gives it a proper burial. Antigone was engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon, but Creon decrees that the woman will be imprisoned in a cave for disobedience of the king’s order. Haemon asks his father to be reasonable, but Creon will have none of it. Eventually, the words of an oracle convince Creon to change his mind, but he finds himself too late. Like Oedipus, various ruin then befalls Creon.

While the details of the story may strain credulity in places, these works are powerful morality tales. The recurring theme is that one can’t make an end-run around fate by way of vice and neither can one otherwise manhandle events to achieve a desirable outcome. Oedipus’s father sends his son to be killed, but the outcome remains the same. Creon can’t plant Oedipus’s corpse where he pleases and neither can he deny a man proper burial. It’s almost a karmic tale. Perhaps, the path to pleasing the gods is through virtue, and not through finagling one’s way to compliance with forecasts.

I find it fascinating how crucial a role is played by oracles throughout the three plays—and what that says about human nature. The fortune tellers are always right and are always heeded. In a sense, this story tells one about humanity’s fear of uncertainty, what people are willing to do to allay that fear, and how the world is ultimately too complex for those attempts to work out. The law of unintended consequences remains ever-present.

I enjoyed these plays. They are brief, stirring, readable, and thought-provoking. I would recommend them for any reader—particularly those interested in the classics.

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BOOK REVIEW: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1)River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This alternative history book takes as its premise the “what-if” of: what if feral hippopotamuses had been introduced into the bayous of Louisiana. This was apparently an idea that was considered in the real world, presumably by people who didn’t realize that hippos are one of the most territorial and cantankerous creatures in nature. Those who’ve read the writings of the explorers / adventurers who made their way through Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries will be well aware that hippos were among the most feared creatures faced by those expeditions — rivaling black mamba and lions, and not at all like the cattle they were expected to be.

The first part of the novel consists of a hippo wrangler of British origin, named Winslow Houndstooth, building his team of hippo wranglers Magnificent Seven style. Houndstooth has a contract from the federal government to drive feral hippos out of a marshy river basin called “the Harriet.” Houndstooth also has a plan to do this dangerous job in a way that—if it works—will make the job quick and easy while exacting revenge on his archenemy, a man named Tavers who operates gambling riverboats on the Harriet. The story is as engrossing as it sounds. Dangers abound for our protagonist and his team of misfits – misfits of varying reliability, and —like George R. R. Martin—Gailey isn’t afraid to kill off a character.

The introduction of hippos isn’t the only way in which the story is alt-history. It’s also set in a world in which people of various sexual orientations and gender identities are much more open with their sexuality than they would have been in the Louisiana of the early 20th century as we know it. (Note: It’s not clear whether it was the introduction of hippos to America that created divergence in the parallel timeline that allowed for this progressiveness, whether it was a more open societal outlook on sexuality that facilitated the introduction of hippos, or whether these are independent events.)

At any rate, while gender and sexual orientation issues are quite prominent in the story, there’s only one area in which this disparity between historical reality and the alt-world became a distraction for me. I should point out that there would be no distraction in a science-fiction or fantasy story, as there is in historical fiction, because the author can create or destroy societal mores and norms as she wishes in a non-existent world. Anyhow, the one distraction I referred to had to do with one character, Hero, for whom the plural pronoun is used throughout. I must admit that I spent a few pages trying to figure out whether Hero had two heads like Zaphod Beeblebrox before I concluded that it was an attempt to deal with gender identity (I think.) I will say that the character development is skillful and Gailey does a great job of producing characters that evoke love or hate but not indifference.

I enjoyed this story. It’s a quick read, has likable and loathable characters, and builds tension throughout. There is a second book that I understand can be read independently of this one called “Taste of Marrow.” I have not yet read it, but probably will.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A twelve-year-old boy, Conor, is forced into early adulthood when his mother is laid low by a terminal illness. Conor’s father is remarried and lives across the ocean in America (the book is set in England.) When Conor’s mother has to be hospitalized, Conor must go to stay with his grandmother. This is undesirable both because Conor longs for a return to normality and because his grandmother— while a fundamentally caring woman—is much more uptight and prim than Conor’s mother.

Conor has been terrorized by a recurring nightmare of late, and when the Yew tree from outside his window comes to life, the Yew tree monster is, relatively speaking, a welcome relief from the much more dire scene that confronts Conor nightly in his nightmare. The Monster informs Conor that it will tell the boy three stories over multiple nights, and when it is done Conor will be required to return the favor by telling the Monster one true story in return. The book plays out with the monster telling Conor stories as well as encouraging the boy to act out to release the building tension that threatens to destroy him. All the while, the story builds toward a moment of reckoning. The idea of repressed rage building into a monster of its own is central to this work.

The book is generally classed as “low fantasy”—a genre in which a limited supernatural element barges into an otherwise real world story. However, it can arguably be read as more psychological in nature. When the Monster visits, Conor finds evidence of his presence— e.g. leaves and berries—but to my recollection no one ever sees such evidence besides Conor, and so the reader is free to view these clues as harbingers of a descent into madness.

The book, itself, has an interesting back story. Apparently, the idea came from Siobhan Dowd, a writer of children’s / YA literature, when she had cancer. Patrick Ness was brought in after Dowd died to take her characters and premise and turn them into a book. Ness completed the book, which was made into a film a couple of years back.

I’d highly recommend this book. It builds and maintains tension throughout the story and is highly readable.

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5 Gripping Works of Fiction I Read in 2017

NOTE: I previously did posts on books written in 2017 and nonfiction books I read this year.  These are fiction books I read this year that were written in previous years, and which are all awesome in some way. The hyperlinks in the titles are to my reviews on GoodReads.

 

5.) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: A pretentious and lazy man-child is forced to get a job to help out the mother who treats him as though he’s twelve.  Hilarious.

 

4.) Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman: A young man is institutionalized with mental illness and the reader is granted glimpses into both his real life and his delusions.  Evocative.

 

3.) The Guide by R.K. Narayan: An ex-convict is mistaken for a spiritual guru. Thought-provoking.

 

2.) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy: Men of violence being violent the borderlands of Texas. Visceral.

 

1.) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: The fates of a blind French girl and a bright German boy intertwined during the Second World War. Gripping.

5 Books of 2017 that Influenced Me Greatly

It’s that year-in-review time of year. To clarify: these are the books published in 2017 that most profoundly influenced my thinking. I clarify because I’ll probably do a list of books that I read in 2017 but that were published in previous years.

5.) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman’s take on classic tales of Norse Mythology shows that one can bring great value with a fresh look at old art. However, beyond the “steal like an artist” sentiment of not getting locked into building something brand new, these stories show the Norse to be exceptional storytellers. All ancient cultures had a mythology, but not all of them were equal in producing stories that are timeless and work across cultures.

 

4.) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston: This book taught me two things: First, that there is still much to be discovered right on terra firma. We talk as though the only new vistas of knowledge are to be found in space or places like the Mariana Trench, but the days of terrestrial discovery are not past. Second, there is a lesson of common fates of humanity across time. A lot of this book is about a parasitic disease that infected several of the expeditionary team, as well as speculation about how the same disease might have influenced the civilization that abandoned the titularly referenced city.

 

3.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur: Kaur’s books combine poetry and art. Both are crude but heartfelt and evocative. Both of Kaur’s books have struck a chord with readers, and that resonance seems to be about the candid and bold nature of her art.

 

2.) Behave by Robert Sapolsky: Sapolsky tells readers that one can’t look at something as complex and bewildering as human behavior through the lens of any one academic discipline and get a complete and satisfying picture. Sapolsky considers the best and worst human behaviors through the lenses of biology, neuroscience, endocrinology, human evolution, and more.

 

1.) Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal: The authors of this book examine the various ways people achieve what they call ecstasis. Ecstasis is a state of mind in which one loses one’s sense of self, and all the muddling factors that go with the self, such as self-criticism, fear of failure, and the feeling of working against everyone and everything else.

BOOK REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Lost William Shakespeare

Love's Labor's LostLove’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King Ferdinand and three of his attending lords (Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine) make a pact to devote three years to intense study and self-betterment. During this time they are to study arduously while depriving themselves of certain earthly pleasures. Specifically, they will fast one day a week; they will sleep but three hours a night; and— most controversially— they will give up women altogether. Just as military strategists speak of plans not surviving first contact with the enemy, this pact falls apart with the arrival of the Princess of France and her three attending ladies (Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.) The men each develop a fancy for one of the women, and the pact unravels when the men, spying on each other, realize the others are intending to woo and pursue.

As it’s a comedy, there are a number of opportunities for confusion and comedic relief. Such comedic elements include mix ups in the delivery of love letters, and disguise schemes that go awry. For a comedy, the play ends on an interesting note. As is expected, there’s a reconciliation of who loves whom. However, there are no weddings to suture up the conclusion, but instead another agreement is entered into in which the men and women will see each other again in one year’s time. This leaves readers to consider the question of whether they think the men can be more diligent students when love backs this pursuit (but provides a distraction) than when it works against it.

This is one of Shakespeare’s earlier works, and it’s more original than some. Still, it deals in some common comedic themes about the disruptive force of love and the effects of failed duplicity.

This play is highly recommended.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Guide by R.K. Narayan

The GuideThe Guide by R.K. Narayan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s lead, Raju, is sitting by a riverside shrine when he’s mistaken for a holy man. In actuality, Raju was just released from prison for forging the signature of a woman with whom he has a complicated relationship. The woman is married to another man but she has a love of dance, and her husband wants her to give up such frivolities. She falls for Raju, who is working for her husband as a travel guide /expediter, because he supports her in the pursuit of dance. [One can see the dual meaning of the title as Raju is a travel guide by trade and becomes a spiritual guide to the villagers of the fictional town of Malgudi.] After experiencing some hard times with the shops left him by his father, Raju finds success by being not only the lover of the dancer but also her Col. Tom Parker (i.e. her promoter /manager.)

The story isn’t told in chronological order, but is easily enough followed and is the more interesting for its nonlinear telling. For example, we learn the details of Raju’s troubles as a confession he makes to the individual who first mistook him for a guru.

The book explores several themes. One is the power of charisma and bumper-sticker wisdom in building a sage. When Raju’s first student hears his confession, the young man is unswayed, following Raju unwaveringly. On a brighter note, one also sees how people’s strong beliefs, ill-founded as they might seem to be, can produce a guru. Ultimately, Raju becomes the teacher that the entire village thought him to be all along.

There’s also the issue of passion versus familial bonds and tradition. While Raju’s mother personally likes the dancer woman, the fact that the girl is of a lower class and caste (not to mention married to another man), creates a tension. Raju must decide between his love of the dancer and that of his mother. We also get to see the hard edge of tradition in the Raju’s uncle who puts all the bias of class and caste in its most explicit form.

I enjoyed this novel. It’s a nice compact story and is very thought-provoking. The character of Raju is well-developed and interesting. The reader finds Raju likable even though at times he’s a bit loathsome in his behavior. There’s more than one comedy of error in the story’s formulation to offer some lightness to contrast the family drama.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It was also interesting for me as an ex-pat in India as it offers some insight into the culture. It should be noted that it’s set in a bygone era. But even though it’s dated, one can see the long shadow of cultural proclivities in the story elements.

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