Friday, January 13, 2017

The 2016 Book Report:

Two thousand and sixteen has now vaporized itself into history and while I had set up to read 25 books within said year, I miscounted the darned number I've gone through and missed out on the 25th book. I did only have about 3 days left  of the year when I finished what turned out as the 24th - Sir A. C. Doyle's "The Study in Scarlet"; but supposing I read one that was only a pamphlet-thick in the remaining days, then I would have completed the bloomin' challenge, right? What a lamentable oversight... 

Be that as it may, like what Mr. Gibbs said about the supposed death of Commodore Norington in "Dead Man's Chest," "Best not wallow in our sorrows!" Another year is upon you and I and here's hoping I would be able to complete 25 indeed (though not a promise), but in the meantime, here's my recap. 

Among the books I went through this year, I've proven why classics such as "War and Peace" and "Tale of Two Cities" are choice books for centuries and understand why it will remain so. These books have the staying power of mercurial objects with their universal themes, representations, characterization and even quite frankly their moral lessons. 

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" I thought was psychological with a touch of supernatural and one I imagine would play with someone's mind if one allows it. "Twenty Thousand Leagues" was venturesome and quite fun.  It was the year of my first Balzac with "Cousin Bette" which was rather lengthy but I can now surmise that Balzac is my French auteur du jour en cé moment. "Romola" I enjoyed too, not realizing it was set in Renaissance Florence with the likes of Niccolo Machiavelli making a cameo appearance, George Eliot is a true power house in English Lit; makes one curious about the authoress.

Among the contemporary ones I've read, "The Book Thief" was heart-rending and Diane Ackerman's was like an encyclopedia of the cuerpo mortal. "The Other Hand" or "Little Bee" had a questionable ending in my view, one that I would ask the author about if I ever did meet him for I could not see it as equitable at all. Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" was informative in terms of the culinary substratum, and "The Sisters Brothers" was funny apart from a few hiccups. "Blindness" was disturbing and thought-provoking, so much that "The Age of Innocence" became a breath of fresh air. 

In all, my reading choices weren't regrettable and here's looking forward to more books in 2017; one never knows whether I'll be able to finish 25 of those codex(es) this time? 

Ciao my dearests! And as I always say, "Read! Even if it's just a dictionary." 


1. (January) The Elegance of a Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery  
2. (February, March) War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy  
3. (March) The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dickson  
4. (March) Cooking with Fernet Branca, James Hamilton Paterson  
5. (April) Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez  
6. (April) The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt  
7. (May) The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak
8. (May) The Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman  
9. (May, June) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne   10. (June) Blindness, José Saramago  
11. (July) Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton  
12. (July) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Annie Barrows, Mary Anne Shaffer  
13. (August) Balzac and the Little Seamstress, Dai Sijie  
14. (August, September) Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain  
15. (September) The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Johansson  
16. (September) The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde  
17. (October) The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens  
18. (October) Cousin Bette, Honoré de Balzac   
19. (October, November) Persuasion, Jane Austen    
20. (November, December) Little Bee or The Other Hand (UK), Chris Cleave  
21. (December) Romola, George Eliot  
22. (December) A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens  
23. (December) Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle  
24. (December) A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conon Doyle     

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

One Year, 25 Books Overture: Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Madame Olenska?

This might as well have been Edith Wharton's alternative title for "The Age Of Innocence" because the whole book revolves around the presence and affairs of the beautiful Countess Ellen Minggot Olenska.

Newland Archer is a man in full during New York’s Guilded Age (ca. 1870 - 1900), he works as a lawyer in a reputable firm and is engaged to May Welland, New York’s foremost debutante. Madame Olenska is May's first cousin and as custom has it in the upper class, when one marries, the person is really married to the entire clan and not merely the one vows are given to. Enter Madame Olenska who comes to New York with quite a baggage and they are: a topsy-turvy breakup with her philandering, aristocrat husband in Europe, an upbringing by a Bohemian aunt and worse, a great sense of independence and unconscious disregard for the proclivities of New York’s society. Newland Archer is the one compelled by the Welland and Minggot families to help Madame Olenska’s predicament and despite the reserve and stoicism of a polite gentleman in this era, Newland falls in love with Countess Olenska.

Upon reading the first chapter, one can already figure out how this pans out but you want to stay on reading for the nuances and how you believe the characters should deal with conflict such as these.

There is beautiful language and cadence of storytelling in this book, it is urbane, sentimental and even though one feels as though they are listening to gossip as the words unravel, it is somehow classy. The reader would sympathize with the characters on all sides of the argument because Edith Wharton wrote this with clarity.  There is the very conventional and obedient May Welland, the free-spirited Madame Olenska who also wants to conform for the sake of her love and Newland Archer who is wrenched between duty and desire. There is too in the end, pity for all characters in the book despite their affluence because they are after all prisoners of the society which they built and the rules which they have not written but adhere to. 

It would do one a bit of good to read this classic. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

One Year, 25 Books: Blindness by: José Saramago

“Blindness" is one of the most intriguing books one will ever read as its premise will never leave you. Imagine a world with pandemic blindness, with that, imagine all the fear, widespread panic and then envision the degradation that would follow. This book is part science fiction, part parabolic and all original. Indeed very worthy of the Nobel prize it gained for Literature in 1995.


"White Blindness” (rather than “dark” blindness) is the illness that sweeps the city in this story. It begins with one man who is driving a car, then it afflicts the bloke that helps him, then on to the ophthalmologist who attempts to treat him, and on to other patients present in the clinic during the first blind man’s visit, and further still, on to people who come in contact with all the preceding characters then eventually to everyone in the city and perhaps the world.

Entropy. The first set of people to be afflicted are interned in an empty mental hospital and at the start, government, society, and the diseased try to keep the peace, order and reason, however, due to lack of information on the ailment, its mode of contamination, incubation period and other queries,  the ones afflicted are neglected, threatened and even abandoned. With the arrival of the succeeding packs of newly blinded people, disintegration takes residence in the wards and a “Lord of the Flies” scenario occurs. A group of thugs in one ward decides to go feudal on the food and supplies for everybody in the hospital until they get their retribution.

Meanwhile in the world outside, it appears that blindness has set upon all humans of all the social strata; pet animals are roaming about left to fend for themselves and have reverted back to their wild instincts. Chaos defines the place and groups grapple together in packs to find food and shelter day by day, night after night wherever possible with their world narrowing down to holding out for survival. If we pan out circumspectly, we can study the behavior of how our specie might be able to survive in such a drastic and horrifying scenario, yet our depravity will always get in the way with our hope and potentials as people.

One woman lives to see all of this and she is spared of the illness, the reason behind her immunity is as mysterious as how the blindness came about in the first place. Though the tale is not told in her perspective, we see her dilemma of being fortunate enough not to go blind but conversely she witnesses the erosion of the world she lives in and the people around her. Was her sight worth having?

The plot though begs the question as to why couldn’t people who were blind prior to the epidemic, having already mastered their surroundings without sight not step up to the plate to some degree? Couldn’t they have helped guide and teach the ones afflicted how to adapt to their new condition? However, to be finicky is to take the essence away from the story. Give this one a tumble, it’s quite thought-provoking and will leave you thinking about it days after you finish it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

One Year, 25 Books Overture: A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Reading “A Natural History of the Senses” is like diving into a Niagara Falls of information about our constitution as human beings. In the book, Diane Ackerman delivers an expository of each of our senses that is vastly interesting, outlining the macro and microcosm of it all.  The author divided the book into major chapters (Smell, Touch, Hearing, Vision, Taste Synesthesia) with subchapters for compartmentalization. Upon reading, it was as though Sir David Attenborough’s voice was narrating in the background like in a documentary as it had that feel to it.


The chapter on “smell” discussed about how the stimulation of the olfactory nerves affect our appetite for food, life, bodily drives and memories. Ackerman for example is reminded of her childhood as we would be when we smell something familiar. I for one am endeared to the smell of smoke coming from the fire of dried leaves, papers and kindling because it reminds me of the rubbish we burned from what was swept at our yard in the Philippines (sans plastic). The memory of my mother and I watching the smoke rise higher in the afternoons is invoked and I remember them with clarity every time I get a whiff of that brand of smoke.

The chapter also tells of a Russian perfumer responsible for many high fashion fragrances and how she is paid exorbitantly to be “The Nose” for a famous atelier of perfumes in New York. She is able to draw scents harmoniously from numerous elements around the globe i.e., trees, flowers, fruits and is able mix and match them so a chemist can put it all together and concoct a scent that you or I might already be wearing at this very moment. Take note as she casually exposes the formula for the celebrated eau de toilette Chanel No. 5 which contains Gardenia, ha! no wonder I never took to it, I have bad recollections with Gardenias. 

Newsflash. Remember in the last decade or so when pheromones in perfumes were the fad?  (even now really), well, our good author debunks the notion that if a bodily fluid were incorporated in a scent, it would be  efficacious in making one attractive to the opposite sex. In the case of a woman, Ackerman argues, males from all manner of species would be trailing after her with something crazy in mind if this were so and I concur. Astonished was I to find too that sometimes, minute amounts of excrement from the anal sac of choice animals are mixed in our perfumes or colognes for an optimum whiff of musk. Nice.

The discourse above is an example on how the rest of the book goes. The other chapters on sight, hearing, taste, touch and that hyperdrive sense “synesthesia” are infused with this kind of exposition also.  Science, anatomy, physiology, the cosmos, history and some mysticism and poetry are mixed in. Ackerman is a very palpable believer of evolution yet there are acknowledgements of a Creator and of creation, she flip-flops this way throughout perhaps because she attempts to be all-encompassing and is accepting. The Chicago Tribune  parallels this book primarily with amorousness; as a naturalist, Ackerman does foray into sensuality as it relates  with our senses but not as a rule. She can be just as effusive with savagery as she is with sensuality, take as an example the recipe for Roasted Goose from the Dark Ages found in the chapter for Taste. Egad!

Ironically, the person known in history that is a frequent point of reference here is one who has lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak, Helen Keller. Though unable to see she can describe what she “sees" eloquently and though unable to hear or speak, she can convey most effectively. I understand Helen Keller to be a woman of faith and I would venture to say that her optimism is a testament that even if physical senses are infirmed, imagination and intuition can make up for it, a case for the human being’s sense of hope

This is quite the requested book, it was a bestseller and it initially came out in 1990, it is both subjective and objective and is a veritable education bonanza.  


One Year, 25 Books Overture: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Book Thief is about a girl named Liesel Meminger in Nazi Germany after she was dispatched to her foster parents named Hans and Rosa Huberman who turn out to be cool. After witnessing her little brother die en route to the destination of her new life, the book follows
Liesel's journey from mistrust to becoming acclimated with her new environment. It would otherwise be rosy for Liesel except that she is in a time in history where an evil-fueled despot has risen in Germany who is bent on annihilating Jews and conquering the rest of Europe with this mindset. Since this is an unacceptable proposition for the rest of the world indeed (except Italy and Japan), Germany will just have to make do with the full assault of the allied countries against her and that is the backdrop of our book. 

Foster parents Hans and Rosa and now
Liesel live in Himmel St. (German for Heaven), Liesel makes friends with kids in the neighborhood, some adults, even the Mayor’s wife who lives at the villa on the hill, but not with the Nazi woman store owner. In my head her visage is like that of Frau's in the Austin Powers movies but without the humor. The Huberman household gives shelter to a Jew who they all protect and fall in love with and because of this, we surmise that not all Germans were willing SS members or Furor fanatics during WWII. It is this theme of hope and caritas that makes this book a gem. That, the writing and the viewpoint from whom the whole story is told. Death (himself) tells the story of the book thief and it would be apropos as this is one of the periods in history wherein he would be the busiest too, taking lives here and there and all over. Death here in this book is verbose and takes on a personality if you please.

Liesel stole books for a few reasons. At first it was by accident and complacency really, the second out of passive protest from the periodic book-burnings headed by the Nazis and the succeeding ones were because of repressed anger under the tedium of being subjugated in a hell created by a demented man and his cohorts. A moral question, since the owner of the books Liesel mostly steals from knew and accorded the act, is it still stealing? In the book, a justification for Liesel’s thefts is made with the explanation that she did not steal with greed, for example, she reads the stolen books repeatedly before she takes another one. This reminds me of that argument by a son stealing from her mother’s purse and declaring, he wasn’t stealing but merely borrowing without consent. Haha.

Not at bad read this, and it can be lighthearted even in its dark setting.

Monday, June 13, 2016

One Year, 25 Books: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Captain Nemo sailed away...

First off: A league equals 3 nautical miles.

I have wasted precious time by not reading this quite sooner. I did remember that "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea," the movie, was a bit alarming and unappealing to me as a wee girl because of the visions imprinted in my mind of those giant squids and the behemoths under the ocean, I thought, what a fright to be close to it with just the glass to separate man and beast, what if it broke? But this is quite a must read. Very educational although some events written here are inconceivable. That said, the voyages of the Nautilus, that fantastic submarine with Captain Nemo at the helm is a treat of a lifetime for our adventurous inner teenager.


Professor Pierre Aronnax, a curious, well mannered and enterprising biologist who heads the Les Jardin de Plantes in the Museum of Natural History in Paris is commissioned to investigate a sea creature being hunted in many oceans known as the "Narwhal.” Tales of this “beast" became taller and taller as men related it to the next one and so on; though it was discovered early on that this behemoth is none other than the formidable and wonderful submarine itself, the "Nautilus."

Prof. Aronnax with his companions Conseil, his assistant and Ned Land, a blood-thirsty harpooner first embark at the ship called the Abraham Lincoln for the hunt of the famed Narwhal. A battle takes place between the Lincoln and the "Narwhal" wherein the former gets discomfited and the three men find themselves captured by Captain Nemo inside what they have known to be a monster whale but was in fact, a submarine. Seen as enemy combatants at first, they were informed that they could choose to be executed or be treated as guests inside the vessel where they will explore the depths of the ocean, learn about marine wildlife but with the caveat of never going back to live in terra firma. For the moment, the men chose to stay. 

Their expedition takes them to very many parts of the earth’s hydrographic realm such as the Asiatic seas, the Artic and  Antarctic, Vigo Bay in Spain where treasures are found in sunken galleons, the Sagrasso Sea where there’s a higher concentration of salt compared to the other seas, the Red Sea, the same one which Moses parted, the Atlantic where they trace that mythical fallen continent Atlantis. On to spend harrowing days at the South Pole, interesting events at the Indian Ocean and even on the shores of Papua, New Guinea.  Indeed it’s quite the voyage around the world, underwater. The marine species are very vividly described here, like the zoophytes, various fishes, mollusks, crustaceans and cetaceans/whales,  all manner of corals, fucus or that seaweed with thick leathery stalks and the episode with "Bouguer’s Cuttlefish” is the one that gave me nightmares as a child though today, the case isn’t the same. Only this, I will not look at the cuttlefish the same way again. 

Transparent in this book is Verne’s fascination with the various phenomena of the sea, like  the phosphorescence,  a.k.a. St. Elmo’s fire wherein a bright translucent plasma is created by a discharge from a pointed object in a strong electrical field in the atmosphere caused by thunder and lightning storms. Navigational and nautical terms too are abundant, the Nautilus sub which was a very modern and self-sustaining vessel harnessing energy from the electrolytes of the sea has made me wonder if Verne may not have been a time traveler himself, being privy to something very advanced for the time frame when he wrote this book. I have read that many submarine makers have gleaned from and took notes from this book when making new ones in these modern times, fictitious it may be.

Just read the book why don’t you? Your sense of adventure will be awakened, encourage your children, loved ones to read it and their imagination will delve into the ocean depths. Because of it, now more than ever I have the desire to be friends with the sea, something I both fear and am awed by. 

Last, allusions overflow about this mysterious underwater genius named Captain Nemo, from anime/manga, Disney movies, TV shows, rock bands and that Sarah Brightman song and that is telltale of the mystique of this book. There is more from Jules Verne about Capt. Nemo in "The Mysterious Island," and I'm looking forward to that. El Capitan himself is left as a conundrum even after the book ends, much like his fate. Was he a madman? An executioner or a brilliant scientist that the world needed? We shall see, in my view there can never be enough spinoffs about him and I wished, this book didn't end. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

One-Yr Book Challenge: The Sisters Brothers

Patrick DeWitt is a relatively new author we could be curious about. “The Sisters Brothers” I believe is his first or second and already one can see the direction the writer is going just with the pun-filled title alone. “The Sisters Brothers” was in the NYT best list, was shortlisted at the Man Booker Prize and won the Governor General’s Award. The book trails the mishaps and spirit of independence of two guns for hire in the once lawless west and what a trip it is. 

Book Review:
Charlie and Eli Sisters are guns for hire in the old west, Oregon to be exact. They are under the employ of an old western gangster known only as “The Commodore.” Their job was to track down a man in San Fransisco named Kermit Warm and kill him, simple as that. During the trek however, the one brother Eli begins to grow somewhat of a conscience and starts questioning his life’s path. Charlie on the other hand, the hot-headed one is hell bent on his task and because Eli is bound to a protective bond for his brother, he strings along. Waggish characters appear all over the story like a soothsayer in a cabin, the sweet bookkeeper dying of the consumption and a special mention to Eli’s ride named Tub, a bilious horse with a bad right eye whose head is bent to the side in order to see what's ahead. I can already see how a horse chase scene would pan out. It’s moments in the book like these where I laughed like I did in “O’ Brother Where Art Thou.”

Unexpected events follow when the Sisters meet their target and the whole affair does not proceed as planned. Alchemy comes into play when instead of an assassination, a collaboration in the search for gold ensues. Mr. Warm has found a formula that is able to visualize gold in the river at a particular time during dusk, why, it is the age of the California gold rush after all.

The dialogue is only a tobacco short of a slapstick comedy and if you read it like how they used to speak in the old west you’ll get the whole experience. While you’re at it, go ahead and pretend spit in a spittoon. There is good continuity and the book’s ending turn symbolic in the vicinity of western tales with a figurative mellow ride towards the sunset for a conclusion. I am not a man but even I can appreciate that. 

Your call if you're inclined to read it.