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Words of a Bibliophile

"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees


Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day - David Levithan "I don't wish to change you
You got it under control
You wake up each day different
Another reason for me to keep holdin' on"

― Jason Mraz, "The Woman I Love"

It is one thing to show different sides of ourselves each day like the woman in Jason Mraz's song. It is another thing altogether, though, to be like A, the main character in Every Day, who wakes up in a different body each day. The main conflict in this novel is how A struggles to build and maintain a relationship with his supposed star-crossed true love, Rhiannon, despite having to inhabit a different person's life every day. There are certain rules to how A switches bodies: he only inhabits people the same age as he is (sixteen) and all living within several hours of each other. To me the latter merely seems like a convenient plot device, as it allows some room for A and Rhiannon to meet every once in a while.

Yet the book still engages me and keeps me guessing how it would end. The personal stories of each person A inhabits also provides some interesting discussion points for teens reading this YA novel, although Levithan is very clear on his bias about each subject that it may come across as directing the reader's views. The ending feels fitting, all things considered. I do think, though, that Rhiannon only seems to love A merely because he loves her. She simply needs someone to understand her and be good to her, something her boyfriend Justin can't do. But in a way that sets things nicely for A to leave her with Alexander, a nice guy who can understand her and be good to her.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Villette - A.S. Byatt, Charlotte Brontë, Ignes Sodre I first started this book in June 2013 but couldn't get through with it because mine was a free e-book without footnotes. These footnotes are essential because many of the characters speak a lot of French every few pages. So I got myself a paper book with proper translations in the footnotes and started to read it again in May this year.

Many have compared Lucy Snowe to Charlotte Brontë's earlier heroine Jane Eyre, but while I loved Jane's principle and her belief in her own worth, I felt Lucy is rather the opposite of Jane. She seems to have such a low opinion of herself, her own worth and how others regard her, always shrinking into the shadows and undermining herself despite everything she has accomplished (moving into a foreign country without any prior certainty on how she can survive there, without even first mastering the language, is no small feat after all). I also didn't like the way she withholds information from the reader and then suddenly springs out that, actually, she'd known about certain things all along. There are other things I didn't like about the novel:

- The many coincidences: What a coincidence that Dr. John is the man who helped Lucy during her first night at a foreign country, and also Graham Bretton from Lucy's childhood, and also Isidore who is Ginevra Fanshawe's admirer. What a coincidence that the strangers Dr. John and Lucy assist at the theater are their old acquaintances Paulina and Mr. Home, etc.
- M. Paul Emanuel. What an annoying creature! Lucy should've stood up to him more, this sexist, jealous, pompous ass who bullies and harasses and basically walks all over her. Later in the book he's revealed to have a generous, selfless side, and the reader is supposed to believe he's a magnanimous and tender person and that his previous cruelties and rudeness don't matter anymore.
- It is all well and good for a 27-year-old man to court a 17-year-old girl during the Victorian era, but it doesn't sit too well with me that Paulina, who is described as adult-like even during childhood, seems to have passionately, truly loved Dr. John since she was six and he was sixteen.
- I got tired of Lucy constantly railing against Catholics and the inherent wrongness and perversity of the Roman Catholic church. And I'm not even Catholic.
- The ending. Apparently it's not enough that Lucy is deliberately vague about her past suffering that led her abroad to Villette, which I felt to be a huge hole in the beginning of the story; she does it again in the end. "M. Paul might have drowned at sea, but let's not think of it that way because it's too sad, let's just imagine we lived happily ever after!" I mean, really?

Yet I did like certain parts of the story. I liked Dr. John, and I did want to know how things turned out for Lucy. The ghost of the nun gives a nice Gothic touch to the book and keeps things suspenseful. The introduction in the Oxford World's Classics edition that I read also provides some interesting insights on the book as an autobiographical novel. But many things including the ending, which made me feel cheated, and that misogynist bully M. Paul, made finishing this book feel like something of a chore.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel - Jess Walter "All we have is the story we tell. Everything we do, every decision we make, our strength, weakness, motivation, history, and character – what we believe – none of it is real; it's all part of the story we tell."

This was a good story indeed (and what a gorgeous cover!). But while the parts with Pasquale Tursi and Dee Moray in 1960s Italy captivated me, I couldn't bring myself to be interested in many of the other characters and story lines. I didn't really want to read a chapter from anyone's novel or self-help book or movie pitch, or hear about the personal histories of the book's supporting characters. I just wanted to get back to Pasquale and Dee and find out what happens to them. This book ultimately felt to me like a tragicomedy you see randomly in the theaters one day when you're not in the mood for any of the other movies that are playing. The film can be a bit dark, sometimes hilarious, but mostly romantic and rather bittersweet. Afterwards you don't remember very much about it except that the Italy part was lovely.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell I read this because I liked Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath but wanted something better from him. I got that from this book. I thought this was more cohesive and convincing than D & G, and the addition of a very personal story from Gladwell's family added a nice touch.

The Case of the Love Commandos by Tarquin Hall

The Case of the Love Commandos - Tarquin Hall I got an advanced copy of this book through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway, sent to me straight from India. This detective story is made deeper and more poignant than the run-of-the-mill crime fiction by its theme of caste relations and sociopolitics in India. However, it manages to maintain a humorous tone through its eccentric, food-loving main character, private investigator Vish Puri, who appears to be India's answer to Hercule Poirot. The mystery was quite intriguing and I couldn't guess the culprit easily, although I did think that the subplot with Puri's detective wannabe mother Mummy-ji was distracting and rather unnecessary. Rather than Puri or Mummy-ji, for me the most interesting character in the book is Puri's operative Facecream (he has other operatives with nicknames such as Doorstop, Handbrake and Tubelight), a smart and fearless woman with a kind heart.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings: A Novel - Meg Wolitzer “You had only one chance for a signature in life, but most people left no impression.”

This is the story of a group of friends who met at an art summer camp in the 1970s. They each have a love for a certain form of art, but not all of them have the chance to make it their signature in life. One of them may have a great talent, some only mildly talented, and others may not be that talented at all. Decades pass, and the one among them with the gift of true talent may achieve superstardom, another may get the boost they need by having money and social status, while another may be hindered by personal tragedies. But some just end up being ordinary people living ordinary lives.

I enjoyed this better than the first Meg Wolitzer book I read, The Uncoupling. This one felt very engaging and real, like I really knew these people and was interested in what happens to them, regardless of them being likeable or not. Wolitzer provides an interesting study of what talent really means and whether one can succeed with it alone. But the dynamics between the characters, between the successful and the not-so successful, and how they try to maintain their friendships and relationships as the years go by, are what makes this novel a lot more Interesting for me.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome - Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton I thought I knew how this book was going to end — tragically, of course, but I didn't know that Wharton would add an extra punch that hit me sideways and prevented the novel from being a typical tragic love story. At first I was only mildly impressed by the story and the characters, but that unexpected ending, which turned the whole book on its head, and the very useful introduction in the Wordsworth edition that I read prompted me to stamp it with an extra star.

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

Destination Unknown (Agatha Christie Mysteries Collection) - Agatha Christie Unlike the typical Agatha Christie mystery, this one is a spy thriller rather than a detective story. While many aspects of the espionage seem very simplified and the ending is wrapped up too easily, it was fun to read Christie again and reminisce. My yellowed second-hand copy of this novel, which I got in a book swap, reminded me of those old Christie paperbacks I devoured in my high school library, back when I first dared myself to read books in English. Those books, along with stacks of ancient editions of Reader's Digest, opened a whole new world of language for me.

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending Jacob - William Landay I don't read a lot of legal thrillers, but the one I did decide to read this time didn't disappoint. Defending Jacob is a page-turner with an ending I did not see coming. Lots of discussion points on psychology, parenting, and trust. The narrator's voice and excerpts of a grand jury proceeding set a year after the crime are powerful tools used by the author to lead and mislead the reader. I had a great time being misled, though.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee Lee This was one of those books which everybody but me seems to have read. I was going to rate it four stars, but after I finished it I went straight back to the beginning to read it again, which very rarely happens. I saw so much more of the novel's brilliance during my second read, so I think it deserves a spot in my five-star hall of fame. I knew from the start that the book discusses race, but it's about so much more than that. The book is also about family, class, parenting, background, and society in general; about prejudice, courage, justice, and tolerance. About respecting other people despite disagreeing with them wholeheartedly, about simply letting people be. In my mind Atticus Finch is one of the best fathers in literature, and Scout and Jem Finch some of the most endearing child characters. Atticus says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” I think we all need to be reminded to climb inside other people's skin every once in a while.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid The titular fundamentalist in this novel is not only reluctant, but also less than convincing. The back cover of my copy described that Changez, the Pakistani main character, "embraced the Western dream — and a Western woman — and... both betrayed him". But I had to scan through the book again to ascertain when and how the betrayals occur because it wasn't immediately clear to me. In the end I still wasn't entirely convinced. Aside from some dirty looks and name-calling he receives post 9/11, Changez doesn't suffer from any direct discrimination or injustice. He doesn't lose his high-paying job until he gives it up himself, and as a Pakistani Muslim he is never subject to unreasonable questioning or raids by US authorities. Changez' self-righteous rage against the West doesn't seem that much different from that of an armchair politician, commenting on world events portrayed on TV from the comfort of his living room. And the so-called romance with the Western woman, Erica, has never been a romance to begin with as she doesn't consider Changez as more than a friend, being unable to move on from her late boyfriend in a Norwegian Wood-esque plot. But while the story falls a little short of believable, I liked the monologue style of this book. The eloquent speech of Changez, the excellent pacing, and just the right amount of details about the person he is speaking to, kept me interested until the end.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt "And isn't the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?"

Donna Tartt can certainly write gorgeously, and that is possibly what saved this novel from ending up in my two-star list. I started out sympathizing with the main character, Theo Decker, and ended up barely caring what happens to him. The title of this book's first chapter is "Boy with a Skull", an artistic symbol that represents Theo himself, a boy whose life is wrecked by a tragedy. But Theo keeps making one bad decision after another even after he grows up, continuously eroding whatever sympathy I have left for him. The tenth chapter, when Theo's already an adult, is called "The Idiot". To me that perfectly sums up what Theo has become.

I liked a few other characters in this book (Hobie, Andy). Boris appears to be aimed at being a character who, despite numerous faults, is still likeable, but he only strikes me as insincere and duplicitous, a trickster of whose motives you're never really certain. There were also several discrepancies and inconsistencies in the plot which disturbed my reading. And I wish Tartt didn't spend what feels to me like hundreds of boring pages describing what Theo drinks, smokes, swallows, and snorts, where and how he does it, the effects it gives him, et cetera — from adolescence all the way to adulthood. By the time I finished this 770+ page tome, all I could think of was: That was rather beautiful, but thank God it's over.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt This is just one of those books which I didn't want to end. The kind of book about young people that's not written specifically for younger people, that does not need to "dumb things down" for the audience. The kind of book which tugs at your heart in a painfully lovely sort of way and wraps you in its warmth.

Maybe I was in denial or I'm just dense, but at first I didn't really believe that what the main character June felt for her late Uncle Finn, a gay painter who died of AIDS, was more than a harmless platonic crush, although she has clearly stated otherwise from the beginning of the novel. Maybe, like June, I thought it was gross and wrong and forbidden for her to feel true romantic love toward her own uncle, her mother's brother. But wrong as it may be, June's love for Finn was innocent and pure, and so was her growing affection for Toby, Finn's boyfriend. I wished there was some kind of outright confrontation on what June's mother did to shut Toby out of the family's life, which caused a lot of pain for everyone. I felt she owed it to Finn, Toby and June.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good realistic story about family and love, the universal kind.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

A good book with some funny parts. I'm not sure if it's the pretentiousness or something else but it didn't blow me away or anything. I especially liked the Amsterdam part.

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants - Malcolm Gladwell

I got this book through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway. The idea of studying why and how underdogs beat the odds is intriguing. Gladwell uses two or more real-life examples in every chapter and tie them together with some statistical data to support his premise, but I thought the connection between the examples, as well as between them and the David vs. Goliath theory, becomes more flimsy in the third part of the book. The lack of an epilogue to tie the mishmash of stories together also doesn't help in adding cohesion. But Gladwell is a really good storyteller, and his writing flows very well. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about perceptions of advantages and disadvantages in education, as I was a teacher for a few years.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

The Uncoupling - Meg Wolitzer

This was a quick, well-written read that had some funny moments, but not very memorable I suppose. If the book was supposed to have an overall message of some sort, it was rather lost on me.