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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

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Lee

As adventures go, this one is pretty fun and exciting. But I did feel there's a little less trust and unity between the dwarves and Bilbo than I expected. Not all dwarves are treated equally, some get more important roles while others barely get mentioned every few dozen pages or so. By the end of the book I tried to do a dwarf count and found that I'd forgotten some of their names. Gollum, on the other hand, is a stand-out. His riddle game with Bilbo is one of my favorite parts.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Night Film - Marisha Pessl

I rarely get spooked by a book, but this book spooked me. I'm a notoriously slow reader, especially with English books, but I flew through this thick novel, dreading what I'd find on the next page but eager to see it at the same time. This book petrified and thrilled me, made me read into the late hours of the night — just another page, just another short chapter — and caused a chill down my spine when I realized as I came up for air, blinking, that I was alone in the room and everybody else had gone to bed. Shadows kept haunting me as I went to sleep myself, threatening nightmares that in the end didn’t come, until another day rolled by and I picked up the book again, submerging myself back into its depths.

It’s not that I didn’t recognize its weaknesses. The author’s overuse of italics for emphasis annoyed me — they appeared every few pages and sometimes in the same paragraph or even sentence. The main character, a world-weary investigative journalist, was prone to spouting cynical wisecracks and making dumb moves that raised questions about how good he really was in his profession. The sprawling story branched in many directions like dark underground tunnels, and not all of them were explored, not all loose ends were tied.

But I felt that was how the story was intended. Just when I thought the rug had already been pulled out from under me, I realized I was standing on another rug which then also got pulled out, revealing yet another rug. After I finished the book I went back to re-read several key scenes, comparing this interpretation to another, trying to determine which one was true. But this wasn’t the kind of book which gave plain, straightforward answers. Just like Cordova, the mysterious cult movie director at the center of the narrative and his equally enigmatic daughter Ashley, they remained shrouded in dark mist. I always ultimately judge a book by the way I felt (and how much I felt) when I read it, and I felt like I had been lost in that mist as well, treading the narrow path between truth and fiction.

"...the biggest truth about a family, about a person's life, was the fantasy and it was only a simple man's mind that craved one being tidily distinguished from the other."

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Trudy White, Markus Zusak

This story about a poor, book-stealing girl and her life in Nazi-ruled Germany is an extraordinary tale for many reasons. One of them is of course the fact that it is narrated by Death. He wasn't terrifying though, he was even rather compassionate. In his narration, the world was filled with vibrant colors, and inanimate objects took on a life of their own and were described using the word 'who' instead of 'which'. Contrary to popular belief, Death never meant any harm and simply did his job. He did have a tendency to spoil certain parts of the book ahead of time, but trust me, he did not do it in ill will. I enjoyed the story all the same.

~* A Small Fact *~

There are a lot of small facts
written like this in the book.


The facts and observations written separately from the text felt gimmicky to me at first, but they soon gained a greater significance once I got used to them. The book was also a bit too long that I felt the story plodded at times, but I did appreciate all the little details about the life of book thief Liesel Meminger. The other characters were also larger than life. Her silver-eyed accordionist foster father, possibly the kindest man on earth. Her foul-mouthed but big-hearted foster mother from whom I learned various German swear words. Rudy Steiner, her best friend and partner in (mis)adventures, my favorite character in the whole book. The Jew in her basement. The lady in the library.

Ultimately this book is about the power of words and how they connect people, and about the humans who read them. Death observed them all through everything. He watched how they caused so much hate and suffering, but he also witnessed their immense capacity to love.

"A human doesn't have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both."

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

I finally got to read this sci-fi classic just in time before the movie. It was very engrossing and suspenseful. I kept marveling at how Ender managed to beat the odds with ingenuity, perseverance, and hard work, no matter how difficult the challenges put against him seemed. The concepts presented about war, state control, the role of children, and free will were thought-provoking, although the last chapter was a bit "out there" for me. I also didn't really like the way the narrative would switch in and out of first person point of view without any clear markers. It felt disruptive and jarring for me. But overall this was a quick read that was enjoyable and meaningful at the same time.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell

This is a generally bizarre book about a family who runs a gator-wrestling island theme park and seems to overestimate the fame and grandeur of said park, which is becoming bankrupt. Alligators, vultures, ghosts and humans populate this novel, and I'm never sure whether the ghost part is supposed to be real or not. I wonder if this can be classified as magical realism because that's what it felt to me.

I like the author's unique writing style, such as using nouns as verbs, but while reading I kept thinking to myself, "I don't really want to know about this topic..." The book was darkly funny at times but mostly bizarre and often disturbing, and only mildly interesting. 2.5 stars.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent - Veronica Roth

This book would've been better for me if the romance isn't so prominent. I know romance is a huge part of YA dystopias in general, but the romance in this book is present in almost every other page, it's so distracting. I'm only thankful I was spared another full-fledged love triangle — that would've been really annoying.

The idea of a society divided into five factions based on different values is quite interesting. Too bad there aren't any factions for someone like me, who values peace and kindness like the Amity but sometimes just wants to be alone, who enjoys learning like the Erudite but doesn't want to think too hard, who thrives in the face of challenge like the Dauntless but in the end simply wants a comfortable life. I guess I'm a Divergent too.

What bothers me, though, is the fact that the people who are not part of any established faction, the factionless, do "the work no one else wants to do". If the Abnegation are completely selfless and devoted to others, why are there jobs that even they won't do? I guess they're not selfless enough to become janitors? And how come the factionless, people who are condemned to "less than death", operate trains and drive buses? They are considered low and dangerous, so how come the factions trust them to operate their transportation?

Overall, while the writing is good and the story quite engaging, I think I've had enough of YA dystopias for a while (and why do they always come in trilogies anyway?).

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson - John Green, David Levithan

This book is absolutely hilarious, and a little bit ridiculous. Maybe a lot. At times I wonder if this book is about the Will Graysons or is it actually about Tiny Cooper, because Tiny Cooper is larger than life — both literally and figuratively. I really like the heartwarming friendship in it. While the ending is a bit over the top and rather improbable, overall I enjoyed reading this.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters - Eleanor Brown

I was interested in this book about three sisters named after Shakespeare heroines because I wanted to compare it with my own experience as a part of a trinity of sisters (I'm the middle child). Like the Andreas sisters we also love to read, we even read when we eat. But I'm close to my siblings, unlike the Andreas sisters. Also, I couldn't really put myself in either of the sisters' positions because they all seem so extreme to me: Rosalind (Rose) is too controlling and critical of others, Bianca (Bean) is too wild, Cordelia (Cordy) is too careless and immature. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that I have a little bit of each sister in me: I can be dependable like Rose, but I also have a rebellious side like Bean, and a whimsical side like Cordy.

The use of first person plural ('we') in the narration can be a bit confusing and, in my opinion, is not as effective as in other books I've read which uses the same style, such as Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides and Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. The fact that there are only three sisters severely limits who the 'we' can be, and it's especially awkward when all three are present in a scene and are addressed with 'she', but at the same time the narrative has to use 'we'. Apart from that, I enjoyed the writing.

The Shakespeare quotes went a bit over my head because I've only read a handful of the Bard's plays (shame on me as an English graduate, I know), but it was nice to read about people who love reading. I'm quite pleased with the ending for each of the characters. And while this book is not something I would re-read, I don't have anything too bad to say about it, so three stars from me.

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War - Max Brooks

The format of the book is quite interesting: a series of interviews centering on a zombie pandemic across the world. I was confused as to when the story was set, because there were a few allusions to our present era, but some of the technology described seemed rather advanced to me.

The constant shifts between characters also made the story feel a bit jumpy. I do understand the strength of this kind of narrative in giving as many viewpoints about the zombie war from as many parts of the world as possible. But I think I'd be more interested if the section for each character was a bit longer so I could have time to relate to them better. That said, though, I was glad to see that in the end the narrative did return to a few of the characters interviewed. I just thought it'd be better if the interviewer focused on fewer characters and alternated between their points of view.

Some of the characters stood out more than others, and one of the most memorable for me had got to be Paul Redeker.

I even Googled him to see if he was real or not, because another character in that section, Rolihlahla, clearly was. While I wasn't familiar with the name Rolihlahla, his description as the father of the South African nation obviously referred to Nelson Mandela. Redeker, on the other hand, turned out to be fictional.

(show spoiler)


While some of the politics and military stuff in the book went over my head, I was happy to see that the author did his homework in researching about Asia in the Korea and Japan sections. As I'm a bit of an Asiaphile, I thought the author did a good job in describing North/South Korea relations and the phenomenon of otaku/hikikomori in Japan, and even mentioning famous Japanese comedy duo Downtown in a footnote.

Despite some problems, overall I enjoyed reading this more than I thought I would. it's a very extensive and well-researched book with a lot of sociopolitical criticism, but a lot of heart as well. Or as the interviewer mentioned at the beginning of the book, it has "the human factor".

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

A hodgepodge of stories in various forms involving various characters. Some of the stories were more interesting for me (e.g. Sasha's) compared to others (Scotty's, Lou's, Jules'). I'm not sure if I got The Whole Point. Or maybe The Pause in Rock and Roll Songs is the point.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

A charming little book about the pleasures of reading, the relationship between the reader and the writer, and what it's like to be a British monarch.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

3.5 stars. I enjoyed the parts where Hemingway explained his writing method. I liked those little glimpses into an author's mind. I did think, though, that the writing felt cold and detached at times. But I loved how Hemingway described 1920s Paris, the sights and scenes, the cafes where he wrote, the change of seasons. I wish I could go to Sylvia Beach's bookstore and library Shakespeare & Co.

I'm currently reading The Paris Wife about Hemingway's first wife Hadley, and a friend recommended me to read this along with it. This one was much shorter and I felt it might be better to finish it first before continuing TPW. It was interesting because to me the way Hadley was portrayed in this book was rather one-dimensional, and TPW presented what could have been her version of events.

At least now I can say that I've read something of Hemingway aside from "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place". Maybe I'll read more of him. I don't think I'll read his war books, though.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers - Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I wanted to like this book. I really liked the idea of communicating through flowers. I thought this was going to be a quiet, melancholic story. Instead it was raw and painful and violent.

The main character, Victoria Jones, reminded me a bit of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. But while I pitied Lisbeth and was mildly curious about her, I pitied Victoria but did not like her.

 

For someone who'd spent most of her life moving from one foster home to another, one group home to another, who'd suffered from years of neglect, she seemed used to being cared for and having other people solve problems for her. Granted, I've always had a family and have never been neglected so I probably don't understand her thought process, but her behavior throughout the novel just irked me. She claimed she was pushing away people who cared for her because she would end up hurting them and they didn't deserve that, but by doing so she was sending the opposite message: that those people did not deserve her affection and she was not going to make the effort to care because they were not worth it.


The last straw for me was when she gave up her newborn daughter because it was too difficult for her to keep the baby. Victoria blamed herself again, justifying her decision by saying she would only hurt the baby and that she was better off without her. Not once did Victoria think that she was doing the exact same thing her unknown biological mother did to her after she was born, condemning her to her current misery. I couldn't fathom how she could do that.

But despite everything I kept reading because I wanted to know how it ended. Despite everything I did want a happy ending, although Victoria probably didn't deserve it.

(show spoiler)

 

2.5 stars thanks to the writing and the wonderful little flower dictionary at the end of the book. No thanks to Victoria.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

A light, fun story which juxtaposes hundred-year-old books with cutting edge computer technology. The narration, using the point of view of protagonist Clay Jannon, may come across as a bit juvenile with his references to fantasy books and video games. But the geeky Clay is an earnest, good-natured main character, and I thought the author nailed the style pretty well without making it read too much like a YA book. I liked the humor and the mystery, and the enigmatic Mr. Penumbra and his charming old bookstore. Just don't expect something too deep and groundbreaking because you might be disappointed. This is more of a quick read with a playful and quirky tone.

The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble

The Reading Group - Elizabeth Noble

I thought the book discussions part felt like a mere plot device to get the women together. Some of the discussions were good, but they were pretty unrelated to the rest of the book. By the end of the book I felt there was too much telling rather than showing. I was also unsatisfied with some of the choices the characters made. But despite my problems with the book, it was pretty engaging. Compared to The Jane Austen Book Club, which is also set in a book group, this one was more emotional and made me "feel" more.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson

In this improbable dark comedy, the titular 100-year-old man has a history of being at the center of and even influencing historical events. Some parts of the book are quite funny, but the writing (or translation) style can be tedious to go through due to its propensity for long-winded indirect speech. Instead of something like this:

"Who are you?"

we get a lot of this:

But he, on the other hand, had no idea who was addressing him. Would the stranger be kind enough to shed some light on that?

This can get tiring to read after 300+ pages.

The main character doesn't have any opinions, has no motivation aside from vodka, and is not very relatable (it's hard to root for someone when you know he'll always survive any tight spot, conflict or all-out world war, despite people around him getting killed right and left). The villains in the story are never really bad, and when it comes to world leaders they are mostly stupid.

(show spoiler)


I would probably have enjoyed this better if I were a history/war buff, but unfortunately I am not. Two-and-a-half stars.