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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

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours - Lisa Wingate

I really liked this one. The writing isn't spectacular and sometimes veers toward cheesiness or melodrama, but it's still a real page-turner. Due to the awful things that happen to the children in the book (kidnapping, neglect, and abuse—to name a few), at some point I expected even worse to happen to them, and the author is very good at maintaining that feeling of dread, building even more suspense as the book goes on. The fact that this is inspired by a true episode in history adds a deeper dimension to it.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie, Ellen Forney

This was a very quick read. I found the reading level a little lower than I expected compared to some of the YA books I've read. It was partly because of the writing style with the short paragraphs, but also a lot of developments in the story felt simplified or shortened, making it seem a bit slice-of-life in a way. The main conflict of the story is how the 14-year-old Arnold Spirit a.k.a. Junior becomes a "part-time Indian" by going to an all-white school outside his tribe's reservation in a bid to better himself, but I felt I read less about his studies than about him being part of the school's basketball team.

Overall I liked the book, though. I don't really know much about Native American Indians, and their portrayal in what little I've come across in books, TV and movies often focuses more on their spiritual beliefs or myths/legends. So it was eye-opening to see from the inside what real life is like on a reservation. There's a lot of hopelessness in this book with all the poverty, alcoholism, violence and lack of education, but at the same time it also offers hope.

SPOILER ALERT!

Howards End by E.M. Forster

Howards End - E.M. Forster

At the center of this novel is the contrast between two upper-class English families in the early 20th century, the cultured, idealistic Schlegels and the capitalist, materialistic Wilcoxes. I was expecting drama mixed with romance and maybe a bit of comedy along the lines of A Room with a View, but the drama ends up being more serious than I thought, with some unexpected topics including adultery, illegitimate pregnancy and manslaughter. The book contains larger themes about the social, economic and political situations of the era, but in my opinion they tend to overpower the actual plot and characters. The narration goes off on rambling meditations on these themes a little too often.

The Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, reminded me a bit of Elinor and Marianne from Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and I thought the elder sister Margaret would be the more sensible one like Elinor. But she proves me wrong when she decides to fall in love with old Henry Wilcox—at best insufferably patronizing and at worst a hypocritical, sexist jerk. The ending is also unsatisfying and seems too good to be true. After a convenient time skip, Helen and Henry suddenly stop disliking each other in the final chapter after doing so throughout most of the book. Margaret, whom I was cheering for when she resolved to not forgive Henry for his wrongs and to leave for Germany with Helen, has a change of heart and absolves him. And so they all live together (unrealistically) happily at Howards End. All in all, I liked this the least out of the four Forster novels that I've read.

Parade by Shūichi Yoshida

Parade - Shūichi Yoshida

I initially expected the worst thing about this book to be merely that nothing much happens, as it's a slice-of-life story about modern urban people. But some details about the characters don't quite add up or are not explained clearly, and there are also other small inconsistencies within the storytelling (simple things like a TV being turned off before a character leaves a room, but in the next scene the TV is somehow on again in the empty room without explanation). Despite that I was actually considering giving this an extra star at some point, mainly because I liked the relationship between the characters: five young men and women gathered together by circumstances to share an apartment in Tokyo. Although they say they are "playing at being friends", underneath that there seems to be something genuine between them.

But then the ending serves a unsettling twist which made me question what I had thought about the characters and their relationship. I guess that was probably the point of the whole book, to unnerve and disturb the reader, but it still didn't make me like it.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

One thing I can say is that Gilbert definitely can write. She weaves her tale expertly and even makes it sound like a 19th century novel. The amount of meticulous research that must've gone into this book, richly detailed with history and science, amazed me. The story itself is good, although I felt the parts discussing the realm of the spiritual (even almost veering toward magical realism, in my opinion) go on a bit too long. I liked the basic premise of a woman who, despite many disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, still makes the best that she can of her life and never stops searching for meaning.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie

A quick and fun novel to round out my 2017 reading. This cozy little mystery focuses on the psychology of the characters involved, including a few convincing red herrings that fooled me once again. I chuckled at the meta reference when a boy says in a scene that he's a fan of detective stories and got autographs from authors including Agatha Christie. That boy has good taste.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - Neil deGrasse Tyson

While I am in fact often in a hurry as the title of this book says, I probably would have been better suited to a book called Astrophysics for Dummies. Physics has never been my forte, so some of the more complicated stuff in this book felt a bit out there for me, both literally and figuratively. Yet I still appreciate Tyson's effort, with his light touches of humor, to bring astrophysics closer to the everyday person who might just be a little curious about the universe. Now I feel like revisiting my city's planetarium to refresh my connection to the cosmos.

"We do not simply live in this universe. The universe lives within us."

SPOILER ALERT!

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman

I thought there was a chance I might dislike Eleanor because some have compared this book to A Man Called Ove, and I didn't like the main character in that. But I actually liked Eleanor's eccentricity. It's kind of weirdly hilarious how she thinks everyone else is unusual and has poor social/conversational skills, when it's actually the other way around. I chuckled to myself a lot while reading.

I had guessed the twist about Eleanor's mother since the beginning because it reminded me of a situation in another book, so the big revelation at the end felt a bit dragged out. There are also other weak spots (which can be interpreted as plot holes depending how you see it), but apart from that I can say I enjoyed this feel-good novel. It's quirky and funny without trying too hard, but also simultaneously sad and heartwarming. I liked how the ending leaves possibilities open with regard to whether the friendship that helped Eleanor will turn into romance.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie

"It is so mad, my friend, that sometimes I am haunted by the sensation that really it must be very simple."

In anticipation of the movie I went to check if I had read this, and it turned out I hadn't. I didn't know what I'd been missing. To echo Poirot: Mon Dieu! What a fun mystery. The plot is so simple; a locked room murder is discovered, evidence are gathered, all the suspects are interviewed. Certainly there are some weak points, like a few improbable guesses and a resolution that wraps up things too neatly, but it's still an enjoyable book which has a deliciously clever ending which I could not have predicted, though I did catch some of the clues. After finishing I went straight back for a quick reread with my new knowledge of the ending. I predict this will join And Then There Were None and Curtain in my list of Christie books with the most memorable endings that stick with me for a long time.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1) by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1) - Elena Ferrante

It took way longer than I expected to finish this. First of all the storytelling felt a bit choppy at the beginning. It would start a scene and without finishing it would jump straight to another unrelated scene, and then without finishing that one would switch to another. One moment these two girls are going up a flight of stairs in anticipation of something horrible, then suddenly a teacher bangs her head against a desk and collapses, then suddenly a girl gets hit with a rock by a bunch of boys. Of course the scenes are then revisited and the resolution told in full in various stages of the book, but if it was supposed to make me curious it failed and only discouraged me from continuing. At the end of the first part, the Childhood section, I stopped for a while to concentrate on another novel and didn't pick this up again until weeks (months?) later.

When I returned to it the storytelling does improve; I can even say that it becomes quite engaging. But ultimately I just didn't like the characters that much. I certainly didn't like Lila, who is at best a strange and unsettling child and at worst cruel, malicious and coldhearted. I didn't like the unhealthy relationship between Elena and Lila, and didn't entirely understand whether they are actually friends, frenemies, not so friendly rivals, or something else. Perhaps I sympathized with ElenaI found the story a bit more interesting when it focuses on her and Lila isn't aroundbut not by much.

Ferrante does a good job, however, of bringing the atmosphere to life, immersing the reader in that poor neighborhood in 1950s Naples riddled with poverty and violence and offering so few choices for women. I think the translator, Ann Goldstein, also deserves credit for making the story flow well in English. The huge list of characters seemed overwhelming at first but they are drawn so well that by the end I was familiar with their different characteristics. And yet I still can't say this was an enjoyable read, nor would I want to read the next installments in this 4-part series. If this book were a friend, brilliant though she may be, I'm afraid I'd prefer to distance myself from her and let our friendship end here.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse - Jessie Burton

The idea behind this book is interesting indeed: a mysterious painting is found in 1960s London and its origin takes the reader back to a village in Spain in the 1930s. The dual timelines feature two parallel female characters, gallery employee and fledgling writer Odelle Bastien, and aspiring artist Olive Schloss. So many topics are touched uponart, feminism, identity, race, class, multiculturalism, politics, historythat they are not really explored in depth and each message the author tries to convey is competing to be heard over the others.

The portrayal of the political situation before the Spanish civil war in particular doesn't come across as very convincing, up until the last few chapters when the war actually breaks out. Actually the Spain section in general falls flat for me, which is too bad because there lies the crux of the story, the secret behind the painting. Yet the characters and their motivations don't feel authentic to me, their story failing to engage me.

I was more interested in the companion narrative in London about Odelle. I wanted more to be told about her circumstances as a black woman from Trinidad living in England in the 1960s, struggling to overcome racial and cultural obstacles in order to find employment suitable to her high education. Unfortunately, Odelle's story is mainly a vehicle to describe what happens 30 years after the painting was created and what becomes of the principal people around it.

I remember liking Burton's debut novel, The Miniaturist, a little more than this follow-up. But I think a similarity between that book and this one is that both have a good premise yet the execution is somewhat lacking. The flowery, convoluted narration and stilted dialog in some parts of this novel also don't work in its favor.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon - John Davie, James Kinsley, Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen

-Second reading: Oct 14, 2017-
My next Austen rereading, almost 10 years after the first. Back then this was my first Austen, and I must've skipped the introduction to this edition as it now reveals new layers to the story to me.

At first glance this novel appears to be a parody of classic gothic literature centered around a girl, Catherine Morland, who gets carried away by her wild imagination due to the influence of her favorite gothic novels. But the parts where she entertains suspicions of murder and captivity in an old abbey actually only take up around 5 chapters or a third of the novel's 2nd volume, hardly the main point of the entire book.

In fact, we will later see that Catherine is not entirely wrong in harboring negative thoughts about a certain character (the hero's father, General Tilney, may not have murdered his wife or imprisoned her in a dungeon, but his villainous nature is revealed when he humiliates Catherine by rudely turning her out of his home after realizing she's not rich enough to marry his son), and she is actually not suspicious enough of others (she fails to comprehend the duplicity of her professed best friend Isabella Thorpe despite all signs blatantly pointing to that direction). In addition, some scenes that seem a world away from the dramatic overstatement of gothic novels, on a closer look, can have a more sinister interpretation. An example of this is the scene where Isabella and John Thorpe forcibly try to prevent Catherine from spending the day with the Tilneys, which mirrors abduction scenes common in gothic fiction.

(show spoiler)

 

Therefore, I tend to agree with the introduction that as a parody of gothic literature Northanger Abbey also reflects and pays homage to what it is parodying, instead of simply mocking or dismissing them.

Despite the novel being smarter than I initially gave it credit for, I was not as engaged in the main couple compared to other Austen couples. Henry Tilney is upright and honorable, although prone to sarcastic jokes about women's intellect, but I was more invested in hoping Catherine will see through fake friends and stand up to them than rooting for her and Henry to be together. The omniscient narrator who often intrudes the story to offer her own social commentary also lends an odd metafictional quality, with more telling than showing.

But I still enjoyed Austen's wit and rich use of irony, and I couldn't help appreciating a heroine who turns to novels for small talk and confesses that she can hardly think of men while she's engrossed in her favorite novels: "I do not pretend to say that I was not very much pleased with him; but while I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable."

Of the other stories contained in this edition, I think I'll skip The Watsons and Sanditon as they're rough unfinished drafts. I might read Lady Susan as it's mostly finished but if I do I'll count it as a separate novella, simply because I can.

-First reading: Jan 1, 2008-
Have shelved the shorter stories (Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon) for later reading.

Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson

Selected Poems - Emily Dickinson

Found this on my shelf one day
So I thought I'd give it a look,
I remember wanting to try something new
When I bought this slim book.

Though I enjoy a poetic turn of phrase
As much as the next person,
I'm not much of a poetry reader
But at least I can say I've read Dickinson.

SPOILER ALERT!

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

This is a nice story, but there are quite a few things I didn't like about it. The first is Ove himself. I would have liked him better if he just lives his own life based on his strict principles, but by his involvement in the Residents' Association he seems to want to regulate how other people in the neighborhood should live as well. I was expecting him to be a real hermit, grumpy and sticking to his individual way, but he turns out to be a person who tries to push his own way of life onto others. Though I did understand that part of it is his way of fighting back against the white-shirted authorities.

The second is the writing in the chapters set in the present. Maybe it's the translation or maybe it's a Swedish thing derived from the original, because I felt something similar when I read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. The present chapters are written like it's made to be a comedy movie, but since this is a novel there's a lot of extra words thrown in. I especially noticed too many similes for comedic effect, something like "they stare at each other as if they were two cowboys in a western" or "Ove looks at him as if he was a Nigerian prince wanting to offer him a lucrative business opportunity." It gets a bit much when yet another simile appears every other paragraph or so, like the author is trying to convince me that this is supposed to be funny. The parts about Ove's past are written better though. I also liked them because Ove was a simpler man back then (not as judgmental/controlling of other people's lives), and his love story with Sonja was endearing.

I did like the ending, which I thought was uplifting in my interpretation of it. I think I might have liked this better as a movie.

The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

The Lola Quartet - Emily St. John Mandel

There's something about Emily St. John Mandel's writing that appeals to me, an atmosphere of quiet wistfulness that I first felt when I read Station Eleven and drew me to purchase this one. The blurb on the cover calls it "elegant and hypnotic", and I agree.

Like Station Eleven, this novel uses multiple points of view, jumps back and forth in time, and features art playing an important role. In the former it's a traveling theater troupe and a comic book; here it's all about jazz. Combining a bit of crime thriller with drama, at the center of the story are a group of people connected to a jazz quartet at a performing arts high school, reunited 10 years after graduation as untold secrets are revealed.

The story is engaging but the final third of the book, when most of the mystery has become clear, is a little less interesting as we just wait for a resolution to the conflict. Also like Station Eleven, there are coincidences of characters somehow connected to others, some naturally (like people bumping into each other at jazz bars, because most of the characters like the music or have performed it) and some not.

I found myself more interested in the parts about the Lola Quartet in the past rather than the present, wanting more to be told about their high school lives. I started looking up some of the mentioned jazz musicians and songs that I've never heard before, immersing myself in the book's soundtrack of lost dreams and bygone youth. I recommend listening to the song "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" as well as instrumentals by Django Reinhardt, who played guitar with only two good fingers on his left hand.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman

I came across this novel several years ago and thought it looked interesting, but only got around to buying it at a recent book fair. The endearing hero, 11-year-old Harri Opoku who recently migrated from Ghana to London, UK, clumsily attempts to "investigate" the murder of a kid in his crime-prone inner city neighborhood. Though it's a nice story and quite funny at times, I wasn't as impressed with the book as I thought I would be. I felt that the main plot is often sidetracked by the (mis)adventures of Harri with his family, friends, and foes, as well as anecdotes from his life back in Ghana.

At first I thought the title Pigeon English is only a word play referring to the pidgin language that Harri uses. The first-person narration is peppered with terms like "hutious" (scary) and "asweh" (I swear), and when Harri thinks something is awesome he'll say it's "dope-fine". But it turns out there is an actual pigeon in the story and some sections even appear to be narrated by the bird. I'm not sure if those parts are meant to insert some kind of magical realism, but they seem misplaced and don't quite work for me.

I saw this book being compared to Emma Donoghue's Room due to its use of a child narrator with unconventional language and a gap between the innocent child's understanding and our own. Although the story didn't quite touch me the way Room did, it's still a meaningful book, especially because it was inspired by a true story of knife crime involving children in a low-income urban neighborhood in the UK.