10 January 2010

last quarter storm of book buying

This is a long overdue post on the books I obtained in the last few months of 2009, with the first six books bought in Kinokuniya Bookstore in Bangkok back in September. Getting eight books in a span of 3 months isn't a lot by some people's standards, but then books don't come cheap these days, and I really am trying to curb my book-buying impulses.

And yes, the red book on the second row is indeed a book on sex.

So here goes, based on the order of books shown above:

1. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien. When his second son, Michael, lost his toy dog during a family outing at the beach, J.R.R. Tolkien tried to console his son by writing a story about a dog who was transformed by a grumpy wizard into a toy dog as a form of punishment. Roverandom is a whimsical little story about the amazing adventures of Rover, the toy dog, who travels as far up as the Moon and down to the depths of the ocean in his attempt to find the one wizard who can change him back into his old self.

This is a book really meant for children, although adult fans of Tolkien would enjoy it simply because it was written by the great man himself. And the book is quintessential Tolkien--with dragons and wizards! Obviously a book worth buying even if one can finish it in a sitting. Interestingly enough, Roverandom never reached its final form before Tolkien's death. I don't think he ever meant to publish it--or if he did, he was too preoccupied with other matters for Roverandom to be on his priority list.

2. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. I'm a big fan of Byatt, so anything she writes, I automatically buy, because I'm sure to like it anyway.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, The Children's Book is a complex story that centers on a group of children belonging to three privileged families (the Wellwoods, the Fludds and the Cains) as they grow up during the post-Victorian era leading up to the Great War. It's a dense and slow-meandering read, but if you're used to Byatt, you'll actually enjoy her long and pretty much obscure references to Fabian socialism, pottery, poetry, children's fiction, and German puppetry. The best part of this book however is Byatt's life-long fascination with fairytales (I'm obsessed with this subgenre myself); the novel is chock-full of fairytale motifs like magical underground creatures, locked rooms, a boy looking for his shadow, fairies (of course!), children refusing to grow up, and magical advice from 'wise old man' Jungian archetypes. There are many references to Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm--and what particularly excited me was a scene from The Children's Book where in a German master puppeteer stages the story of 'Aschenputtel', the Grimms' bloody and disturbing version of 'Cinderella'.

When I was young, my first forays into children's literature were the Tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and stories from Arabian Nights. As a child, I was at first puzzled by the Disney movie versions of say, Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, because the movies didn't show Cinderella's stepsisters cutting off their toes and heels so that they could squeeze their bloody feet into the glass slippers--or the Little Mermaid wielding a knife, only to throw herself into the sea and turn into foam because she couldn't bear to kill the prince who married someone else.

Those were the fairytale stories I grew up with--heavy with morals and consequences, and meant to scare the living daylights out of you in a freakish yet enjoyable way. I never lost my fascination for strange magical creatures, fantasy adventures and whatnot--hence my enduring love for Tolkien and even Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling herself was into fairytales and came up with The Tales from Beedle the Bard). When I read Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces years later as an adult, I then fully understood why I was so in love with this genre. All the hero myths in this world, regardless of culture or religion, share the same story pattern: namely the call to adventure, the hero's departure into the unknown, the quest and all the entities that he encounters, and the return back home with added knowledge and powers. All the fairytales and sci-fi and adventure stories I've been reading all these years is essentially the same story--one big grand 'monomyth'--but with different hero-faces.

I've totally strayed away from talking about The Children's Book per se, but reading it was like a heady re-immersion into fairytales. Byatt's novel, though, also explores the disturbing side of writing children's literature. In an interview, Byatt said, "I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family - how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy-story writers."

Needless to say, I finished The Children's Book in less than a week even though it's one of the thickest books in my book collection.

3. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I'm a Margaret Atwood late bloomer. I should have read her as early as 2002 or something but then again, I was reading other stuff back then. When I read her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin a year ago, I was seriously miffed at myself for not reading her earlier. Saw a copy of Alias Grace in Bangkok's Kinokuniya and promptly bought it, because--well, I don't know if it's bad timing or what--but I could never see a copy in the local stores.

The premise is interesting, and here's the blurb from Amazon:
In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks--was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand? Such doubts persuaded the judges to commute her sentence to life imprisonment, and Marks spent the next 30 years in an assortment of jails and asylums, where she was often exhibited as a star attraction. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood reconstructs Marks's story in fictional form. Her portraits of 19th-century prison and asylum life are chilling in their detail. The author also introduces Dr. Simon Jordan, who listens to the prisoner's tale with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. In his effort to uncover the truth, Jordan uses the tools of the then rudimentary science of psychology. But the last word belongs to the book's narrator--Grace herself.

Alias Grace is the next book I'm going to read once I'm done with my current one.

4. Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka. Who's afraid of Kafka? I am!!

Afraid of his imagination, that is. It runs pretty wild.

I read Kafka back in college, mostly with the intent of just being able to say I read the damn story of the man turned cockroach. Of course, as I got older and more mature (hehe), I re-read 'Metamorphosis' and 'The Trial', and learned to appreciate Kafka's signature nightmare style. Critics brand him as defeatist; I simply think he's terrifying. But because I like a little terror in stories, Kafka is the man for such things.

I'm so happy with the Penguin Classics deluxe edition that I bought--definitely worth all that Thai baht. The front and back covers are such eye candy:

5. The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987 by Joseph Campbell. I'm one to stick to perennial favorites. One can never go wrong with reading Joseph Campbell. THE expert on comparative mythology, Campbell has written what I consider mind-blowing ideas on universal truths manifested in different ways through myths and in different settings. The Power of Myth and The Hero With a Thousand Faces are his most popular and accessible works, but as I was scanning The Mythic Dimension's table of contents, I noticed that the book can also serve as another introductory overview into Campbell and his ideas on comparative mythology and religion.

I have a feeling that this book will not tell me anything mind-bogglingly new, because based on the chapter headings, The Mythic Dimension seems to be a summarized version of Campbell's massive 4-volume work The Masks of God (on Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology), which I've already read--laboriously, I might add, within a 3-year period.

The Masks of God isn't really for everyone--and I'm not being lit snobbish here. There were so many occasions I felt like crying over it because Campbell can get so stuffy and arcane sometimes. But there was no choice except to plough through it and when I was done, I felt like keeling over, exhausted and triumphant.

So I pretty much think it's safe for me to assume here that The Mythic Dimension may be a more appealing introduction into world mythology. Joseph Campbell is such a nerdy choice for reading, but I truly think everyone should at least read him once.

6. Position of the Day: Sex Every Day in Every Way by Nerve.com. Obviously, I bought this for the novelty of it. It's hilarious! 366 positions: one for each day of the year plus an extra in case it's a leap year! A lot of the positions seem pretty unrealistic, so I think the book's just meant to be a laugh trip the whole year round. I mean there was one position involving what looked like monkey bars, and having sex in a playground just seems so...well, wrong.

7. The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. When Andy, who recommended it to me, started describing The Ancestor's Tale as "something like Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales with different characters having their own tales to tell, only it's a reverse journey back to the origin of life and the ones telling the tales are animals which share a common ancestry with us."

Oh my God.

I told Andy I wanted to get it. I think he had me at 'Canterbury Tales'.

I'm a big fan of layered narrative (or stories within a story within a story) such as The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, and my favorite, A.S. Byatt's Possession.

Well, The Ancestor's Tale, being a nonfiction science book, isn't layered narrative fiction, that's for sure, but it cleverly uses that stylistic form to a certain extent. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains the whole grand story of evolution by taking the reader on a reverse journey of sorts from present-day humans back to the very microbial beginnings of life billions of years ago. Along the way, Dawkins lets the reader 'meet' various species--the other characters in this story who, at specific geological moments in time (or rendezvous points, as Dawkins calls these), have been proven to share a common ancestry with us humans. So for example, when we retrace our steps from present to past to discover our human ancestors, the first species we meet back in time at Rendezvous 1 are the chimpanzees--the closest and most recent species who share a common ancestor with us humans. And what Dawkins means by 'most recent' is that this first rendezvous takes place millions of years ago. It is but a blip in the evolutionary process which spans 4 billions years.

The next meeting point, or Rendezvous 2, shows us the most recent common ancestor of gorillas on one hand and that of 'humans + chimpanzees' on the other. And in the next rendezvous, we meet the common ancestor of both the orangutan and 'gorillas + humans + chimpanzees.' This journey back in time goes on and on until we hit Rendezvous 40, or as Dawkins explains it, the point where we reach the origin of life itself, the grand ancestor which humans and other species have descended from.

It sounds wild, I know.

I started reading The Ancestor's Tale on New Year's Eve and currently am at Rendezvous 1. It's slow reading because I'm still getting used to all the scientific terms, but I did appreciate Dawkins' lengthy introduction in which he explains his reverse narrative method. I'm actually dreading reaching a particular rendezvous that may force me to reckon with the idea that I, Human, share a common ancestry with The Frog. Urk.

I'm not going into an entire religion vs. science debate over this. I believe in God and I believe in the evolution of life. I believe that humans and all the other species in this world were fearfully and beautifully made, that we all continue to evolve, and that this whole grand masterplan of putting everything into place within billions and billions of years could not have been done by any other being except God Himself. To me, religion and science co-exist, and that's that. I'm sure other people maintain their own views on matters such as these, and they are free to do so.

8. Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl. I read this in the school library when I was kid, and I realized some twenty years after that I never got to buy my own copy. I was so happy when Ryan bought it in Kinokuniya Singapore and gave it to me as a gift last Christmas 2009.

I don't feel like I've aged at all every time I read a Roald Dahl book. And the writers that you encounter in childhood are the ones that you're likely to grow old with.

04 January 2010

a new mug for the year

Okay, I may not have gotten the Sanuk shoes I wanted yet (operative word being 'yet'), but I got a nice unexpected gift this Christmas--a Starbucks Seattle city mug!

I don't go mug-shopping for myself regularly because I don't really see the point of collecting a bunch of them. Two mugs have served me well in the workplace over the past 9 years, and I never needed a new one. But now that I have a city mug from the birthplace of my favorite coffee brand.....!!!! (Enough said.)

A Pike Place mug would have been cool, since this it would have originated from the first ever Starbucks branch, but a Seattle city mug in general is still something that I'm incredibly delighted about. It now resides in my desk where I can look at it everyday to remind me (needlessly, actually) that it's time to get my after-lunch coffee.

P.S. I promise myself a less frivolous post the next time I blog. And because nothing really exciting happens in my life, it will be about books! So there.

01 January 2010

reading one book a week for one year

I don't know if I can accomplish this (given my busy work schedule), but here's someone who has.

In his blog, Michael Surtees interviews Inaki Escudero about the latter's recent accomplishment in finishing 52 books in one year. It's not exactly a ground-breaking achievement, but then again, how many people do you know can complete one book per week for a year--especially if these books are of the hefty kind?

Spent the first day of 2010 happily wandering around Fully Booked High Street. I wasn't planning to buy anything at the moment, since I still had a huge backlog. But it was nice to make mental notes of what to buy in the future.

Here's to a fresh year of reading! Happy Wonderful New Year, everyone!