Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bookworm's progress report #5, 2009

I'm not proud to admit that I'm submitting this progress report just so I can add at least one more to the paltry, pathetic pair of posts I've composed in the past month. But hey, at least I actually finished a book in that same span of time. The only problem is, the previous 2 titles were from quite a ways back, so my reviews might not exactly be very detailed or thorough. Bad, bad bookworm.

The Battle of The Labyrinth (Book Four in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series)

When you get to the second to the last book in a series, there is always a heightened sense of awareness as you search for clues as to how the whole thing's going to end. This anticipation can either work for or against the book, and in the case of The Battle of the Labyrinth, it was more of the former than the latter, although it did leave me wondering how Rick Riordan is going to create a clean conclusion in Book Five, seeing the many loose ends he left dangling by the final page of Book Four. Hero Percy Jackson goes on yet another quest, but this time the quest is not his. His friend/is-she-or-isn't-she love interest Annabeth is chosen to lead the new mission, and he goes along for the ride, along with best bud Grover the satyr and half-brother Tyson the cyclops. Their gang of four enter the Labyrinth to find Daedalus' workshop and stop the impending invasion of Camp Half-blood by Kronos' army, and in the process run into old friends and enemies, and make some new ones as well.

This book is more action-packed than its 3 predecessors, but perhaps precisely because of that, it came off as more chaotic. Too many ingredients were being thrown into the pot of boiling soup, and as the plot reached its boiling point, I feared it was going to be a recipe for disaster. Then again, my interest in Greek
mythology and the likeability of Riordan's characters are sufficient to keep me hooked, and since this is the penultimate volume in the Percy Jackson series, I can't have come this far and not see it through to the end, no matter if it turns out bitter or sweet. Here's looking forward to Book Five and hoping for a big finish.

The Graveyard Book

Shortly after I finished reading The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman won the Newbery Medal for it, and I was really pleased he did. Not only has Gaiman penned some of my favorite books (Neverwhere among my top picks), it's refreshing to see a science fiction/fantasy author get recognized with an award for outstanding young adult literature. Indeed, The Graveyard Book is the kind of stuff kids should be reading, and not all that Twilight crap. As its title suggests, the story takes place primarily in a graveyard, where young Nobody Owens is raised and protected by its otherworldly inhabitants. Gaiman has written an intelligent, sensitive novel filled with striking and haunting imagery (pun intended), and bravely-- and beautifully-- taking on the themes of death, which is usually reserved for less young adults, and life, which is usually far scarier than death.

What I like best about what Gaiman has done with The Graveyard Book is what in my opinion all good young adult lit authors should do: trust their audience. They should never insult their intelligence by spelling everything out for them, and leave some, if not a lot, of room for their imagination to get some exercise. Gaiman achieves that here, if not because his genre does always require more stretching from said imagination, then due to his skillful subtlety as a writer. He elaborates rather than explains, explores rather than elucidates, and most importantly, engages rather than exhorts. There is no preachy moral, no clever catch-- simply a story with substance brilliantly told.

On Beauty

After having read 2 of her novels, I am counting young author Zadie Smith as one of my favorite writers, if only because she deftly brings together 2 elements I would love to also write about someday: family and ethnicity. In White Teeth, Smith throws together an Englishman with a Jamaican wife and daughter, a Bangladeshi with twin sons, and a Jewish-Catholic married couple all living in England. In On Beauty, she puts a white Englishman with an African-American wife and their 3 kids in a college town in America, where their already complicated internal conflicts are worsened and/or worsen external issues involving white intellectuals, black "brothers", Haitian immigrants, and a Trinidadian family from England who becomes entangled with the protagonists in an almost Romeo and Juliet way. Indeed, there is something almost Shakespearean in the way things unfold for the Belseys, and something tragic about each character, from the father's failings to the mother's heartaches to the children's personal odysseys of self-discovery.

The dynamics and drama of a mixed race family seem to be Smith's specialty, and she captures all the nuances perfectly. What I especially liked about On Beauty was how it trained the spotlight on every member of the family, showing 5 different points of view and revealing the thoughts and emotions of each. I also enjoyed the subplot highlighting the battle between liberals and conservatives in an academic setting, which provided a tension that was both thought-provoking and entertaining, as well as an apt backdrop against which the characters' differences were set. Smith truly is a remarkable writer, and I appreciated On Beauty so much, after I was done reading it I immediately picked up a copy of her Autograph Man, the review of which will be posted in my next progress report... whenever that'll be.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My sentiments exactly

He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.
- Zadie Smith, On Beauty

That is the most beautiful description of sibling love I have ever read. I'm not yet finished with the novel, but I was so struck by what Smith had written that I just had to post that quote. And if only for that passage, I will give the book a glowing review when I'm done.

My first evidence and last confirmation of love:

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Summer lovin'

Contrary to popular perception, 500 Days of Summer is not a chick flick; it is actually a guy movie. It is also not a love story, and the narrator makes that point-blank clear at the very start of the film. What it is is the story of hopeless romantic Tom Hansen (the very grown-up, very cute Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a frustrated architect-turned-greeting card writer, who falls head over heels for his boss' new assistant, Summer Finn (the even cuter Zooey Deschanel, my girl crush). Only problem is, Summer doesn't believe in love, and for 500 days Tom's own idealistic notions of love-- as well as his heart-- are put through the wringer.

I can imagine that even the most macho dude watching this movie would have been able to relate to Tom at some point in the non-linear sequence of events (which reminded me of How I Met Your Mother's smart use of flashbacks). The comedy and melodrama of falling hard for a girl who doesn't quite reciprocate the intensity of his feelings should be relatable to any red-blooded male. Moreover, 500 Days is one of those rare films that pulls off the precarious balancing act of being funny, yet still taken seriously. There are many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the movie, but underneath the laughs is the recognition of universal truths about romantic relationships: that yes, I have acted that dorkily for a girl before, or yes, I know what it's like to wake up in the morning and feel on top of the world because of love, or yes, I have had my heart ripped out of my chest cavity and shredded into a million pieces.

The smart storyline and novel presentation of the film are further enhanced by the natural acting and charm of its two young leads. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is adorable as Tom, and the character reminded me of Ted Mosby from HIMYM (architect too!), but sweeter and more sympathetic. My beloved Zooey Deschanel makes it easy to see how Tom becomes so smitten with Summer-- she's luminous in every scene, glowing with an almost ethereal beauty, and showing such soul in those doe eyes. But I gush.

500 Days is refreshing in its simplicity,
intelligent in its straightforwardness, and realistic in its absence of sugar-coating-- much like its eponymous heroine. It's very contemporary too, which is why it resounds so much with 20- and 30-somethings who have seen it. The film paints a portrait of modern relationships as unapologetically practical, coolly unsentimental, unnecessarily complicated, and utterly, devastatingly the same as old-school relationships at the core. That line from one of my favorite romance films, Shakespeare in Love, comes to mind: "We are all fools in love." And as the promotional poster for 500 Days of Summer goes, "This is not a love story. This is a story about love." A story about love, and the fools-- bless their hearts-- who still believe in it.