Tuesday, December 27, 2011

CBRIII#17: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s writing is not the easiest to get through in the beginning. He chooses to write in a style that is demanded of the time period his narrative takes place in – which, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is in the late 18th century in feudal Japan. Depending on whose point of view he’s taking, Mitchell’s prose can range from being frustratingly filled with phoneticized accents to simple, iron-like words with gravitas. But like Cloud Atlas, the language, which will seem difficult (not in meaning but in getting used to) at first, will later be the reason why you continue reading.

Several points of views are taken, but the basic plot follows a young Dutch clerk’s life on the Japanese island of Dejima, which served as a closed-off Japan’s gateway to the West. Upon Jacob de Zoet’s arrival, he realizes that “making his fortune” is not going to be as straightforward as he hoped, since his pious, incorruptible take on how money should be earned, exchanged, transactioned is not shared by his higher-ups. Working alongside the Dutch (and Irish and Prussians and Austrians) are the Japanese interpreters whose jobs seem to be to keep an even keel between the tempers of the Dutch traders and the idiosyncratic and arbitrary demands of Japan's archaic system. The interpreters seem to also have an agenda of their own, but Jacob soon finds a friend in Ogawa Uzaemon, who is later revealed to have more in common with Jacob than he knew.

Jacob also falls in love with a midwife, Orito Aibagawa, one of the only women on the island who is not a prostitute or a concubine, and a major part of his thoughts consists of trying to figure out how to get a quiet moment to talk with her.

I found the beginning of the book to be mostly observational. Everything is beautifully written and the going-ons of Dejima are interesting enough to keep me occupied, but nothing really felt like it was moving forward. “Languid” was the sense I got from the beginning, and I was more than happy to just curl up with the book and read sentences such as these out loud:

Gardening is harder labour than Jacob is used to, and yet, he admits to himself, I enjoy it. His tired eyes are rested by the living green; rose finches pluck worms from the ramped-up earth; and a black-masked bunting, whose song sounds like clinking cutlery, watches from the empty cistern.

However, there is a point where Thousand Autumns becomes a thriller and from there onwards, I kind of felt like I was being taken on a wild surreal ride that was about to careen off reality’s cliff. It was almost like Mitchell was saying, “Did you like that? Well, that’s great and all but now, there’s THIS!” and it just rattles off into a whole different realm. I’m not going to reveal more because the story gets really kind of crazy (dressed up in Mitchell’s language, it was definitely crazy in a good way) and it made reading it the later parts less relaxed but more fun.

Though I really, really enjoyed it, I think I might have preferred Cloud Atlas more. However, both books have sort of the same theme of fate playing a part in each character’s lives, or at least they believe it does. I’m honestly not too crazy that Mitchell employed such a heavy hand when it came to that theme – Seriously, why can’t things happen because they are good/bad/stupid/terrible? Must it be just so a character can get to a certain point in the book and say something along the lines of “Yes, life was tough but fate dealt me these lumpy potatoes so that it could result in something else.”? – but that probably says more about me than it does about the book.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Half-way mark

So last Thursday, during work, the boss announces that there's going to be an office party. 6 pm rolls around and he comes up with beer and chips and says, Meeting in 5 minutes! I'm at my computer trying to make deadline and not pull my hair out from stress/frustration/annoyance, when Emily comes up to me and says, Hey, do you know what this party is for?

No, what? I respond.

It's actually for our 6-month anniversary!! she said.

Not really, of course. But it was November 3, 6 months to the day that Emily and I first arrived in Cambodia. Realizing that simultanously made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

At a Russian restaurant on our first month anniversary. 
Siem Reap with Sokun and our awkward—but well-dressed!—driver.
This post is dedicated to Emily, the best new partner I could have for my crazy, crazy job in this crazy, crazy city.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

CBRIII #16: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My friend Emily raved about David Mitchell and recommended Cloud Atlas as a good beginner's guide to his writing. Now, I went into the book with no idea about what the plot was, so let me just say that the beginning of the book is quite difficult to get through. It's not mentally taxing to read - it's just slightly annoying because the first chapter is a journal written by Adam Ewing, an American traveling around the New Zealand islands (I think) that have been colonized, and his writing seemed archaic and awkward to my modern-prose-tuned ears.

But I'm glad I gave myself time to get into it, because this was really kind of an amazing literary ride. Mitchell divides his novel into six stories: Adam Ewing's ship journey around the Pacific Ocean as seen through his dairy; letters written by an early 19th-century musician who managed to convince a famous composer to take him on as an amanuensis; a thriller following a young reporter as she tries to uncover a conspiracy surrounding a nuclear facility; a hilarious account of an aging book publisher who is accidentally admitted into an old folks' home and held there against his will; a pre-execution testimony of a clone slave named Sonmi-451; and a narrative from the point of view of Zachry, a tribesman living on an island after the fall of civilization.

Connecting all 6 stories together is how the story before will figure in the next. For example, Adam Ewing's journal is read by Robert Frobisher, the 19th-century musician, whose letters were acquired by the young reporter, Luisa Rey. The book publisher, Timothy Cavendish, is reading a copy of "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," and his account is later adapted into a movie that is viewed by Sonmi-451 before her execution. Finally, in Zachry's post-civilized/sort-of-apocalyptic world, Sonmi is considered a god worshiped by the tribesmen. There is also a strong insinuation that each main character is a reincarnation of the same soul.

This may all sound insanely experimental (or cliché and hokey. I don't know, but this is my first time reading a book like this) but Mitchell is such an amazing writer. Seriously, seriously brilliant, and it was actually thrilling to watch him switch so suddenly into a different genre and still be great at it. For example, Robert Frobisher, the musician, is really satirical and funny while also kind of cynical, and his letters feel like you're reading some snarky noble gossip to his close friend. Then, Luisa Rey's story is written as a Dan-Brown-style thriller, which is kind of bad, except that you know it's part of a bigger story and that Mitchell is writing in that awful way on purpose.

My favorite was the testimony of Sonmi-451 though. I eat up anything related to sci-fi, and I just found Sonmi to be incredibly sympathetic and frank. I also loved the world that Mitchell created for Sonmi, where pure-bred humans would use clones to do all their menial work. There were clones designed to work in hot restaurants, to work in factories or in hazardous conditions. It is implied that when these clones reach a certain age, they start to gain sentience and instead of blindly following orders, they will start to learn and question everything.

So far, I've spoken about the plot and the writing, but I haven't really spoken about what struck me the most about all six stories. I think it was mentioned in Adam Ewing's part of the story that the weaker will always be eaten by the stronger, and these six stories do illustrate the ruthlessness of the people in power. There is, however, also the sense that as our main characters triumph over adversity, in the end, their accomplishment is so minute when seen in the grander scheme of things.

I hope I haven't given too much away, but I promise that part of the magic that comes with reading Cloud Atlas is the surprises that each story brings, and they each drew me in deeper and deeper. I was left feeling like my shitty day at work is just a drop in the ocean of shitty days and amazing days I will have -- How can we focus on the events of a single day when what's more important is how we are shaped by these events?

Friday, September 9, 2011

CBRIII #13, #14 and #15: Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

I bought the Chaos Walking Trilogy on impulse because I wanted to have something fun to read before I dive back into my not-so-fun Cambodian history books. I might have mentioned this before, but I do enjoy good young adult literature a lot, and I was hoping that Chaos Walking could be a worthy successor to His Dark Materials. It’s not, but not by any faults of Patrick Ness, the author. Ness’ trilogy is very, very good, and incredibly effective. However, I do wonder if the reason why my heart is so resolutely set on His Dark Materials as BEST YA BOOKS EVER is because I read them when I was 12 going on 13, and right around the time when I could most identify with Lyra and Will. The two young protagonists of Chaos Walking, Todd Hewit and Viola Eade, are really great characters, but there were times throughout this series that I thought, “Wow, I just don’t get them.”

Anyway, I am going to review these three books altogether. I’ll try not to post spoilers for each book in their section, but be aware that there will be spoilers on the previous books. (Don’t think that sentence made sense, so let me clarify: If you haven’t read any of the books, the first review is spoiler-free, but the rest—not so much.)

#13 The Knife of Never Letting Go

We begin in the Knife of Never Letting Go with an introduction to Todd Hewit’s world. He lives with Ben and Cillian, two guardians who have raised him ever since he was a baby and his mother and father died, in Prentisstown. There are no women in the town, and history has taught Todd that it was the Noise germ—which enables every single thought of every single person in the town to be heard—that wiped out the female population. Life appears to be pretty difficult for Todd: He is the youngest person in town and he is extremely lonely because once boys become of age at 13, they no longer talk to the “children” anymore. Being the youngest, Todd can’t wait to be part of the club and counts down the days to his 13th birthday. One day, as he is walking on the outskirts of town with his dog (whose thoughts are hilarious. An example is “Poo, Todd? Poo?”) he encounters something he has never ever experienced in his almost-13 years in Prentisstown: silence.

This all happens in the first chapter of the book, and after that, the plot takes off racing. I won’t spoil it except to say that the first installment in the trilogy is by far my favorite because it is a literal interpretation of being able to control your emotions and express your person-hood. Todd had said early on that being able to hear each other’s thoughts does not mean knowing the truth about people. Sometimes, people lie to themselves, or their heads are so clouded with senseless Noise that they miss the small kernel of truth at the back of their minds. Men are also able to hide their secrets by thinking loudly about other nonsense. The problem, Todd explained, is that sometimes, Noise is just Noise, and just because you can hear it, does not mean that you can separate all of it from truth, desire, or made-up pretend stuff.

Todd, being an almost-adult, straddles two worlds—one in which he is free to be himself because he is the youngest, and the other where people are constantly trying to fit him in a certain mold. There is the running theme of “being a man,” and what it means to be a man at 13 in Prentisstown, but how that definition gets cloudy once Todd is faced with a different reality. The other thing that is touched on is that it doesn’t matter what your Noise says or what you think; at the end of the day, it is your actions that matter, which becomes especially difficult for Todd because throughout his journey, his prior beliefs are constantly being challenged.

#14 The Ask and The Answer

In the second book, we get to hear things from Viola’s point of view. The narrative is split between her and Todd, and you can feel them yearning for each other throughout. After arriving in Haven and discovering that it has been taken over by Mayor Prentiss, Todd and Viola are separated. Todd is stuck with Davy Prentiss, the smug son of the mayor; and Viola recovers from her wounds in a healing center that is headed by a Mistress Coyle, who is rumored to have once possessed great political power in Haven. Mayor Prentiss plays a major role in manipulating Todd and Viola, and as the book progresses, they realizes that sometimes having the best intentions does not end up with the most favorable consequences.

Another problem that arises is that the men from Prentisstown are unable to fully anticipate the effects of having women in their community. I thought Ness made an interesting parallel between the society in New Prentisstown (formerly known as Haven before the Mayor rode in on his high horse) and our reality. It seems like the mayor had a fear of women because of their immunity to the Noise germ. Not knowing what they thought or what they were going to do, the mayor cordoned them off to houses, or gave them curfews and restrictions. In the first book, Todd had said about Viola that because he could not hear her Noise in the beginning, he felt like she was made out of nothing, and did not actually possess human feelings. It wasn’t until he realized that you don’t have to read someone’s mind in order to know what they’re feeling that he fully understood the human-ness of women. In New Prentisstown, it seems like the mayor and his cohorts do not fully understand that. Though on the other hand, I think the mayor also did not want to understand it; he simply wanted to control it, and since he was not able to manipulate them from reading their thoughts, he decided to separate them.

There is sort of a similarity to other dystopia literature concerning women, such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Because the women in Atwood’s novel possessed the power to reproduce—a dire need in that society—they were marginalized and hidden away. In the same way, women in Ness’ world were able to get access to information without giving anything away, and so this scared the mayor’s patriarchal sensibilities.

If I have to rank the books (and as I said, the first book was my favorite), I think the second book was my least favorite. Though I liked being able to hear Viola’s voice, I though that Ness gave her very easy, favorable conditions/choices, while he gave Todd really terrible difficult choices. At the end of it, when there are misunderstandings between the two, it felt sort of unfair for Viola to even question Todd’s choices. Who knows what I would have done if I were in Todd’s place, but he was basically forced to take part in slavery and a genocide. This aspect of the book hit me especially hard since in my daily life, I’m constantly reading stories about the Khmer Rouge and its tribunal, and though there are lots of crimes committed, it’s hard to determine who’s really responsible. So that part of the book resonated with me, but though I thought Ness’ narrative and plotting was effective, I was still pretty uncomfortable by how easy Viola had it compared to Todd.

I also liked that Ness did not automatically make it seem like the men were evil and blood-thirsty and the women were good and saintly. The character of Mistress Coyle was really nuanced and effective—I felt like her motivations really threw a wrench into what would have otherwise been a cliché “boys vs. girls” story. She was just as power-hungry as the mayor and she wasn’t afraid to do terrible things to get it.

#15 Monster of Men

The final book! Throughout the trilogy, Todd and Viola had echoed Ben’s words of how war makes monsters of men. Suddenly faced with the war with the Spackle, Todd finds himself having to control the mayor’s more crazy impulses while always trying to retain a sense of him self. The problem is that he has started to silence his Noise using a technique of that Mayor taught him, and Viola is worried that the lack of his Noise could mean that Todd is different. Meanwhile, the mayor and Mistress Coyle are still fighting to win the hearts and minds of the people, while also trying to defeat the Spackle using stealthy guerilla-style warfare.

Ness also introduced a new point of view from the Spackle, 1017, which Will branded and then later saved twice. To the rest of Spackle, he is known as The Return since he is part of the Spackle group that were left behind and enslaved by humans after the first war. I really enjoyed the look into Spackle society and how they communicated. Because they have all adapted to the Noise germ, it seems like the Spackle all have singular thoughts and desires—the entire species are actually joined together through thought. It’s an incredible thing to imagine, but Ness introduces the aspect of mind control using the mayor. Obviously, the mayor has serious control issues and seems to enjoy a good power trip, so instead of understanding the Spackle’s way of communication as something that unites them, he sees it as a way to control others. Which points out an interesting conundrum: If everyone thinks the same thing, is it because they each individually believe in it, or is it because everyone believes in it?

I’m not sure what else I can say about this book since a lot of the themes from the other two (knowing thy own self, the problems with wanting to control too much, how power can corrupt) are present in the final one. The ending still chokes me up even as I reread it, and I do like that it is open-ended because it allows you to imagine futures, not just for Todd and Viola, but also for how the humans are able to interact with the Spackles. All in all, this trilogy was incredible, and even more awesome is the fact that buried throughout it are questions that would naturally plague teenagers, but are still being confronted by adults. It’s funny because I know that at 23, I am considered an adult, but I am still faced with a lot of the uncertainties that I thought I’d be rid of by this age; in this way, I completely identified with Todd’s questions about himself and what it means to be a man. How do you live in our world where we are constantly being challenged yet still maintain a sense of your self? Frankly, I still have problems figuring that out.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

CBRIII #12: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Reading Saturday was such an incredible and bewildering experience that I decided to pick up On Chesil Beach. Later, when I was talking Emily about it, she said the McEwan really specializes in the gut punch at the end of his books, and she is really not wrong.

Like Saturday, On Chesil Beach unfolds in real time. It is the wedding night of Florence and Edward and the book opens with them sitting awkwardly at dinner in their honeymoon suite while two waiters serve them their meal courses. Set in 1962 in England, Florence and Edward are both young and in love, but unable to openly express their feelings to each other. Edward, for example, comes from a poorer, more working-class family background, and throughout the book, he has to try and fold away his rashness from Florence so as not to push her further into her shell. Meanwhile, Florence is kind of uptight and closed-off, and though McEwan implies that it's due to her upbringing and the way a woman is the 60s is expected to act, Florence often wonders if there is something wrong with her.

All this, of course, leads to the question of sex. The young couple has never had sex, and McEwan goes so far to illustrate that Edward's marriage proposal to Florence came out of a desire to consummate their relationship. Though both individuals routinely profess love for each other, whether out loud or in their heads, there is a sense that neither knows very much about what goes on in their heads. McEwan's tightly-paced writing made me eager for them to just "do it already!" but it also inserted a feeling of doubt. At one point, Florence thought that "Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it." I felt so sad for her because it's unnerving to me to have to marry someone and think that sex is the punishment in order to have be with someone you love. On the flip side of the coin, Edward is so excited to have her. He saw his sexual desire for her, but also feels that he one day cannot wait to have a young child with Florence. This thought, he took to be a sign of maturity, which is what prompted him to ask her to marry him.

I keep debating back and forth whether if I should have add a spoiler note on this review so that I can really discuss my feelings on it, but I think I am going to let the book stand on its own (without my own oh-so-important thoughts about the ending). While reading it, I kept anticipating for the next event and I was eager to learn more about Florence and Edward's upbringing and thought process. It's weird, and I can't tell whether if it's from McEwan's talent or if it's a result of the real-time type of plotting, but I did not think I was at all that invested with the characters until I got to the end. I barely identified with Florence, though I could understand her need and want to communicate with Edward, yet being unable to let the words form in her mouth. Meanwhile, I think I identified way too heavily with Edward, and McEwan's focus on him toward the end of the book absolutely killed me. The ending flashed by, compared to the slow (but not in a bad way) unfolding beginning, and I kept thinking, "No, this is too fast. Go back." McEwan managed to actually sneak up on my emotions and sucker-punch me in my metaphorical stomach, and the book ended up affecting me more than I thought it would (Funny how I keep saying that about all the books I read.)

I finished On Chesil Beach at a coffee shop, and after I was done, I felt so shell-shocked that I was actually in the real world. My heart was completely broken for Florence and Edward, and even as I tried to articulate my feelings later to someone who haven't read it, about why the book was so unbelievably heartbreaking, my words still were not able to fully form the sadness that came with the ending. It's a really simple story, really, but it left me thinking about it for days about the complex and nuanced role a person's gender can play into a loving relationship, but also how in the end, people often just live in their heads and if they were just able to properly articulate their feelings, they could possibly/maybe work their lives out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Weekend in Siem Reap!

I went to Siem Reap with Emily two weekends ago since her parents were in town. It was really nice and super surreal—kind of felt like I was leaving real life for 2 days. Though it only 5 hours away by van, even just a quick jaunt out of Phnom Penh was such a welcome break from the city.

Our friend, Christi, had said that Siem Reap's like Disneyland for adults, and she is not wrong. The entire city is laid out so perfectly and everything seems to be comfortably walkable. There's a street where you can get drunk (allegedly. Emily and I were so beat from temple-hopping that we just stayed in our rooms and watched SYTYCD), and if you want to feel cultured, you can go to the temples. We only had one day to do the temples, so we asked our tour guide, Sokun, to take us to the three best.

First stop is Ta Prohm, which is better known as the temple where Angelina Jolie shot Tomb Raider. It was seriously hilarious how every single tour guide seem to have met Angelina Jolie. "Oh yea, I met her when I helped with the set design team of Tomb Raider," Sokun said. "She's very sexy." (I know it sounds like I think he's lying—he probably is—but that seems to be the schpiel that every tour guide dropped at this temple. I think they think Westerners really like Angelina Jolie, which you know, they're not wrong about.)

Sokun was an amazing tour guide and really informative, but I'll give you my cliff notes version: There are some very large, enormous trees in this temple. Some of the temple is actually held up by the giant tree roots, so if you cut down the trees, you will be removing an integral part of the temple's foundation.

I took a lot of photos of all three temples, but my photos will just not be able to convey the awesomeness of each temple. So I'll try to show off my favorite parts of each temple. Like this! Dinosaur carvings!!!

See the Stegosaurus?

It was really funny how Sokun pointed those out. He was showing us some intricate carvings with Apsara dancers on them, just describing in detail how each dancer is in a different position. Then he went on the other side of the column and just pointed at it and said, "Look. Dinosaurs." then walked away. Subtext: Westerners get Angelina Jolie and dinosaurs. No explanation required.

On our way to the second temple

Emily contemplating the giant face gate to the Bayon temple

The second temple was called Bayon, and it's famous for having enormous statues of faces.

There was a really intricate depiction of an epic battle on a stone wall. The creators of the wall even carved out different features for the different nationalities battling—for example, the Khmers had longer ear lobes, the Chinese had smaller eyes and wore hats and the Vietnamese looked kind of like mean monsters. (Quick Cambodia cultural lesson: Cambodians really don't like the Vietnamese. The word "Yuon" is the Khmer word for Vietnamese, but it also has a derogatory connotation to it.) Here's about a tenth of the wall with Sokun.

Did I mention that Sokun was awesome? I know i'm not saying too much about the temples and its histories (and frankly, a quick google search would probably do it far more justice than my half-remembered made-up blabbings) but he really had just this wealth of information. I know he probably could have been making half the shit up and I wouldn't have noticed, but he would go along with all these facts, and then correct himself after because he wanted it to be right. We basically spent the entire day with him and though I don't remember too many historical facts about the temple, I now know a lot about him and his life, and man, he is one fucking interesting person.

Here is a family photo of Em and I:

There were also Buddhist shrines set up in various parts of Bayon, with old ladies manning them. One of them beckoned at us and gave us a joss stick to offer to the shrine. Thanks to my buddhist upbrining, I knew that I had to bring the joss stick up to my heart, down to my head then out to the statue (If I remember correctly, it symbolizes giving what's in your mind and what's in your heart). Then I gave a little bow for extra effect. Emily did an awkward half bow with her joss sticks...

After we gave our offerings, the old ladies tied a red string band around our wrists. Emily told me that the lady who gave her the wristlet whispered a blessing of sorts, like good fortune for your future, etc. I didn't get a blessing (I don't think. I might have just been oblivious—it was a semi-emotional experience, to be honest) but it just felt really very nice, and I'm still wearing my red band.

Our third and final temple was the Angkor Wat temple. Here it is in all its reflective glory:

My favorite part about this temple was being able to go up to the highest level and looking out. The highest level is also kind of a bitch to get to—you gotta hoof up these very steep rickety metal steps that were constructed just for tourists because the actual stone steps would just be impossible to climb up. And you might not think you get vertigo, until you look down and realize that you could very well fall to your death.

Once I got up to the top, it was like I've been removed from the crowd of tourists and it's totally peaceful and I kind of got why these kings would want to even climb up those steep 72 steps (yea, fact-check that) to pray.

View from the top, in a photo that really does no justice to how great it feels to be on top of the world:

I saw monks on the way out of Angkor Wat.

Next, Sokun took us to the floating villages of Siem Reap. These river communities live on the Tonle Sap river and their entire lives take place there. They have floating school houses and it's very strange to see kids carrying backpacks and leaving the school, except instead of stepping into a car, they are just jumping into a boat.

One thing our friend, Will, had told us to look out for in the floating villages were children with pythons. According to him, there are kids just walking around carrying pythons, just hanging out with their python best friend. The reality is that these kids are actually using the pythons to get tourists to take photos of them so that they can get money for photos. I mean, I guess it's effective if you like kids hollering aggressively while waving a snake in your face, but it just struck me as incredibly manipulative and bleh I don't like kids or snakes anyway. So I didn't take any photos. Sorry, guys.

Last but not least, Sokun said we could stop at a lotus field on our way back to the hotel. It was wonderful and this was the highlight for me for this entire trip. The lotus field is pretty much an open pond and there was a family living there in a little hut on a raised mud ledge. You could walk around the field on raised mud banks and we saw a man plucking the lotus flowers. Sokun showed us how you can get silk from the inside of a lotus stem, and he gave us some lotus fruit to eat, which were plucked from the insides of the lotus flower's face. It was the most magical place ever and the perfect end to a surreal weekend.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On my way to Siem Reap tomorrow

Yay for mini weekend vacations! Maybe I'll actually blog about this trip when I get back... Unlike the last time when I went to Kep and said I'll blog but didn't. I know, I'm awful at this thing.

This was outside the office today.

A Phnom Penh sunset. That sounds like it should be a drink. In fact, I'll make one up right now:

Muddle a whole bunch of mint leaves with sugar
two parts Cachaca rum
two parts passion fruit juice
splash of cointreau and simple syrup
Shake well
Serve in a collins glass with ice and eat it with fish amok!

(Seriously, if anyone makes this, let me know how it tastes.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Amok amok amok

I got inspired by other Cambodian food blogs to finally do my giant fish amok post, so go read it because I put effort into it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Yadi yada

We were together. I forget the rest.

-Walt Whitman

(Does anyone know which exact poem this line came from? My Google skills bring up no answers.)

CBRIII #11: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I often think to myself how exceptionally lucky I am to be who I am. I mostly credit my mother, my good fortune at being born an American and my multicultured upbringing (which I guess can also be attributed to my mother.) Yet reading about Junot Diaz's hero, Oscar, really made me think about this definition of luck, and how when turned on its head, it can also be seen as fate, or better yet, as destiny.

A lot has been written on Pajiba about Junot Diaz's book and I'm pretty sure I've seen it on two Pajiba's Best-Of's list, so there's not much I can say about the plot that you haven't already heard. The Brief Wondrous Life os Oscar Wao follows two generations of a Dominican family, one of them being of Oscar and his sister, Lola, which is pretty much present-time in New Jersey, and the other of their mother, Beli, who lived in the Dominican Republic under the tyrannical rule of D.R.'s dictator, Rafael Trujillo. From the beginning, the narrator has said that Oscar's family was cursed—though he also says that every Dominican family believes themselves cursed in some way. As each family member throws themselves headfirst into disastrous situations without thinking, I started to wondering about this "curse." Is it a curse if they are doing what they want, what they feel they need or have to do? Does making it a curse make it less of a personal choice, and more of a question of them fulfilling their destiny? I just couldn't shake the feeling that when put under the blanket guise of a Dominican curse, their actions seem to take on greater weight, when really, the heady consequences should have been enough to make it a conscious stupid choice made by conscious stupid humans.

If it sounds like I'm insulting the characters, I really don't mean to. After all, human beings do stupid shit that is unfathomable even to themselves, especially when it comes to love, which is where this entire family seem to to excel in fucking up.

Our hero, Oscar, is an overweight nerd who is the antithesis of a playboy Dominican, struggling between trying to claim his Dominican identity and being stuck in his painfully geeky ways. He can't navigate the world of women and is a virgin that wants so badly to have someone fall in love with him. The title of the book pretty much gives away his ending, yet I couldn't help but root for him and hope that everything will be ok for him in the end.

Meanwhile, his sister, who fights violently with his mother, can't seem to stay away from Yunior, also the narrator of this book, who cheats on her constantly. As for their volatile mother, Beli grew up in the DR and had to leave eventually because she kept falling in love with the wrong man.

Reading back on what I wrote, I know I'm not really doing the plot any justice, but I think the best part about this book is Junot's use of language, and how he has infused the DR history with a lyrical, hip-hop beat, while also making it so completely engrossing to read. After I was done with this, I did a quick Google read on Rafael Trujillo, and you know what? Not as interesting. That might have been my favorite part of the book, just learning about the history of a country while also getting a sense of the culture and myths that can't be necessarily articulated in a history book. There is a sense of magical realism throughout, which adds to this notion of a family curse—as I said, take away the curse, and you just have human actions. Likewise, Junot's writing elevates the plot from just a romance novel to a literary masterpiece.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Eating in Cambodia, part two

Did I ever mention I'm part of a food-blogging trio? Well, before I moved to Phnom Penh, we were just roaming around NYC eating and having fun, and then writing about it after. The other two, Rachizle and Etanbomb, are pretty voracious eaters too (and funny) so we just call ourselves funeaters.

Anyway, I did my first food post from PP about crab in Kep, so do check it out.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

CBR #10: Saturday by Ian McEwan

My one Ian McEwan choice from the last CBR cycle had resulted in my loathing it, so I really did not feel compelled to go search for another. But Saturday stuck out in my mind from a review I read long ago (I don't know if it was CBR, but it very well could have been. In fact, I'm 99% sure it was)—the concept of a narrative unfolding in real-time really appealed to me, so when I spied Saturday on the bookshelf of the house I'm staying in Phnom Penh, I decided to give McEwan another try.

The book follows a single day in Henry Perowne's life, beginning before dawn in the morning when he finds himself awake for no apparent reason, to late at night when he has just returned home from being on-call in the ER. Henry is a middle-aged man who really is very lucky: He is a highly-regarded brain surgeon in London who remains in love with his wife of over-20 years, and has two grown-up children who are both successful in their careers. He is not emotionally troubled, nor is he dissatisfied with his life. Why then, he wondered, was he aroused from his slumber and unable to return to sleep?

This particular Saturday takes places after 9/11, but before the US invades Iraq. This stage is clearly set by McEwan because throughout this Saturday, Henry is filled with thoughts about the rightness and wrongness of going to war. McEwan doesn't really care about the politics of it too much—what he's interested in conveying is the uncertainty and investment that an individual can have over a situation that he has no control over. Why should Henry worry about a war going on thousands of miles away, one that he will not have a decision on or have any way to affect it? And yet the war creeps into his thoughts throughout the day.

McEwan's skill in Saturday is in making the mundane seem interesting. We follow Henry through the morning with his son, then his drive to his squash game with his friend (and anesthesiologist) before which he encountered some car trouble, then to a fish market to pick up ingredients for family reunion that includes his daughter who lives away from home and his wife's turbulent poet-father. There is also a pit stop to a nursing home to see his mother who does not remember him nor herself before he goes to attend a rehearsal by his son's jazz band.

Oh, I'm sorry—did I gloss over the car trouble? Because it turns out to be the "start" click on the timer to the ticking bomb. On his way to his game, Henry gets into a small car accident with Baxter (who I pictured as Tug from the fantastic movie, "Brick") He's aggressive and unable to stop fidgeting. To the untrained eye, Baxter looks like a real "character"—like his adopted mannerisms are from being a tough street kid. But the brain surgeon in Henry is able to diagnose Baxter's behavior to a degenerative disease (Spoiler: Think 13 from House.) Talking his way out of an altercation using his medical knowledge, Henry is able to escape Baxter and continue on his day as planned. But like his feelings on the impending Iraq war, thoughts of Baxter keep seeping into his consciousness and he's unable to shake his feelings of guilt at the situation. Part of it stems from him manipulating a vulnerable person by using his medical knowledge, but the other part is because Henry is essentially healthy, rich and happy. He leads a trouble-less life and when he holds his fulfilled and promising life up against Baxter's caged existence, Henry can't help but feel dread.

And dread is where McEwan really excels. Some of Henry's thoughts are lazy and lead to nowhere, but after his encounter with Baxter, I kept waiting and waiting for something terrible to happen. Some "boring" section about him buying fish turns into his musings on whether fish feel pain when they are being cooked (This stuck with me: "It's fortunate for the fishmonger and his customers that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no voice. Otherwise there'd be howling from those crates.") and about the nature of chance when it comes to the newspaper wrappings of the fish (Yea, a stretch, but it was actually pretty genius of McEwan.) By the time I got the the climax, his use of language already had me reeling from all the terrible visions of what's to come that I feared the absolute worst.

And to be honest, I couldn't have possibly seen the end coming. This book was a serious heart-thumper for me, and I was surprised by how much I thought about it after-the-fact. It is absolutely brilliantly written (Of course, it's McEwan. Even when the story is bad, the language is insane). But my favorite part about the book has to be the protagonist, Henry, and how he just seems so ordinary. Yet despite his vanilla-ness, he was not boring.

Braving the storm in Phnom Penh—really not that difficult.

The rainy season in Cambodia is like an American summer - it goes from June to about September. The downpours usually come really suddenly. You may be complaining about the blistering heat one minute and the next minute, you could find yourself in the middle of a lightning storm. (Fun fact about Cambodia: Do you know that in 2011 alone, there has been 75 - count 'em, SEVENTY-FUCKING-FIVE - people dead from being struck by lightning?) My friend, Emily, and I were looking for a Khmer class two weeks ago when it started pouring, so we took shelter under a random building.

There was a teensy bit of flooding, but 15 minutes later, the skies were clear again.

Emily playing a drum she bought for her sister's birthday at Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market AKA My favorite place in Phnom Penh.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

On being upset.

“I thought that you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world."

- William Bronk

(The above photo was taken at Choeung Ek. It was a brilliantly sunny day when I went there three weeks ago, and I couldn't help but stare at the ground for any bone remnants. I only took about three photos - it felt weird to take any. Though it is possible to muster up anger at Choeung Ek, I think I felt sadness more than anything else. Right now, however, I am unhappy about something personal which I shall not elaborate on any further than the above poem.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thrifting in Phnom Penh...

... is absolutely "deadly," as my Irish friend would say. I got this awesome dress for $3 at some hole-in-the-wall place.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Headline of the Day

If World Ends, So Does Alternate-Side Parking

Thank you, NYT.

I actually know a couple Brooklynites who'll be very happy about this.

Monday, April 25, 2011

CBRIII #9: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

When I left my job, one of my bosses (I had probably 3 bosses, which did not make life easy) handed me The Imperfectionists as a gift at my office's going-away party. Since I don't really read book reviews and therefore know nothing about Tom Rachman's novel, my first thought was quite defensive: What are you trying to tell me here, huh?? Then my co-workers told me that this book is actually pretty perfect for me since it chronicles the lives of the staff members of an English-language daily newspaper in Rome. After devouring the pages (figuratively, not literally - I read it in a day and a half), I can only hope that the fates of the book's characters is not what I have to look forward to.

Tucked inbetween the chapters of The Imperfectionist is the origins story of the paper, of how it was conceived by a wealthy business man who kept his passions and motivations a secret, even from his own family. Meanwhile, each chapter follows a staff member, and there is even one devoted to a faithful reader of the paper. Beginning with Llyod Burko, a freelance writer past his prime whose children from his four ex-wives refuse to have anything to do with him, Rachman sets a seriously depressing tone that is only lifted during moments of dry newspaper humor.

There is Arthur Gopal, an obituary writer who gets by with doing minimal work; Craig Menzies, a news editor who hates his job and is disrespected because the entire office knows that his girlfriend cheated on him; Hardy Benjamin, a business reporter whose name seems to be the only thing about her that commands respect as she seems willing to contend herself with mediocrity; Kathleen Solson, the editor-in-chief who reacts with indifference to the realization that her husband has cheated on her and contemplates a dalliance with an old, now-married boyfriend; Abbey Pinnola, the financial officer who has to wrestle daily with the corporate company over layoffs, and then finds herself sitting next to the copy editor she just fired on a flight to Atlanta.

Truly, the only person who seems remotely happy with his existence is Herman Cohen, the corrections editor. Though portrayed in the beginning as a crotchety old man who nitpicks on the mistakes that appear in the paper, he is the only one who is happy, without compromise, with his life at the paper and at home. (By the way, Herman's entry in the newspaper's style book for the word "literally" reads: "This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as 'literally' did not happen at all. As in, 'He literally jumped out of his skin.' No, he did not... Eliminate on sight.")

All of which made me very nervous and apprehensive while reading this. I'm old enough now to know that happiness is relative and is often a work in progress throughout my adult life. It's bad enough that the journalism industry stereotypes perpetuate that every working journalist is either an alcoholic or a drug user who has probably been divorced three times. But to see all these characters portrayed as cynical, un-self-aware, sad, desperate - well, it made me wonder what the up side is to my chosen profession.

Probably the most depressing part of this book concerns its protaganist, the unnamed newspaper. It was disheartening to read of the newspaper's glory days under the first and second publisher, while alternately experiencing the sad encounters of the individuals who are now running it into its eventual demise (Oops, spoiler. But you probably saw it coming.) While reading this, I kept aching for more - more of a closure for many of the characters, more happiness for some of the saddest, un-self-respecting individuals, and just more of the newspaper lore. This is a well-written and poignant novel, but if you are a journalist, it doesn't give you much hope.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Country Living/Leaving

This was where I spent most of my weekend.

I went to my uncle's house in upstate New York, and it was wonderful just to get away from the city, if only for just 24 hours. I arrived there Friday night, slept in a bedroom that was built in the 1700s (and was just a bit disappointed that I wasn't awaken in the middle of the night by ghosts), biked along an old rail trail on Saturday afternoon and spent time playing with my little cousin. Then I was on the 7:45 p.m. train and whisked back to the city.

My uncle, his daughter and his wife

When I arrived at Port Authority, I made my way to the ACE. Some guy violently bumped into me and I looked up (from texting, of course), annoyed, and glared at him. He quickly apologized, and instead of saying, "It's ok," I snapped, "Dude, watch where you're going." I instantly regretted being rude but didn't know how to take it back. The kid was younger than me, looked like he was from out of town and looked seriously freaked. He disappeared before I could figure out an appropriate way to apologize.

Perhaps I've been in New York a little too long? Six years ago, I would have accepted that apology without a second thought; yesterday, I had to bite my tongue from saying something inappropriate.

I suppose these thoughts are only natural since I am actually leaving the city. I am leaving the country, to be more exact, on May 1 to Cambodia for a new job. I am absolutely thrilled/nervous/thankful for this opportunity and jumped at the chance when it was offered – but a part of me wondered if I was ready to leave this city I love so much. An old friend of mine said once, "I don't think people should leave New York until they absolutely cannot live here anymore." Her reasoning was that if we left before we were ready to, we'd always keep coming back, searching for that new shiny life, and being disappointed over and over again. It's a little bleak, for sure, but it's difficult to take an optimistic point of view when city living can beat you down with the high rents, high expenses and rude people (Exhibit A: me.)

On the other hand, I could also argue that the people of New York, be them transplants or actual locals (not an urban myth by the way), are some of the best people I have ever met. There are so many that are genuine and interesting and weird and strange and hardworking and good – I have become much more open-minded to so many different types of people, and I am always able to see the goodness in them. They (we – because as my uncle said, I am a New Yorker, even if I'm not) can be brusque and a little rough around the edges. But what you see is what you get, and if you don't like it, we really don't care.

My favorite quintessential New York Summer photo. Taken in 2007, I think.

So no, I'm not quite ready to leave here yet. But I am so ready to start on my new gig. Anyway, I'll always be back.

Monday, March 28, 2011

CBRIII #8: Eight Lives Down by Chris Hunter

The tagline for this movie – Oops, I meant book, is "The Story of the World's Most Dangerous Job in the World's Most Dangerous Place." Does that answer your questions as to what this book is about?

The author Chris Hunter brings his compelling account of his time in Iraq as an IED disposal operative. Hunter is in the British armed forces and started in England with his experience with the IRA bombers, deployed later in Colombia and Afghanistan, and finally, in Basra, Iraq. His unit in Iraq was constantly being called into the field to investigate potential bombs, defuse IEDs and collect forensic data to track down the bomb makers. In two months, his team managed to successfully defuse 45 bombs. Eventually, word got around about a man with "golden hair" ruining every single plan that the insurgents have, so they started targeting him, taunting Hunter with bombs that made him feel like he was always walking into a trap.

In between the tense accounts of facing combat fire from unknown attackers and crawling through sweltering desert heat in heavy protective gear to get to a bomb, Hunter talks about the camaraderie between the men in his unit, as well as his marriage troubles that come from having a high-risk job.

The writing actually isn't great, but it's personable and honest enough that I can actually imagine certain thoughts going through Hunter's head as he deals with each person, and boy is he a sarcastic, sardonic man. The subject matter is what really elevates the writing – every ride out of the camp seems to end like the final ten seconds before a bomb blows in a movie. It's incredibly exciting to read and really gets your heart rate to overdrive. I also really enjoyed the stories about how the team functioned together and the jobs of different people. I love Hunter's interactions with people who are career soldiers as it gave me a look at the mentality and problems that come with having sustained contact with such a world.

Usually, I try to alternate my books between fun fiction and serious non-fiction. After I got done with this, I thought, "Maybe it's time to read a politics book, because that book was way too much fun to count as serious non-fiction." Seriously, this book was a ride.

If you care to hear more from Hunter, check out this interview with him. I was really surprised by how he looked. This man seems more like a pencil pusher than a bomb disposal operative. Just goes to show, huh.

CBRIII #7: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Everyone but me has read this book, and I'm so glad I finally took the time to sit down and curl up in bed with it. In Cold Blood is a tautly-written account of a gruesome murder that took place in 1959 in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, and the after effects this tragedy had on the townspeople. Weaved in through the present narrative, Truman Capote also deftly and sympathetically retells the histories of the two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

(Funny story: I had actually picked up my copy while volunteering at a company-wide book sale. My job was to sort books into different sections based on subject and I was wandering back and forth between History, Crime and Fiction. My colleague asked if I was going to buy it and before I could answer, she said, "It's so good. Don't read it at night." On my way to a different section, three other people said the same thing, yet could give me no clue as to where I should shelf it. So I bought it.)

In Cold Blood makes it clear from the beginning that this is no mystery. It's not a whodunit or even a thrilling chase for the killers. What makes it so compelling is really the motivations behind the murder of four members of the Clutter family, and how it could manifest in two individuals who – despite being criminals and having served time in the clink – have good, human kindness in them. While reading this, I kept confusing Dick and Perry, and by the end had them fused in my mind as two sides of a schizophrenic killer. Even when I had them straight, each person just seemed so realistic that it made me uncomfortable. Dick who cared dearly for his family and was funny and personable in such a way that everyone who first met him was greatly taken; and Perry was thoughtful and intelligent, and he looked out for his friends and took comfort in their opinions. The fact that these two individuals could come together and brutally kill a family for no clear reason other than that they wanted to "leave no witnesses" confounds me.

Meanwhile, the small town of Holcomb has to cope with the murders. Before it was clear that the murderers were from out of town, the townspeople kept a wary eye out and their front doors locked. One part that stood out for me was when the lead detective of the case, Alvin Dewey, went to the local diner for a meal and a cup of coffee, and he was confronted by a local accusing him of basically not doing his best to find killers. The man said that he wasn't voting for Dewey in the next county-wide sheriff election, and Dewey's response was to throw back another cup of coffee like it's a shot of whiskey (That's how I pictured it in my head). The townspeople are so scared out of their minds that they cannot see reason, cannot even recognize that the Clutter murders have consumed Dewey, pained him and run him down and affected even his family life. I felt so much sympathy for the detectives working on the case because they felt the pressure of these murders more than anyone else in Holcomb.

In Cold Blood was truly a bittersweet experience. It brought me so much pleasure to read and yet also made me so sad. I hated Dick and Perry's actions – hated Dick's manipulation and his constant deriding of Perry; hated Perry's inability to see anyone's point of view but his own, his crippling myopic selfishness – but could also see the good in them. I was sad that they were executed in the end, yet also felt that their reckoning took so long to come. By the end of it, I felt like I was on some weird, emotional ride that actually happened. This is real, this is history... yet it's also fiction. Capote's reporting is impressive but he is a true manipulator. He really is the master of the sleight of reality.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CBRIII #6: Naked Heat by Richard Castle

So I caved and bought the second book that ABC put out for Castle. I got the first book, Heat Wave, a year ago and liked it because the only criteria for enjoying it is that I enjoy Castle the TV show.

I also enjoy Captain Tight Pants.

Naked Heat is pretty much a parallel to the beginning of the third season of Castle. Jameson Rook is being ignored by Nikki Heat and her other detectives because he wrote an article that was overly laudatory of Nikki, and failed to recognize that detective work is a team effort that takes a lot of grunt work. As a result of the article, Nikki has been dealing with the unwanted aspects of celebrity, with people gawking at her when she's trying to investigate a crime.

Celebrity seems to be the theme as the latest murder victim is a Six-Page-style writer that dishes dirt on celebrities. Cassidy Towne is reviled by famous people for her scathing, yet truthful, take downs of them, so Nikki has plenty of suspects on her list when her body turns up in her apartment with signs of having withstood torture. Rook is allowed to ride along on this case again because before Towne was murdered, he was following her to ride an article about the life of a gossip columnist.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a second dead body of a truck driver turns up. The team hits a dead end on this case but, as is usually the case with these stories, the two cases are actually connected.

"I aim to misbehave."

On the personal front, Jameson Rook is not winning any fans in the police precinct. Both the Ryan and Esposito characters (no, I'm not going to look up their names in the book because - what's the point? Same people!) are pissed at Rook for revealing personal, sensitive information about them in the article; and Nikki is pissed that Rook had featured her, and her personal life, so prominently. There's a lot of frosty, punn-y exchanges but of course, in the end, Nikki warms up – or should I say, heats up – to him.

"Oh, I'm going to that special hell..."

Though the plot of this book was better than the last one – and I didn't see the ending coming! – I really should stop reading these Castle books. No, seriously, I need to not buy these books anymore just because I like watching the TV show. Because reading a 200-plus-page book where these characters are mimicked is not the same as watching a silly murder/mystery procedural where Nathan Fillion acts like a complete charming doofus. Sure, Castle is fluffy popcorn, but at least I know it only lasts an hour. With these books, I just feel like I could have had a better experience having actors read lines onscreen versus seeing the back-and-forth being performed stiltedly on page. Some serious TV-watching time was wasted, in my opinion. (For instance, I could have rewatched Firefly.)

Verdict? The plot is good (the writing could use some serious editing though); and the reveal is pretty killer (I'll stop, I'll stop). But it would have still been better on TV. Because everything is better with Nathan's cute smile.

"I really am ruggedly handsome!"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CBRIII #5: Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America by Kate Zernike

Late last year, I had the chance to attend a talk by Kate Zernike in which she discussed her book, Boiling Mad, with Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, and Sam Tenenhaus, the NYT Book Review editor who is also a historian. It was extremely illuminating because Zernike had been following the Tea Party beat for the Times since it started soon after Obama's election, and she was able to give a very measured and analytical view of the Tea Partiers. This is very different from how one-note the media has been covering them, whether if it's their portrayal as uber-patriots or as a political punchline.

Also interesting to me was how she was reluctant to say that the rise of the Tea Party can be attributed to racism. When questioned by a black man in the audience about how Obama's skin color could have something to do with the rise of a predominantly white party who say things like, "Take back our America," Zernike stuck to her guns and said that though racism is probably an unacknowledged motivator, the catalyst was really the depression and economic crisis.

In Boiling Mad, she remains steadfast in her reporting that the number one reason for the existence of the Tea Party is because of the failing economy, but that does not mean she ignores the elephant in the room. Probably the first thing she tells us is that the Tea Party, as a whole, is not a united party. They may have bonded together under that label because of the economy or their dissatisfaction with the president, but their desires differ so much from county to state.

There are contradictions within the movement, and the Tea Partiers themselves are aware of it. A 62-year-old Tea Party supporter may be at a town hall protesting the growth of government during the bank bailouts, saying that the government has expanded too much and are infringing on an American's rights – and yet be reaping the benefits of Social Security, while acknowledging that she might one day be on Medicare because of heart trouble in her health history. The younger Tea Partiers tend to be strict constitutionalists, believing that the government should only step in where the Constitution allows it – yet anyone who reads the constitution the way a creationist reads the Bible will have reconcile themselves with slavery and oppression of women. The younger supporters' main beef is on the spending of taxpayers' money on programs and bailouts for large corporations that they believe should fend for themselves.

More than anything, Boiling Mad served as an insight into individual Americans who feel like their government had failed them. My reactions while reading this ranged from having an almost anthropological interest (at least in how it would affect the US political landscape) to wanting to throw the book across the room. Though my political sympathies tend to lean to the left, I am open-minded conservative points of views. However, some of the claims made by Tea Party supporters were just flat-out wrong. Every time Zernike chronicled someone saying that health care should come from charity and not from the government because Americans are the best people in the world, I wanted to pull my hair out. (Also another Tea Party-ism: "America has the best health care in the world." Have they never gotten sick?) And perhaps that might not be flat-out wrong and could be subjective, but I thoroughly disagreed with their philosophy of stamping their feet like petulant children when they cannot get what they want.

Zernike is extremely, painstakingly fair to the Tea Partiers – but even her efforts to remain objective cannot hide the fact that this movement is made up of dissatisfied people who just want what they want, regardless of what others need. When a Tea Partier says (and this is repeated oft throughout), "It's the We the People movement and my representative does not represent me!" one has to wonder how the representative got voted into office. According to Zernike, there are several zealots who quit their jobs or got laid off and decided devote their time entirely to organizing rallies and protests and "spreading the message"; but one has to wonder how they can be protesting on the failing economy when they are doing nothing to keep it going. They call themselves hardworking Americans yet they seem only to be working hardest at the yelling and screaming.

This book was at times infuriating, at times illuminating, and always engaging. Zernike is dealing with a very difficult topic and she did a great job straddling the line between objectivity and criticism. I was hoping my review of the book would portray the Tea Partiers in as fair a light, especially after reading the book. But since knowing more about them, I've actually come away disliking the movement more than I did before.

As a palate cleanser to the image above, here is the poster I made when I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity. Thanks to a Pajiban who came up with it!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

CBRIII #3 and #4: Fire Catching and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Spoilers ahead!)

I finished the final books of The Hunger Games trilogy in the course of 48 hours, just burned right through them. I know that everyone and her mother has read this trilogy, but just bear with me here. I should add that there are probably spoilers ahead for the first book if I am to describe the last two books.

The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in the futuristic world of Panem, a nation that consists of the Capitol and 12 districts. The 12 districts are under the oppressive thumb of the Capitol, headed by the cruel President Snow. Every year, in memory of a past revolution that failed, the Capitol organizes The Hunger Games, which takes 2 children, male and female between the ages of 14 and 19 (I think) from each district and throws them into a battle arena where they have to kill each other until one victor emerges. The Hunger Games serve as a reminder to the districts that the Capitol's power extends even to children's lives. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta from the 12th district, the poorest section that is a producer of coal, are chosen to go into the Games.

Fire Catching

Katniss and Peeta have both emerged victorious from the Games. The Capitol sees their survival as an act of rebellion from Katniss but as long as Katniss and Peeta act like they are in love, President Snow will allow them to stay alive a little longer. The reasoning is that Katniss had unknowingly ignited a rebellion with her defiance and now she must pretend her actions were because of her love for Peeta, not because of her anger at the Capitol.

After the Games, Katniss and Peeta have to do the victory tour around the different districts, and Katniss is able to observe that there is unrest in Panem. During the tour, Peeta proposes marriage to Katniss, and she accepts. While all of this is going on, she is also harboring feelings for Gale, her old hunting partner back in 12th.

Despite the show that Katniss and Peeta put on, the Capitol still announces that the 75th annual Hunger Games will actually be between previous victors from each district, which means that both Katnniss and Peeta will have to go back into the arena and fight for their lives again.


The 13th district, which was thought to be bombed and dead during the Revolution but has actually been growing underground and planning an overthrow of the Capitol, has rescued Katniss from the arena of the 75th Hunger Games. Apparently, her mentor Haymitch had kept the rebellion's plans from her, and as a result, Peeta has now been captured by the Capitol. Whether Katniss likes it or not, she is the symbol of the rebellion, and the 13th district would like her to take on the role of the Mockingjay to show the strength of their side. Once again, she is just a pawn in some elaborate game that she cannot see the end and she does not like that feeling. Katniss is also preoccupied by thoughts of the Capitol torturing Peeta and is afraid that her Mockingjay status will endanger him.

I know that these are young adult books, but they really are very graphic and gruesome. It's not just the subject matter, it's also the descriptions. There are physically gruesome plot points, like all the teenagers killing each other, but what stuck out more to me is how heartless these characters are portrayed. Take Katniss, for example - she is the main character and supposed to be the most sympathetic, and yes, I do like her very much, but Collins has no qualms showing how self-centered she can be.

On the flip side, what I think I might like best about Katniss is how honest she is about her motives. She usually acts before she thinks, but after the fact, she would look back at her actions and wonder why she did what she did. The answer is not always pretty but for a 14-year-old teenage girl, she's incredibly self-aware. And I think that a protagonist like her is something that a lot of young adult books lack.