Monday, November 10, 2014

Diary of an Insomniac

Last night, I slept at 11:30 pm. This is unusual for a night owl like me. My typical bedtime is 2 am, at the earliest. But I was tired from not sleeping the night before. And from a weekend of drinking. And from my general terrible sleep schedule last week. So yea, I went to sleep at 11:30 pm.

I woke up in the middle of the night. After resisting checking the time for a good while and trying to coax myself back to bed, I gave up and just peeked at my cell. It was 3:30 am.

Anyone who knows a thing or two about my sleep habits know that I barely sleep 4 hours a night. Friends always say, "Maybe you should sleep earlier." Or they give well-meaning advice like, "Don't check your computer/cell before you go to sleep." But what they don't understand is that I do lie in bed for approximately eight to nine hours each night, yet only about 3 to 4 of that allotted time is spent sleeping. I shut my eyes and my mind just turns on. I make lists, I make plans, I think of story ideas that I forget once dawn comes, probably because I'm so tired, and my mind just does. Not. Stop.

3:30 am last night, I was lying awake, contemplating what I should wear the next day, what I need to get before my trip back to the US, how I'm gonna juggle work, boyfriend, and friends before I leave.

And you know what? When my friends tell me not to check my phone or turn on the computer, I swear I'm resisting the urge to do so. I am hoping against hope that my brain will switch off soon and I will just fall the fuck asleep. But it doesn't, and I don't, and by hour two, I'm bored shitless. So I check random shit on Buzzfeed or Instagram, and then after a while, I try a different sleeping position.

This usually does not work. Sometimes it does, but most of the time, no.

At 6:30 am, I gave up. I went to take a shower, stepped out to buy some eggs, and made myself an omelette. I've already spent most of the night planning the ingredients in my omelette, so I might as well do it even if I wasn't hungry.

You know what the best case scenario is? It's when I fall asleep without realizing it, and morning comes, light streams in, and I wake up, surprised that I've been aroused from slumber. I want to find the formula to that, please. Seriously. And I want it without taking any sleeping pills or any "natural remedy."

My friends make fun of my sleep schedule, sometimes marvelling at my ability to function on so little hours of shut-eye. I marvel at their ability to fall asleep from midnight to 8 am, without interruptions. What they don't know is that I'm chronically tired, everyday, every week, every month -- which is all fun and games, until I fuck up at work, or I allow my personal relationships to deteriorate because I'm too exhausted to think rationally. I fucking love to sleep, but as I grow older, it's feeling more and more like work.

It's 8:30 am now, and I have a full day ahead of me. I'm already exhausted.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

CBR6 #12: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

I loved Scoop. LOVED IT. I'm also slightly miffed that I never read it until this year. How could it be that this awesomely biting satire on journalism was not in my life before?

Ew no. Not that Scoop.

Wanna kill some brain cells? Google "Daily Mail"
under images, and some of the most infuriating
front pagers will appear. 
As we know, British and American journalism is a bit shit nowadays. Save for a few publications, a lot of what's reported is noise and lacking in substance. Apparently, this mediocrity was evident to Evelyn Waugh -- who Wikipedia tells me he worked briefly at The Daily Mail, today the pinnacle of shit journalism -- and Scoop is essentially a farcical glimpse into the profession of being a foreign correspondent.

What starts out as a case of mistaken identity secures a foreign correspondent gig for the reluctant William Boot, a hapless columnist for the gardening section of the Beast. He is sent to the fictional African country of Ismaelia, where he is told to report the war between the good vs. the bad (though it's unclear to him which side is the "hero") and to find (or create, whatever) news that is favorable to England.

There's so many things I recognized here from my working experience, and then there were some things that were just absurd. Things that I'm sure any media worker would recognize is the publisher, who is portrayed as a know-it-all who in fact knows very little, but cannot be directly disputed. The editor-in-chief of The Beast is unable to say no to the incorrect things that the publisher utters, so he substitutes yes for "Definitely" and no for "To a point." There's also the hilarious scene of William Boot trying to prepare for his trip abroad and he just brings a shit ton of unnecessary baggage -- like a canoe!!! -- and charges it on the Beast's expense account.

Then there are moments that are more painfully recognizable, like how journalists abroad often work in a pack mentality in gathering news (see Boys on the Bus for how that works during political campaigns), or how everyone is willing to provide information to each other if it helps each their cause, but will burn as deemed necessary for a scoop. There is a disturbing free flow of information, but only up to a point. What I thought was also accurate was that journalists often choose not to pursue what's obviously a story or a hole if it doesn't fulfil their preconceived narrative (see Nicholas Kristof and his "shock" at disgraced sex-trafficking symbol, Somaly Mam... or really, most of what Kristof has done, really) -- that was painfully true and hilarious to see in Scoop.

Finally, the idea of a parachute journalist, a term used to describe reporters who are shipped into a country with no real knowledge of historical or political context, is literally portrayed by a journalist parachuting into Ismaelia. That's essentially what all the reporters in Ismaelia are, and Waugh's eye for harpooning the media's penchant for employing these types is very on-point.

Tin Tin is definitely a parachute journalist. And also, barely a journalist since he's never
written anything while "on assignment."

Read this if you work in media, read this if you've never worked in media and want to laugh at us media folks, and read this anyway no matter what your profession is because it's wickedly funny.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review appears on their website. 

CBR6 #11: Welcome to Burma and Enjoy the Totalitarian Experience by Timothy Syrota

This book was a random acquisition and comes with a bit of backstory. I was reporting in Mandalay, central Burma, on a number of stories, and one of them required me to interview a comedy troupe that is known for staging vaudevillian shows that harpoons the country's authoritarian regime. Now that Burma is considered a democracy, this comedy troupe is still putting up nightly shows for tourists, making fun of the fact that the current government is really a puppet for the military. One of the comedians passed me Timothy Syrota's book, and told me that him and his family members were mentioned in it. He said that it was "banned in Burma." I brought it back to my hotel to read those chapters, but ended up just finishing it in one night.

Nowadays, Burma -- also known as Myanmar -- is lauded in the international press as a country that is embracing democratic change and openness. These developments came with the most recent administration of President Thein Sein, which the local press usually affixes the words "nominally civilian." However, before 2010, Burma was under one of the most restrictive military regime in the world for about five decades, and has a particularly bloody history when it comes to stamping down political challengers. (I highlighted some of that in my third CBR book.)

Published in 2001, Syrota's book is an account of his travels in Burma in the late 1990s (I think 1999) as a backpacker. Though Syrota claims to be a "writer" living in Bangkok, it's not clear in what capacity -- but it is certainly not as a journalist. I say this because there are many points throughout the book where he displays sheer naiveté and ignorance. For example, I find it extremely difficult to believe that he has never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi before he arrived in Burma, especially if he's done cursory research into traveling around the country.

That being said, there is some attraction in his "bumbly backpacker" act, mostly because so little is known about the places that he's traveled to. Even today in its new shiny clothes, large parts of Burma is cut off from tourists: besides Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan, much of Burma remains either closed to tourists or just extremely difficult to get to, and Syrota is able to arrive at some of the cities that are really still considered off-the-beaten-path. That, in my opinion, is where most of the interesting stuff happens, such as the government spies checking up on him, or him being forbidden to travel outside the town he is in.

Rice fields in central Burma
And despite the crappy writing -- he's not a good writer, sorry -- I was really taken by the sense of growing paranoia that Syrota had as he traveled further away from towns that were popular with tourists. He started noticing secret police watching him everywhere he went, and was extremely nervous about endangering civilians he spoke with as they were later questioned by the secret police. Syrota was so gripped with fear about what might happen if government officials found his notes that he started sewing pages of it into his clothes, an act I found both incredulous and also understandable.

Why incredulous? Because I tend to eschew the idea that most tourists have -- that they are being "targeted" for whatever (crime or deportation or whatever). I also dislike thinking that as a foreign reporter, because it is just another way of expressing our overbearing profession-driven egotism ("This story/book/film is the most important thing ever, and that's why the government is targeting me" syndrome. Yea, right.)

And why understandable, you may ask? Because before I picked up the book, I found myself in similar situations as well. Reporting in rural areas of central Burma (not Mandalay, which I believe is the second most populated city in Burma, but don't quote me on that) earlier that week had left me a little shell-shocked. It's not just the feeling that you're being watched, as a foreign reporter, or that every single local who sees you wants to take a photo of you -- a prospect that makes me really uneasy because I never know how these photos would be used to target me. (And lest you think I sound paranoid, this bait-and-switch has happened to a colleague of mine.) It's also because every single person whom you speak to will absolutely mention it. "Be careful of that lawyer; I think he is a spy." "The government knows everyone that comes to this town." "Those farmers who are collecting 'toll' money so that you can drive through their land also inform the government that you are here." "He's secret police. Over there is also another secret police." Paranoia is a state of mind that is normal for everyone in Burma -- not just backpackers in the 90s or foreign reporters -- and I think Syrota's book captures that very well.

Whether or not these suspicions are warranted by me, a foreigner, is unclear. But for the locals, it is absolutely something they subscribe to, because they have been living under a hyper-secretive military regime for five decades, a regime that is incredibly smart and have proven to be adaptive and manipulative in the past in order to maintain its stronghold on power.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to Burma newbies, because it barely skims the surface of political, social and historical issues. However, I believe it is a good supplement to a growing body of literature about Burma. Syrota doesn't really analyze the events he goes through or the things people tell him, but the matter-of-fact tone in which he presents many of Burma's idiosyncrasies is a window into what the government was/is like. Yes, I know that 1999 was a different time, and yes, it's now a different government. But, as I said, there is a reason why most local reporters use the term, "the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein." It's because no one is sure whether if the changes instated are really changes, or if they are chess moves for a larger purpose that is, for now, lost on us.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, and a part of this review appears on their website. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

CBR6 #10: Wool by Hugh Howey

It's been a long time since I was so thoroughly sucked into a fictional universe of a book as I was with Wool. Honestly, that's what I miss about fantasy, historical fiction and sci-fi books -- while the writing may be good, it is rare that I would feel totally enfolded into the history, the context and the world that an author creates. I think the last time that happened was with the first book of the Chaos Trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go.

Hugh Howey does this for me again with Wool, which chronicles an unraveling mystery in post-apocalyptic Earth where the surviving humanity are housed in a silo -- an underground city that extends more than a hundred levels beneath the Earth's surface. He kicks off the book from the perspective of Holston, the sheriff of the silo, who is tortured by the mystery of why his wife decided to kill herself. In this world, uttering the words "I want to go out" is considered so taboo, so treasonous, that a citizen will immediately be exiled according to his wish -- and that is just what Holston's wife did three years prior, leaving her beloved husband in the wake of her death to try and understand the reasons behind her "madness."

And how will they be exiled, you ask? They will sent out of the silo in a space suit, armed only with a piece of wool and a bucket. Their sole punishment is to clean the wide gleaming windows of the silo, the only way the residents, cramped in this subterranean hell, are able to see out into the world. After they are done cleaning, the condemned would go off into the uninhabitable world, now made up of an environment that kills them after a short period of walking. Residents of the silo are able to see the small pile of suits and bodies that make up all the people who have ever been executed.

Holston, as Allison did before him, always wondered why these people, who was treated so poorly and tossed out by their community, would decide to give this gift back to them. Investigating this mystery is what drove Allison mad, and since her exile, Holston has driven himself crazy trying to figure it out.

That's kind of the best part of Wool. It may be a brand new world, it may be post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but we are immediately thrown into the mysteries of how humans work and what makes them tick. Why did my wife kill herself? Why does the condemned, who are essentially dead men walking the minute they are suited out to go Outside, still perform this thankless task for us? Why is Outside such a taboo concept?

And seriously, that's only the first chapter. Holston's investigation of his wife's death sets up the entire book, which is seriously an insane maze of human nature, of how societies function, of historical repeats. The silo is a fascinating place, and I wanted Howey to explore the different levels as much as possible so I really feel like I live there. (Also, I was perplexed as to how they have all this insane technology but couldn't figure out how to create elevators for this place, having to instead resort to physically climbing up and down the steps to get to different levels within the silo. I have an idea why the Powers That Be in the silo relied on a stairs system but it seems absurd to me that nobody else would go, "Yo, I leg 20 flights of stairs a day -- can we get some mechanical systems up in here man?") There is a part of Wool that feels a bit like the movie Snowpiercer, but whatever the comparisons, it really is in a league of its own, and very much Howey's creation.

Go read it. Go. It's on Kindle. It's amazing. I fucking loved it and now that I am finally reviewing it three months after I've read it (*guilty look*) I want to go re-read it.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

CBR6 #9: Deep Down by Lee Child

This is my first Lee Child book, and I've heard quite a lot of buzz about him, especially right around the time that Tom Cruise movie came out. You know the one, where he steps out of a movie car into a crowd of people waiting for the bus and doffs a cap given to him by a helpful bystander. Anyway, Deep Down came in a series of e-books gifted to me by my friend (This Is How You Lose Her was another one) and I figured this was a quick way to get into the character of Jack Reacher, investigator extraordinaire and very tall man.

Anyway, Jack is summoned to Washington DC to investigate who might be slipping information about a committee hearing on sniper rifles via fax from Capitol Hill. His task is to go undercover as an expert from the Army to help the committee members with selecting the sniper rifle, and to figure out who is the spy leaking the minutes of the meeting and why. His target are four women, all of whom are on the "fast track" to getting higher on the political ladder.

It's a pretty straightforward plot and a fairly enjoyable, quick read, so I recommend this as a good introduction to Jack Reacher's character. Lee Child is also good at building suspense and pulling a bait and switch on plot developments. I will definitely check out more Jack Reacher novels when I want a good suspense-filled read about brainy spy work.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so this review also appears on their website.  

CBR6 #8: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her is a series of short stories that deal mostly with men's infidelity in relationships, with the exception of one of the stories being from a women's point of view. Readers of Diaz's first book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, will recognize Yunior, who appears repeatedly in the stories in relationships with different women.

A running theme throughout these stories is how men don't often see women as a real person. Like Yunior's dog brother, Rafa, who sees and discards women with no concern for their feelings, even as he is dying from cancer; or how Yunior -- a chronic cheater, it appears -- believes that profusely apologizing, or flat-out lying, about past transgressions can mend things with his lovers. The behavior portrayed in these stories by the male species is appalling, and at times, wholly humanizing. In the Miss Lora chapter, a teenage Yunior wonders whether if he will be able to escape how his brother and father acts, and be a faithful boyfriend to a girl who won't let him get to second base. There is also a sense that being a Dominican man means that there is a cultural acceptance/exasperation to how shitty behavior from men can be expected, and even forgiven.

In a way, I thought that what Diaz did was to pinpoint the excuses that men give themselves for their terrible behaviors, like how Yunior looks at his brother and father and his Dominican heritage as a way to "explain" his own crappy behavior. Yunior, who is quite possibly Diaz's alter ego since he appears so consistently throughout his work and his life follows the same narrative as the Dominican author's life, is often at odds with himself about his actions toward women.

At a certain point of a man's life (or a person's life, even), one needs to have their perspective completely inverted, almost like how a baby discovers as it grows older that it is no longer the center of the universe. People need to figure out that their actions -- whether if they are intentional or not -- affect not just themselves, but the people they are most intimate with. This may all seem common-sense, but as is clear by Yunior's mistakes over and over again, he is still a work in progress. At the end of the final story, which chronicles a five-year fall-out after a devastating breakup, Yunior realizes that his ex-girlfriend was right. "You are surprised at what a fucking chickenshit coward you are. You are astounded by the depths of your mendacity. When you finish the Book a second time you say the truth: You did the right thing, negra. You did the right thing." That would perhaps be the first time he ever saw his girlfriend as a real person. 

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

CBR6 #7: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Here are ten things you need to know about The Silver Linings Playbook:

1)   It’s not exactly like the movie, but it’s not far off either.
2)   You will see the faces of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence super-imposed on the main characters of Pat and Tiffany if you’ve seen the movie first. It just can’t be stopped.
3)   The mental illness portrayed in the book is far more expressive and understandable than how the film related it – at times to a frustrating degree.
4)   Pat and Tiffany are not the only people who ought to be on meds. Pat’s Dad and Mom are a real mind-bender too.
5)   Chris Tucker’s character doesn’t appear until almost the end – and I think that is a loss.
6)   If you love football, then maybe you’ll follow all the game speak in this book better than I did.
7)   The character of Tiffany in the book is more fully realized, through the eyes of Pat, than in the movie. I’d say the same goes for Pat’s character as well.
8)   Yet somehow, I found the movie much more enjoyable. It is a difficult feeling to explain -- one I don’t encounter often considering my near-religious “the book was better” stance.
9)   I disliked Pat’s child-like way of writing “apart time” to signify his time away from his wife. It made me twitch every time.
10) If you are a fan of a team that constantly loses, you are a masochist. Stop it.

The read was quite a breeze, but I think because I’ve seen the movie, it was difficult for me to think of the book as a separate entity in my mind, and I found myself trying to find specific moments from the film. It can be a bit disorienting. 

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so this review also appears on their website. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

CBR6 #6: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This one is technically a cheat because I've read it before, and I even reviewed it back in 2012 for CBR2. But with the talk of an HBO adaptation coming up over at Pajiba, I found myself straining to remember the details so I thought I'd revisit it since I still have it in my handy-dandy first-generation Kindle.

Reading it a second time around sincerely felt like reading it for the first time, in certain parts. Perhaps because it's easier to retain my memory of things I've read from books versus things I've read on electronic devices -- at least according to this recent study done, the latest in many similar studies done before.

Nevertheless, it was good to rediscover bits I've missed before, such as the various different gods and deities that I didn't recognize the first time around. Or to try and catch things I didn't catch before, or didn't fully understand before. Gaiman's American Gods is almost like a puzzle, and I suspect that each time I reread it, I might take away something different.

The plot basically follows Shadow, an ex-convict just newly released from prison and how his life -- which he originally thought was completely planned and ready for him to begin, in a small town with his beloved wife -- is suddenly turned upside down by the discovery that his wife had died in a car crash. Immediately, he meets an old-ish, impish man -- who instructs Shadow to call him Wednesday -- who recruits him as an errand boy for his preparation for The War.

This War is one both sides say is a long time coming, between the old gods -- brought to America in the hearts and minds of hapless travelers, hopeful immigrants and enslaved communities -- and the new, which are more ideals instead of Gods really, in the sense that they are things that the American public now figuratively worships, such as technology or the Internet or the government.

What I remember most about this book is the idea that random places can be "worshiped" by the masses, whether if its a kitschy rest stop sideshow by the freeway or if its a grand tree in the middle of a meadow. A place is given power because of the meaning that people put in to it -- which really brings up Gaiman's questions about religions and gods. These entities or objects or organizations only have power because we give them power. And as someone who's driven through the unbearably flat plains of the Midwest and been thankful for the sight of any old stupid road attraction, I found truth in it. All the driving that Shadow does in this book made me yearn for a roadtrip around the different states.

As usual, not everything is as it seems in this novel. In my first go-around, I said that reading this felt like swimming without googles. My second time reading (and having a pretty crap memory of it) I was less blind, but was also grateful for how unclear and unfinal everything seems. I felt a little more like Shadow did during his journey -- happy to follow along even though there are many questions, and waiting instead for them to be slowly revealed to me.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

CBR6 #5: Feast for Crows by George RR Martin

Buckle up, folks, because I'm gonna do this quick and dirty. I took almost a fucking year to finish this book, because I kept putting it down, leaving it for months at a time, picking it up again, realizing that I have to start from the beginning since so much time has passed, putting it down again, rinse, repeat, etc.

Oh, and it's long too. Yea, we can see that by the size of this book, but I mean it in the sense that GRR Martin really does not make these pages the easiest to get through. When I got to the end, I actually couldn't believe it. I had to flip back through the final chapter just to make sure. I also want to say, for the record, that I liked it and I'm glad I read it. But that in no way means that it wasn't overly long.

Anyway, we'll start with Cersei, since this is the first time we see her point of view in these book, and she is one of the most interesting characters to me. I think of her character like an addict -- everything she does is motivated by immediate needs and concerns, not long-term planning, and because of that, her actions actually tend to land her in trouble instead of protect her. She is paranoid, scheming and incapable of differentiating between her friends and enemies. She surrounds herself with yes-men (enablers, if you will) and refuses interventions -- ahem, I mean, sound advice from smarter people like her uncle, Kevan Lannister.

She also lives in the past -- which I suppose many of us do -- because she is plagued with fear that her life will turn out according to Maggy the witch's prophecy -- to be killed by her brother and usurped by younger, hotter queen. Feast of Crows is about her reign and all the missteps she makes along the way to "ensure" her survival.

Meanwhile, her brother, Jamie, is off at Riverrun, trying to get it back from the Blackfish. He has to navigate squabbles between the houses, and is also trying to be an honorable man while repeatedly being called Kingslayer by others. It's also clear that the Red Wedding -- while it turned the tide of war in the favor of the Lannisters -- was actually really fucking bad because now everyone mistrusts everyone, even their allies.

His former compatriot, Brienne, is still looking for Sansa Stark with Pod and Hyle (who Brienne kind of hates because he and his friends had a pool going for whoever could sleep with her) and they are accompanied by this nice, priest-like fellow with a cool dog. Their journey takes them through all the ravaged land that the war has created, and everyone keeps talking about outlaws like they are going to totally appear at the end of the story.

Arya. She's called Cat now, and she sells cockles on the street. She encounters Sam Tarly in his travels with Gilly and Maester Aemon, but she doesn't tell him who she is. (No one in these books tell anyone who they fucking are, yet somehow they keep fucking running into each other.) Arya has to keep saying that she's nobody, but she still knows that she's Arya, House of Stark. We know this, because, once again, we are reminded of this eleventy times. Oh, she's becoming a real sociopath too -- wanna bet how much dissociating herself has to do with it?

Sansa. She has to take care of Robin a lot. And Peytr is, of course, creepy, and says things like, "Now, give me a proper kiss" when she's pretending to be his daughter. I like Sansa, and kind of wish more things happen in her chapters besides Robin-related passages. But whatever, I still like her.

Can't forget Dorne -- everyone in Dorne is rash and passionate and AWESOME. They all talk like they cannot taste the world enough. Anyway, the daughter of Doran (king of Dorne), Arianne, wants Myrcella to become queen, so she plots to take her away from Dorne. But her plot is discovered, and she is imprisoned for days, weeks, who knows. There are a lot of good characters in Dorne actually, but I'm honest-to-god not good at recounting everything that happens here because... length. Just know this: I can't wait to see what the costume department does with the Dorne folk. I want more yellow coat-tunics!!!

Oh, I totally forgot about the Iron Islands, because it was so early in the book, but only mentioned peripherally at the end. So Balon Greyjoy died, so everyone is fighting to become king. His daughter, Asha, obviously believes she deserves it, but Balon's crazy brother who everyone hates wins the kingsmoot (which, by the way, I thought was going to be way more strenuous, but all it consists of is rhetoric and eloquence and promises. So basically, like an American election). There's also a semi-crazy priest guy for the Sea gods who really loves bathing in ice-cold water, and there are endless paragraphs about how he does it everyday. He hates the crazy brother who wins the Kingsmoot too.

Overlying themes in the book? Revenge. Everyone wants revenge. Oh, and there is like a priest in almost every chapter -- some are fake, some are real, most are crazy -- so there's definitely an emerging theme of religions battling it out, either with each other or against anyone who does not believe.

Oh, and Samwell Tarly finally gets laid.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

CBR6 #4: At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

Last year, I read and reviewed the first four novels in The Patrick Melrose series, and it was, without a doubt, some of the most eye-opening books I read last year. At Last is the final book of the series, and finishing it makes me so sad. My friend who introduced these books to me once said, "I am so jealous that you are getting to read these for the first time," and I understand now what she means because I feel so sad that I can never re-read these books for the first time again.

The series chart the life of Patrick Melrose, who starts on in Never Mind as a child who worships his parents but are later disappointed by them. By Mother's Milk, Melrose is married with children and struggling to come to terms his relationship with mother, who has been so absent in his life.

At Last reverts back to the same format that the first three books took (and that Mother's Milk departed from) -- spanning only a short period of time in a pivotal moment of Patrick's life. His mother, a woman who he has an intensely complex feelings towards, had passed away, and the book centers on her funeral and all the people who attend it. It shows how fractured so much of Patrick's life is, how his family is seen, and how he is seen, and the person that he has eventually become.

His father's old friend, Nicholas Pratt, who worships Patrick's cruel father (he passed away in Bad News, the second book), gets the first words in the novel: "Surprised to see me?" And as a reader who's been through the whole series, yea, I was. I was filled with mixed feelings of recognition, derision and glee because Nicholas Pratt represents how Patrick's abusive father was portrayed to the outside world, as an upright and honorable man. He also has a lot of the aristocratic pretensions that Patrick now hates, which is why his appearance is appreciated because it means there is more incisive commentary on how the affluent and entitled live.

Patrick's old friend, Johnny is also present. He is the first one he ever told about his father's abuse, and his point of view serves to show a grown-up, almost psychiatric insight into how the Melrose circle of friends/family work. Patrick's ex-lover, Julia, also attends the funeral, and his interactions with her shows us how he used to see women as an answer to all the questions he wants silenced, and how he's grown as a person.

Finally, there is his family. Mary, his wife (or estranged wife), once again took on a hyper-materal role, a presence that Patrick desperately craves in his life because of his own insistently neglectful mother; his sons serve as fresh eyes into the horrors that Patrick experienced as a child -- experiences he thought ordinary were seen with pity and empathy when he recounted them to his sensitive children; and there is his aunt, his mother's sister, a kleptomaniacal spendthrift who cannot let got of their family's wealthy past.

The beauty of St. Aubyn's writing isn't really in anything that happens; it's in the little revelations that Patrick experiences as he interacts with each person -- nothing is groundbreaking, but they all explain or answer how he has been raised and developed as a person, and in some way, show how far he's come since. The Patrick we see in At Last is still very much the same person, but also, in certain respects, completely different from his grown-up self in Some Hope, or even Mother's Milk (the third and fourth book, respectively.) St. Aubyn's genius lies in the fact that he's able to show how a person can retain certain parts of himself, while also maturing other parts without losing a clear sense that we are reading about the same person. And his writing is pretty fucking brilliant too.

I find writing reviews about these books exceedingly difficult because it's hard to put forth why exactly they are so good and absolutely need to be read, mostly because not a whole lot happens in it. But yes, the Patrick Melrose novels absolutely need to be read.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review also appears on their website. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

CBR6 #3: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy by Bertil Lintner

If you need a book that can explain to you the context of Burma's burgeoning transition to a democracy (or at least a nominal democracy), this book by Bertil Lintner is a good one. Not only is it a relatively short book that looks at the modern history of Burma, now known as Myanmar, Lintner's profession as a journalist makes this read very easy to digest.

As the title of the book suggest, a lot of it concerns Aung San Suu Kyi, and how the people in Burma see her. For many years, she was seen to the outside world as a sort of democracy icon, a Gandhi-esque figure who was held under house arrest by the Burmese military junta for her role as the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party. But since Burma started gradually opening up in 2011 or 2012 under the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and permitted to participate in political activities. Since her release, Suu Kyi, disappointingly to human rights activists everywhere, have proven herself to be more of a politician -- most notably, she has refused to speak up on the plight of the Rohingyas, a minority Muslim people who live in northern Burma and have been the target for anti-Muslim raids and riots since 2012. As Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country, and the virulent hatred against the Rohingyas are, in some ways, very real and fully realized in Burmese society, Suu Kyi knows that speaking out for them would be a disastrous choice, politically.

Suu Kyi's move to be more of a pragmatist than an idealist is not news to anyone who follows Burma, and Lintner's writing chooses to treat her more as a human being, one with many questionable qualities as both a politician and a person. However, he also does not ignore the fact that the majority of people in Burma sees Suu Kyi as akin to a god. You've probably heard that the masses refer to her as "mother" and that she is revered for her spirituality. Lintner questions her ideology by looking at her speeches and her writings, and concludes that her rhetoric is often clouded in the spiritual and is difficult to really judge in reality.

While exploring her role in Burma's transition, Lintner also goes into the country's bloody history -- a narrative that we never hear about in Western media anymore since Burma became the most popular kid in the block. As someone who's lived and reported in Cambodia, I am used to seeing how cruel the government and the security forces can be. But reading about the infamous massacre floored me -- I suppose that's the benefits of having a dictatorship: You get to absolutely not give a shit about how the international community perceives you if you decide to violently and openly crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators.

On August 8, 1988, a group of students organized a demonstration in the capital Rangoon to rally for democracy. According to observers, it was fairly organized and was peaceful, and the mood was described as festive. By the early evening, thousands of people had gathered in the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. A government spokesman ordered for the people to return home, but the crowd only grew; protest leaders exhorted to the demonstrators to remain peaceful. "Be disciplined! No provocations!"

But by around 11 pm, troops containing troops rolled out and opened fire on the protesters. "They fired on automatic right into the thickest part of the crowd," said a medical student present during the '88 protest. The demonstrators reacted, sometimes fighting back with clubs or molotov cocktails. This lasted until August 13, by which a medical volunteer estimated that at least 1,000 people in Rangoon were killed during this time. This number doesn't include other areas of Burma where similar pro-democracy demonstrations were being crushed brutally by the military. A US Embassy report said that deaths probably numbered over 2,000, "but actual numbers can never be known. In many cases as soon as they finished firing, troops carted off victims for surreptitious disposal to mask the extent of the carnage."

Reading this despaired me. It made me wonder where the limit is for us -- the nebulous we, the international community who are either condemning or condoning each country's actions, but never actually concretely affecting any change. I compare everything to Cambodia, of course, and I wondered if it takes the government killing 1,000+ people before the international community will just call a spade a spade, to acknowledge that this experiment called "Democracy in Cambodia" has failed. Is that what is needed? For a government to send its troops out and open fire on citizens protesting (that has happened in Cambodia this year) and kill thousands (the Cambodian security forces killed at least five. The full number remains unclear because there are still people unaccounted for/missing) before our governments do something?

Obviously, Burma and Cambodia are extremely different. I marvel at the fact that the military junta has managed to more or less keep Burma as a country (again, another benefit of being a dictatorship) despite the existence of numerous ethnic groups in the various states, some of which are still considered conflict areas because the ethnic armed groups and the Burmese Army are still clashing. I marvel at Burma's diversity and its people's seemingly deep yearn for democracy. I marvel at how blind the people are when it comes to their hatred of the Rohingyas -- not lest because some of that seems to be manipulated for the government's benefit.

So is Aung San Suu Kyi it? The gleaming hope for the Burmese who want democracy -- is she going to deliver on that expectation? Lintner ends it on an uncertain note. Written in 2011, Suu Kyi and her party has yet to have any clear objectives or platform or agenda. Now, three years later, very little has changed in that regard -- so far, they have been campaigning on the platform of constitutional reform of the junta-draft 2008 constitution, but as far as any concrete party policies though, very much remains unclear.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a Burma newbie and wishes to understand more about the country. The Burma story really does have everything, if you are looking for an interesting narrative: There is the evil villain (the military government), the reformed villain who you are not sure whether if can be trusted (the current nominally civilian government), the shiny knight in armour (Aung San Suu Kyi) who could also turn out to be a bit of an anti-hero, the unfortunate but deserving masses (the people in Burma who want democracy ), who feel it's ok to oppress another group considered "other" to them (and the character of these Burmese masses could also double up as the arbiters of a possible genocide.)

I might be oversimplifying it, and Lintner's book goes a long way at pointing out the nuances in this recent chapter of Burmese history, which could be rewritten depending on next year's national elections. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

CBR6 #2: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

This book has been favorably reviewed by many, including Cannonballer Jen K, so I bought it on my recent trip to Bangkok, where they have an expansive Kinokuniya. I was intrigued by the idea of a golem -- have always been intrigued by them since it was first mentioned in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay as a character in a graphic novel by the protagonist Josef Kavalier -- but this was the first time I've thought of them as a Jewish equivalent to a djinni, which we so commonly see spelled as genie.

The Golem is Chava, a Golem created in the shape of a human-like woman at the behest of a not-so-nice businessman who's about to immigrate to America. During the journey over the ocean, the businessman passes away from an illness and she is left master-less, and feels lost. A golem, in Jewish lore, is created to fulfill the wishes of its master, and without her "husband," Chava feels a gulf within her. She can also hear people's desires and her nature pressures her to help people, without thinking of the consequences.

Luckily, she encounters a rabbi, who recognizes her for what she is, and he takes her in and teaches her how to suppress her nature as he is fearful that people will destroy her once they find out what she is, or worse, she would destroy them.

A counterpoint to Chava's personality is the titular Djinni, who gives himself the name Ahmad. While we often equate genies to Robin Williams' personality in Aladdin, author Helene Wecker creates an entire back story to these creatures, who seem like invisible powerful spirits that roam the deserts of Africa. We first encounter Ahmad as he spills out of a gas lamp that was being polished and fixed by a tinsmith named Arbeely living in Little Syria in New York, which is today the Financial District (or more pointedly, around the area where the World Trade Center was). With him, we have to uncover the mystery how of he ended up trapped in a gas lamp, with an iron chain around his wrists. (Iron is a material most hated by djinnis and it prevents Ahmad from assuming his real form, and is thus forced to stay as a human.)

 What was interesting for me was the idea of nature. Obviously, both of our characters are magical creatures but they have human traits -- and since humans have also created these beings in our cultures, it is significant to me what types of characteristics we impart to our creations. Chava is essentially a slave to her master, and if she has no one to obey, she feels uncomfortable and unmoored; Ahmad, however, is a free being who's been trapped, so he does not really care about how his actions affect others, almost to the point of callousness. There's also an idea of where our personalities come from -- characters in the book keep talking about how "it is in their nature." But this never excuses Ahmad's insensitivity or Chava's blind obedience.

While I thought the novel started with really interesting ideas and posited potentially evocative themes, I am disappointed that it never builds up from that, that it never explores how both cultures -- who in the media is portrayed as being fundamentally suspicious and antagonistic to each other -- are similar or different, and it never really allows the people from the different neighborhoods to interact.

Moreover, while I was stabbed with nostalgia (of what I've never know or experienced) over her descriptions of New York City at the turn of the century, I was not very impressed with her writing and character development when it came to the actual people (and creatures). I was also a bit annoyed by how neatly the ending tied itself up, like the stupid TV trope of how coincidence and luck somehow allows for everyone to be in the right place at the right time.

Overall, this was definitely a book worth reading, and I actually finished the 600+ page book in two days. But more than for sake of the writing or the story, I'm glad The Golem and the Djinni has reminded me, once again, how interested I am in New York City's history and the communities that were cramped there which has so drastically shaped the city into what it is today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

CBR6 #1: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Wow, three months into the New Year, and this is literally the only book I've completed. Usually, I'm a "Read-a-ton-but-blog-nothing" kind of girl, which is what has been my downfall over the past few Cannonball Reads. But this time, it truly is because I'm lazy/busy/not in the mood for reading (I know, crazy talk, but it happens!)

Gentlemen of the Road is a slim book and it really shouldn't have taken me so long to complete. But I found myself stopping in mid-read a lot and then picking it up like... a month later. Which made it really difficult for me to remember the plot. So what I did was re-read it. And re-read it. And re-read it. I re-read it about three times before I completed it.

My inability to finish it in a timely manner speaks more to my general laziness than to the writing quality because Michael Chabon's writing is, as always, fantastic here. Compared to his other epics that I've read (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union), this book is slim in comparison and it is also organized in a slightly different manner. Chabon functioned more in Gentlemen by relying on the reader's ability to infer certain happenings and plot points, rather than actually spelling it out for us -- which is why, as I said, I insisted on re-reading it when I forgot bits of the story.

The novel centers around two friends, Amran and Zelikman, who have been traveling across the Caucasus. Zelikman – a very skilled, very thin physician with a hat fetish – is from the country of Francia (wherever that is in made-up Europe); Amran is an Abyssinian, or African in this context, who has a huge sword called Mother-Defiler, and is very good at a game I surmised was the Chabonian version of chess. Throughout their travels, they have to resort to certain tricks to cheat money out of villages they pass through. During one such attempt, they encounter an old, blind mahout who wishes to hire out Amran and Zelikman's services to protect a young prince who had just been orphaned by a warlord now ruling over the kingdom.

Zelikman and Amran. I kept picturing Amran as Michael Clarke Duncan, RIP. 

Anyway, the mahout is murdered by assassins sent by the warlord, so Amran and Zelikman immediately take up the charge of the young prince, Filaq, who keeps attempting to escape the pair to to avenge his family's murder. And so begins the two friends' adventure into trying to swindle, fight, and cajole their way through a royal takeover.

In the afterword of the novel, Chabon said that he had initially titled his book Jews With Swords, a notion that was always met with some snickering because I guess the average American's idea of a Jewish person is more... Yiddish grandma in Coney island, or Jon Stewart. Not one who is a swashbuckling hero on a perpetual adventure. Gentlemen is Chabon's way of revisiting the modern (and I would argue, New York) idea of what a Jewish man is like, and he is almost defensive about it in his afterword.
The illustrations within the book by Gary Gianni were really well-done. 

All I can say is that Chabon could have switched the religion out to anything else, and I think I would have been just as interested and captivated by the plot and his use of language. My sole complaint in Gentlemen is that Chabon's propensity for long, run-on sentences really stood out for me – either they weren't as obvious or as painfully distended in Kavalier and Clay and Yiddish Policemen – which may be have also been why I had to keep rereading it from the beginning.

But I also understand that Chabon was trying to mimic a certain type of genre, and usually, if I persisted for more than two chapters, I found it easier for my brain to adjust to the long sentences and the made-up language/words. That's sort of the genius of writers like Chabon – he can use a word I've never read before, but it would make perfect sense to me in the context of the story, and even extend an illustrative idea in my head of what it entails.