Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France

Title: The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
Author: Anatole France
Original Publication Date: 1881
Pages: 148

Monsieur Sylvestre Bonnard, a member of The Institute, a philologist who in the twilight of his years lives in a City of Books accompanied by his condescending cat, Hamilcar, and Therese, his adroit and remarkably annoying house help, finds himself committing a crime. And you wonder, what crime he did commit? He commits two actually, both of which stems from love. The former impelled by the haunting quest for redemption of a failed unrequited love, the latter, inevitably constrained by a passion unmatched. Of the two, he was not indicted for the former, and I am sure you will understand and forgive the latter, as I did.

The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard  is divided into two stories, The Log and Daughter of Clementine, both presented as Bonnard's diary entries. The entries are intermittently  recorded, sometimes years apart. In both stories, Bonnard is the central character, and the connection in the stories are subtly and beautifully formed.

Of all of France's works I've had the pleasure of reading so far, I've come to appreciate he Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard the most. The differences were readily apparent. Bonnard is a warm and gentle kind man. He was not cynical, only true and honest. He wore his heart on his sleeves. "Then he said to her that the troubles in which we often involve ourselves, by trying to act according to our conscience and to do the best we can, are never of the sort that totally dishearten and weary us, but are, on the contrary wholesome trials."(148)The profound human sympathy and grace France is known for defines this book. It was poignant and beautiful, down from the vivid imagery he employed up to the ruminations in life, but still remaining to be critical without any hint of naivety just as he did on his later works. France's development as an author and a person is evident in this work too. Written earlier in his career in 1881 compared to Penguin Island and The Revolt of the Angels written in 1908 and 1912 respectively, both books the majority of which are criticisms on the church and of faith in the divine, the Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard professes however a faith in the church, and France even goes so far as ending this work by leaving a blessing in the name of God! It is so evident that what faith he had lost through those intervening years was still there. And it is interesting and amazing to experience a writer change and develop, and at times contradict himself, almost like how the young Nietzsche is so different to the old Nietzsche. And I like this kind and warm story, it makes you appreciate life.

Other Books by Anatole France:
Revolt of the Angels(4 Stars)
Penguin Island (3 Stars)

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees

Every Day by David Levithan

Author: Every Day
Title: David Levithan
Original Publicaiton Date: 2012
Pages: 322

It would seem that David Levithan has no love for the traditional linear narrative form of story writing. The Lover's Dictionary (1 Star) is in, as its namesake suggests, dictionary entries. Every Day too is not of the traditional linear form. It has no beginnings, and it knows no ends. It began where it ended, and it ends where it began. Searching for closure here would be an act in vain.

Every Day tells us the existence of an entity which inhabits a body for just one day. For one day it gets to live in that body. On the next day, it is randomly transferred to yet another body. The concept is terrifying and hauntingly beautiful. But David Levithan chose the dilemma of loving in that momentary living as the focal point of the story. In so doing he presents us various lives of what can be readily seen as stereotypical teenagers like metalheads, depressed individuals, jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, and teens struggling with their identities.

I like the two messages I picked up in this book. The form without end and beginning gives credence to the leitmotif that we should live in the present just as the entity does, living day by day in different bodies. The second that love is universal, that it is not solely anchored on our physical facet but on the person as a whole, that it is not just between man and woman. I think this book made a lot more sense because Levithan did not endeavor to elaborate on the mysterious aspects but instead played on the emotions involved, I like that he did not clear up the mysteries. You may feel cheated, ending up where he started, but Levithan played that real good.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Original Publication Date: 1988
Pages: 197

Only the devil will leave you in a waiting room for three hours without any reading material. So I took this as an omen and went ahead and looked for a new dentist. But before I found one, the Soul of the World orchestrated the natural flow of things so that I should come across a copy of this book, and my diaphanous frustration compelled me to buy and read this work I've avoided until today. I have this particular belief that books I see in most houses that I've been to, if not all, are overrated. To me, The Alchemist was no exception. I read it under 3 or 4 hours which is probably because of the simplicity both in the story and in the prose, both were straightforward and linear. But it was nothing like Hemingway's style. It is retrospective but please, do not even imagine comparing this work to Siddhartha(4 Stars), as some people have the apparent audacity to do. Siddhartha is the work you read to experience a trance-like retrospective examination of life, in comparison, the only thing that made its mark in The Alchemist was the fantasy part, which I have to admit I see as a considerable digression for a ruminative retrospective novel. It does talk about love as the universal language of the world, that all of us are one but I had this feeling that The Alchemist barely scratched the surface of this reservoir of ruminative philosophy which led to an occasional overtly pretentious and over-reaching feel. Coelho's telling us that the happiness we seek is within us, as evinced by how this novel started and ended, what I can't curiously reconcile however is the fact that it was someone else's dream that completed his journey, as if negating the very message it seeks to impart. Just my two cents anyway.

Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Title:  Gitanjali
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Original Publication Date:1910

'I read Rabindranath every day, to read one line of his is to forget all the troubles of the world.'

-Unnamed Bengali Doctor addressing W.B. Yeats, contained in the Introduction

Isn’t it just fitting that this masterpiece be introduced by a person no less than William Butler Yeats who is another Nobel Laureate? Tagore received the Nobel in 1913 and Yeats in 1923. It is ostensibly perceivable that Yeats managed to capture the focal points in his Introduction, so quoting parts of Yeats introduction and placing my heartfelt impressions, let me try doing justice to this book, however insufficient that may turn out to be.

Gitanjali is a collection of poems,  ruminations and rhapsodies, or more accurately Song Offerings, and when you do offer something, you offer it to a higher being, a divine existence of which belief is professed, and so, much of the verses are addressed to a Lord, God, and Master.

Yeats in introducing this work to William Rothenstein says:

“For all I know, so abundant and simple is this poetry, the new renaissance has been born in your country.”(7)

And this is true in both instances that I have read Tagore, just as it was in The Gardener, the poetry was actually simple but it communicates at so many levels owing to the depth that is carried by Tagore's ruminations.

“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies' tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travellers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”(8)

And more than a hundred years since its original publication, where in those hundred years we have witnessed, through history’s questioned objectivity, men doubt the ideals of their forefathers and see thier beloved posterities entirely discard what has been handed down, it is extraordinary to enjoy sometime like Gitanjali, which in all its completeness is certainly worthy to be read beyond its year if not entirely a timeless masterpiece on its own.

“I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.”(9)

I too have carried Gitanjali over the days, over a span of daytrips, through the inevitable but longed-for ride home, through talks with friends, and ardent discussions with other students, I sometimes find myself, reading parts of this work, and you really do “forget all the troubles of the world.” But unlike Yeats, I did not hesitate to show the world how much it moved me. If words so masterfully chosen and phrases adroitly matched delivered a gamut of emotions, I welcomed it. If it made me smiled, I smiled, if it made me ponder, I ruminated. I wanted the world to see, I wanted to tell them, this is Gitanjali, and you should read it too.

“These lyrics— which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention—display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my live long.”(10)

And in the same vein, I am perpetually grateful and irretrievably wounded that my experience is defined by a translated medium. Now that is one hell of a dilemma. I could feel the “subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention” which must be so richly contained in Bengali, just inches beyond my reach, but still gravely beyond my reach, unrelentingly clawing at my thoughts reading this.   But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned through Tagore, that is, to be thankful for what comes in life. And this is also what I appreciate in Tagore, he loves life, he loves the world, and for that he welcomes death itself in its entirety.

I leave you with a customary quotation.

“On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.

They build their houses with sand and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.

They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.

The sea surges up with laughter and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach. Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the children, even like a mother while rocking her baby's cradle. The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.”

Other works by Rabindranath Tagore:
The Gardener (4 Stars)
Nationalism (3 Stars)

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees

A free ebook copy is legally downloadable here, along with a voluminous number of other works: Gutenberg

Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Nationalism
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Original Publication Date: 1942
Pages: 143

You have to heartily concede it to Tagore, he is still no less poetic writing this essay on nationalism than if he were writing a poem.

“And yet I will persist in believing that there is such a thing as the harmony of completeness in humanity, where poverty does not take away his riches, where defeat may lead him to victory, death to immortality, and where in the compensation of Eternal Justice those who are the last may yet have their insult transmuted into a golden triumph. Let our life be simple in its outer aspect and rich in its inner gain. Let our civilization take its firm stand upon its basis of social co-operation and not upon that of economic exploitation and conflict.”(92)

And really this is what Nationalism is all about. It is maintaining the morality amidst the inevitable mechanical aspects of progress.

Nationalism is more of an essay than an academic work. This contains Tagore’s ruminations on nationalism from his extensive travels. It is divided into chapters on Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India, and fittingly it is ended by a poem originally written in Bengali.

The chapter on Nationalism in the West provides us the framework with which Tagore undertook writing on nationalism. Nationalism is, as he claims, created by the concept of the ‘Nation’, “in the sense of the political and economic union of a people, is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose.”(12) This working definition does not stray from traditional definitions arrived at in the social sciences. Tagore however points out that the ‘Nation’ has a mechanized and amoral aspect that drains man of spirit and morality. “this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man's energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man's power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity.”(78) A caveat on Tagore’s term on the use of the West, the West refers exclusively to Europe and does not include the Americas (probably both by reason of his sentiments of freedom and the fact that America has just gotten a foothold on the pedestal of world superpowers at that point).

The chapter on Nationalism in Japan reveals Tagore’s admiration for the Japanese Nation and calls it the nation that the Asian region should emulate (this was published in 1942, written earlier and I would almost give anything to satiate my curiosity on Tagore’s reaction on Japan’s participation in the Second World War).

The chapter on Nationalism in India is more of an examination and admonition. Though what is curious to me is that Tagore initially justifies the establishment of the caste system as a legitimate response to the diversity present in Indian society and bolsters this stand by juxtaposing the Indian response to that of the American response which is of futile deferral and discriminatory avoidance. Though Tagore later on calls for an action that rises above the caste system and stays true to the morality he is espousing in this work.

What is so amazing in reading this is Tagore wrote a postcolonial approach in a time when such methods of intellectual discourse are yet to be conceive decades hence, in a time when future notified scholars like Said and his Orientalism and Spivak and his Subaltern are but suckling babes in conceiving their respective postcolonial theories. This point is clear when Tagore wrote that, “You (addressing Japan) must apply your Eastern mind, your spiritual strength, your love of simplicity, your recognition of social obligation, in order to cut out a new path for this great unwieldy car of progress, shrieking out its loud discords as it runs. You must minimize the immense sacrifice of man's life and freedom that it claims in its every movement.”(43)
This statement further resonates with the scholar and the Filipino in me when, “And yet someone must show the East to the West, and convince the West that the East has her contribution to make to the history of civilization.”(75)

Tagore’s writing is also defined by his unwavering idealism and incomparable desire to pursue morality. This leads to his loving belief that men, are innately good. “Man in his fullness is not powerful, but perfect. Therefore, to turn him into mere power, you have to curtail his soul as much as possible. When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another's throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way.”(30)

Tagore’s aim was noble in writing this, but as I said, this is not an academic treatise on Nationalism. Tagore presents us the danger inherent in modernization, the alienation and mechanization of the human spirit, he provides recourse for the invasion of the imperial capitalistic designs of the West, but does not actually provide for a concrete solution to the inevitable force of modernization.

I fittingly  end this review by quoting the last stanza of his beautiful poem.

“Be not ashamed, my brothers, 
to stand before the proud and the powerful
With your white robe of simpleness.”
“Let your crown be of humility,
your freedom the freedom of the soul.
Build God's throne daily
upon the ample bareness of your poverty
And know that what is huge is not great
and pride is not everlasting.”(97)

Other works by Rabindranath Tagore:
The Gardener (4 Stars)
Gitanjali (4 Stars)

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama

Title: The End of History and The Last Man
Author:  Francis Fukuyama
Original Publication Date: 1992
Pages: 464

"But it is not necessarily the case that liberal democracy is the political system best suited to resolving social conflicts per se. A democracy's ability to peacefully resolve conflicts is greatest when those conflicts arise between so called "interest groups" that share a larger, pre-existing consensus on the basic values or rules of the game, and when the conflicts are primarily economic in nature. But there are other kinds of non-economic conflicts that are far more intractable, having to do with issues like inherited social status and nationality, that democracy is not particularly good at resolving.”

Francis  Fukuyama was born on  October  27,  1952 to Yoshio  Fukuyama,  a second  generation  Japanese  American,  and  Toshiko  Kawata  Fukuyama. Fukuyama’s childhood years were spent in New York city and in 1967, the family moved to State College, Pennsylvania, where he then attended high school. His Bachelor of Arts in Classics was obtained in 1974 from Cornell  University  and  taught  right  after  in  the  Yale  University  Department  of Comparative Literature during 1974 – 1975.  In 1981,  he  received  his  Doctor  of  Philosophy  in  Political  Science  from  Harvard University by doing a dissertation on Soviet foreign policy. Francis Fukuyama was a member of the Political Science Department of the RAND Corporation which conducts researches about public policies in Santa Monica,California  from  1979  to  1980,  1983  –  1989,  and  then  in  1995  –  1996 . In 1981 and 1982, Francis Fukuyama was an official member of the Policy Planning Staff of the United States Department of State where he focused on Middle Eastern issues. In 1989, he returned to the same body, but this time as a deputy director for European political and military affairs. While he was a member of this said policy planning staff, he published an essay entitled “The End of History?” in a small foreign policy journal named The National Interest.

The End of History and the Last Man is a book expanding the essay “The End of History?” that Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1981. It sparked extraordinary debate both in the United States and abroad. Francis Fukuyama’s analytical philosophy is anchored in the fact that the article was written five months  before the collapse of  the Berlin wall  where ideological  contentions between democracies and communism were in head to head disputation. His  employment  at  those  times  and  his  origin  of  education  has  surely predicated his preferences in writing the article and eventually the book. Being a RAND corporation researcher and as a member of the United States Department Policy Planning Staff would have surely molded his very reasons for writing such. As an officially employed citizen of the United States, one cannot deny that fact that he must advocate to the principles of the State and government that has employed, nurtured  and  protected  him,  and  that  is  liberal  democracy.  We  may  say  that because he is of the government, he wrote the “End of History?” to impinge on disintegration of the Berlin wall.

The End of History and the Last Man posits the idea of writing a universal history of human development with the end of liberal democracy. The prevalent extension  of  not  only  liberal  political  but  also  economic  ideas  throughout  the communist  world  and  to  third  world  countries  presupposes  that  mankind  has reached its ideological evolutionary process. Although the occurrence of events in the  simplistic  sense  of  history  still  occurs,  the  evolution  of  human  society  has reached its end with liberal democracy and not with communism.

Francis Fukuyama points significant emphasis on the French and American Revolutions. He stresses that the amalgamated ideals formed in the momentous revolutions were the indispensable foundations of the end of man’s history, liberal democracy.  His  periodization  ends  with  all  states  having  the  same  form  of government.

It rejects Marx’s idea of human development with communism as the end goals of the system. And just as any post – modern theory rejects grand narratives in existence,so does it support and enact one of its own. This is what Francis Fukuyama’s work is doing, it rejects the various numerous ideas of the development of human society and  presents  that  grand  narrative  that  societal  development  ends  with  the institutionalization of liberal democracy in every state.

Perhaps the biggest critique about Francis Fukuyama and his book The End of History and The Last man is that he has this tendency to show his biases on his writings. His position in the government of the nation is clearly felt in the arguments of the origin of liberal democracy and the end of which he speaks of in essence perpetuates the imperialistic aims of a world super power.

Lord Valentine's Castle (Lord Valentine #1) by Robert Silverberg

Title:Lord Valentine's Castle (Lord Valentine #1)
Author: Robert Silverberg
Original Publication Date: 1980
Pages: 506

"Conquest over self was the finest of victories."(467)

It pains me that this book is languishing in undeserved obscurity. 

Lord Valentine's Castle follows the journey of Valentine, devoid of any semblance of identity and perhaps irretrievably deprived of indescribably defining memories, living a wanderer’s life, joining a band of jugglers, learning the trade in the only way it was meant to be learned, by heart and soul, and comes to the realization that he has fallen from the highest possible state of grace, comes to the inevitable understanding that he must journey to reclaim what he has lost, not for himself, but for the safety and order of Majipoor.

This is a journey of one man, his quest to define himself, as much as it is a voyage through the world of Majipoor. And it is splendid.

It is splendid because Silverberg is unlike most fantasy writers. This book is not filled with fantasy tropes and cliché plot devices. No. There are no dwarves, elves and well-defined magical schemes, no epic wars, but there are dragons! Like Ursula Le Guin, in the A Wizard of Earthsea, the struggle is much more personal, and to expect a diluted brilliance in this work is but a folly one must dispense with.  As I have written in my review on the first book of the Earthsea Cycle which is suitably in consonance with my views on this book,“what is most fascinating in this unique work of fantasy is how personal and particular the main struggle is and yet it carries a worldly importance to the book. The perpetuation of the grand narratives of good against evil, or of the prosaic if not routinary overblown dilemmas of kings and men have endeavored to situate if not relegate this grand personal struggle everybody must go through in the background as mere subplots at the best and at worst as plot devices, never really brought in the forefront.” And I like this kind of books, not only because of the inherent mastery with which it is delivered but it reflects

Silverberg’s vehemence and audacity at writing out of the banalities in fantasy writing. This he achieved by masterfully incorporating a bit of sci-fi background in this world and highlighting the power of dreams to list a few, and of course envisioning our lovely charismatic engaging Valentine to be black.I revel in the fact that the protagonist in this was envisioned to have had dark skin. For it is not so much as the color of the skin that talks but of the profound meaning and effect it carries concerning minute details of vital necessity not only in the fantasy genre but of printed work generally… for most fantasy plots are patterned if not derived from the middle ages of conquest where the dichotomy of the white and black or of the east-west conflict is fundamentally translated to good and bad respectively and the stratification of the social class is at its height..’’ Authors like this must be read!

Silverberg’s world building is exceptionally extensive and my imagination was left in no less a euphoric state given the way he wrote. His was so detailed, so wonderful, so mesmerizing. Not only were the cities strangely unique and uncompromisingly beautiful, they were real, they were real in the manner that Silverberg wanted them to be, as if you were there, standing before the gates of the city, drunkenly dazzling at the beauty of this alien world. Just as a painter masterfully but with adamant care puts life into the canvass with those slow adroit masterful strokes of genius, so does Silverberg conjures Majipoor to life with his phrases, sentences and paragraphs. And this world building in effect makes Valentine’s journey more empathic, and I would easily pledge my loyalty to this unprecedentedly deposed Coronal, even though most of his travels are uneventful compared to most fantasy books, I will choose to be beside this man and enter Majipoor once again.

This book is part of my LOCUS AWARDS reading list.

The Gardener by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: The Gardener
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Original Publication Date: 1913
Pages: 87

“It is a game of giving and withholding, revealing and screening
  again; some smiles and some little shyness, and some sweet useless struggles.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

No mystery beyond the present; no striving for the impossible; no
  shadow behind the charm; no groping in the depth of the dark.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.

We do not stray out of all words into the ever silent; we do not
  raise our hands to the void for things beyond hope.
It is enough what we give and we get.
We have not crushed the joy to the utmost to wring from it the
  wine of pain.
This love between you and me is simple as a song.”

One of my favorite excerpts from this wonderful book. It is amazing to read Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath, a hundred and one years after he received his Nobel Prize for Literature, a hundred and one years after being the first non-European awardee of the Nobel. The Gardener is a book of poetry. In the beginning, a modest servant pleads to the queen to be her gardener. She asks the reason why. He answers, the simplicity of which carries a subtle unfathomable heartbreaking depth. But perhaps, the servant turned gardener was compelled, inescapably, by an unrequited impermissible love for the queen, the kind that makes you queasy and uncharacteristically giddy all around, for much of this book contains aphorism, euphemisms, and ruminations for love in its varying forms, shortcomings and eternal joys, or perhaps the Gardener wanted the queen to know the real beauty of life, as ponderings in life too are contained in it. Tagore's use of colloquial language is spiritual and mercurial. There is depth in his rich use of imagery and allegories and one can read this in varying degrees but it is strange that at the same time it is straightforward in its delivery that it taxes credulity knowing this has been written a century before. And I think, it too is wonderful how he ended this work. Strange and beautiful.

"Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the
  spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.”

“From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the
  vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang
  one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Rizal Without the Overcoat by Ambeth Ocampo

Title: Rizal Without the Overcoat
Author: Ambeth Ocampo
Publisher: Anvil Publishing,Inc.
Original Publication Date: 1990
Pages: 272

"Jose Rizal Mercado y Alonso (1861-96) is the Philippine national hero because an American governor gave him that recognition. President Taft did not choose Aguinaldo because he was too militaristic; Rizal fitted the ideal of national leader for the Filipinos. (Arcilla 1984:88)"<

Jose Rizal is touchy subject for most Filipino scholars. It is worth emphasizing that unlike the designation of the Narra as the National tree, or the Mango as the National fruit, ejusdem generis, there is no law designating Rizal as the Philippine national hero. So contrary to popular belief, the post of 'THE' National Hero is, in all its actuality, lodged in a genuine debate, and not merely in a verbal one.

If you are interested in reading a more academic approach of why Rizal is worthy of being labeled as the Philippine national hero, read Leon M. Guerrero's book The First Filipino.

The title is not a mere designation. Rizal Without the Overcoat endeavors to present Rizal, without the overcoat, the overcoat of the European influence embossed upon this enamored persona though his European education. In some sense, this could be certainly taken as a post-colonial approach in viewing Rizal.

The book is a compilation of articles Ambeth Ocampo wrote in a Philippine newspaper, which says a lot about his writings. Ocampo's writing has been designated as 'popular history' and it is not without any grounding at all. Popular history is history writing striving for a very wide audience of non-specialists. Reading this made me feel I was going through a Rizal trivia book, it was enjoyable (who doesn't love trivias?), and had its moments. Of course the necessary critiques of this form includes the style, analytical depth and the wealth of resources/references which in Ocampo's case has suffered from existential dearth. Be critical in reading Ocampo, you may just subliminally fall into his bandwagon.

But is there a need to remove the overcoat? Who is Rizal but the man who sought education in the foreign shores to liberate his people? Is he too not defined by the knowledge, motivations, social stimuli he encountered wearing that overcoat? Is the overcoat not a part of who Rizal truly is?

Entirely not part of this book's review!
I seem to keep reading the statement that Rizal wrote for the people, for the masses, for the 'Indios'! Rizal did not write for the masses, the two seminal novels were originally written in Spanish, a Lingua Franca known only to the Filipino landed elite, the landlords, and even to them a limited number was capable of reading. More importantly, books were a luxury then compared to today. Noli and El Fili were inaccessible when it first came out.

Penguin Island by Anatole France

Title: Penguin Island
Author: Anatole France
Original Publication Date: 1908
Pages: 284

“As if men could live in society without disputes and without quarrels, and as if civil discords were not the necessary conditions of national life and progress… The progress of civilization manifested itself among them by murderous industry, infamous speculation, and hideous luxury.”

Penguin Island is not about penguins, but it is about history. It is a cynical retelling of the human history commenced in the era before pre-history to the modern ages, done in satire. It is certainly satirical and cynical but to what extent is fictional retelling and actual telling is indeterminate. After all, one can simply consider this a bold and fearless work, claiming that what Anatole France has written here is the natural truth of the world that people naively fail to see or perfunctorily acknowledge.

The novel begins when a monk, Mael, who ingenuously unknown to him to have been led by the devil, comes across Penguins, and irretrievably baptizes them on the strength of the precarious belief perpetuated by a sharp dulling of the senses imposed by old age that the said Penguins were humans. The act carries extensive repercussions as the Council of Heaven convenes presided by the Father, deliberating on Mael’s action. The Council, like most parliamentary bodies, fraught with innumerable opinions hastily decides, for the sake of arriving at a decision, to turn the Penguins into humans. “The sacrament of baptism," answered St. Patrick, "is void when it is given to birds, just as the sacrament of marriage is void when it is given to a eunuch.”(44) Hence, a new line of humans were henceforth born into the world. They came to be known as the Penguins and this is their history.

France chose certain points in human history to emulate. He starts off with the Ancient Times, where the concept of private property was to be brutally established. He brings us next to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, followed by the Modern Times and ends with the Future Times. The story is infused with fictional aspects like the inclusion of the histories of dragons and other notable mythical creatures. The following are the recurring and prevalent points in the eras France chose to write with.

The penguin people were transformed by the power of God. But he cannot fill them with the knowledge and moralities needed in life; these were to be their test. They were but suckling infants in these aspects. France plays this aspect out with the recurring theme of corruption of the penguin (human) soul in its pursuit of knowledge, readily stating at times that man is no different from the common animal. “The separation between man and animal is not complete since there are monsters who proceed from both.”(68)That the penguins were purer, unadulterated, untarnished until they were turned humans was how France sought to impart the point that what we have gained, made us lost the things that were worth keeping. “I notice with sadness, my son, that since they became men the inhabitants of this island act with less wisdom than formerly.” (90) Hence, the annals of Penguin history were peppered with the undulating momentum of the decadence of their pure souls.

The church sought to rectify this dilemma. The didactic needs were exclusively satisfied by the monks of the order of Mael. From this relationship stems an age long conundrum the real world is no stranger to. France incorporated this idea when he extensively wrote on the politics, further leading to the excessive entanglement of the church and the state that screwed us many times over. “The splendour of the truth in those times illumined all souls that had not been corrupted by sophisms. This is the explanation of the unity of belief. A constant practice of the Church doubtless contributed also to maintain this happy communion of the faithful—every Penguin who thought differently from the others was immediately burned at the stake.”(108) In the real world, kings appointed bishops, the priest approved the rule of the ruling king by preaching hell and purgatory to dissidents, the pope calls the people to arms, labeling wars holy in an attempt to conscript the people, farmers and kings alike.

France’s thoughts on the development of the state and the establishment of regimes from the monarchy to the republic are highly intuitive. “Every system of government produces people who are dissatisfied.” (153) We have to remember that this was first published in 1908. His political insights carry incomparable probative value and relevance to our times.<b><i> “The life of a people is but a succession of miseries, crimes, and follies. This is true of the Penguin nation, as of all other nations.”(139)Thus, he moves on, even discussing capitalism, the necessity of war, and its profitability. “The number of wars necessarily increases with our productive activity. As soon as one of our industries fails to find a market for its products a war is necessary to open new outlets.”(150) The forethought France was armed when he wrote this is outstanding, in a time when capitalism has yet to meet the progenitor of its existing unrelenting critiques, the Great Depression in the 1930’s, and where America has yet to be seen as a perpetuator of capitalism and neo-colonialism, we could already read this  “Alca (penguin homeland) is becoming Americanised. Everywhere we are destroying all that is free, unexpected, measured, restrained, human, or traditional among the things that are left us.”(268)

It would seem that France subtly wrote that women controlled the world. “Since the coming of these nuns the innocence and peace of the monks are at an end." "I readily believe it," answered the blessed Mael. "For woman is a cleverly constructed snare by which we are taken even before we suspect the trap. Alas! the delightful attraction of these creatures is exerted with even greater force from a distance than when they are close at hand. The less they satisfy desire the more they inspire it.”(13)It is both interesting and curious to me. Whether I would place it as a genuine attempt of his at unraveling this interesting idea, which is no less real than it really is as of today, or an objectification of the female sexuality confounds me (Anatole France was himself a womanizer). “Woman attracts a civilized man in proportion as her feet make an angle with the ground. If this angle is as much as thirty-five degrees, the attraction becomes acute”.(269) I however am inclined to argue for the former. The Penguin Island is riddled with cunning decisive and witty women, the patron saint of Alca, the woman who saved them from an alleged dragon was a woman, a woman toppled a regime, a woman defined the minister of the republic which led to vicissitudes sought by socialists. This I guess would by necessity imply the exaltation men in this book curry to these women, to which they were led to ruin, sadness, manipulation and a relationship of convenience.

France is subtle but as vicious as can be. In all instances, when men of acclaimed holy stature are tempted, they are tempted unbeknownst to them by the devil himself clothe in holy robes. The act that sets this history in motion is of such kind, and many more instances can be read in the book. This to me may perhaps stand as a representation of the evils within the institutional church that haunted(haunts?) human history, or it could also be my fatal misreading of this novel.

Other Books by Anatole France:
Revolt of the Angels(4 Stars)

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Title: The Demolished Man
Author: Alfred Bester
Publisher: Millenium
Original Publication Date: March 1952
Pages: 250

“But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” (Hemingway, 1952)

The human spirit cannot be defeated, but it can be destroyed, in this case, the complete eradication of what you once were, the complete destruction of the psyche, the birth of The Demolished Man.

Awarded the first ever Hugo Awards in 1953,The Demolished Man is considered to have had an extensive impact to the genre that rippled through the ages especially in the cyberpunk generation. But 62 years after it first came out, reading it today felt worn-out and clichéd, I guess in the science fiction genre, it just got ‘old’.

An idea similarly grounded to that of Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, The Demolished Man operates in a world where crime is but a concept thanks to Espers, individuals who are capable of ESP, which of course involves reception of information not gained through the recognized physical senses but is sensed with the mind.

No murder, designated as a triple AAA felony, has been committed in over 70 years since the latent capacity for ESP emerged, until a fatal game of Sardine was played in the Beaumont Mansion. The prime suspect, Ben Reich, is the owner of the company, Monarch, second only to the D’Courtney Cartel to its lucrativeness. The victim, Craye D’Courtney, the namesake and owner of the most profitable cartel, had his head blown off by an unknown weapon. Enter Lincoln Power, a 1st class Esper and Prefect of the Police Psychotic Division who investigates the historic murder case which inevitably leads him to a collision course and hunting expedition for the world-shaker Ben Reich. Voila! You have The Demolished Man.

I am arguably compelled to label this as a mystery, police, and investigative novel rather than a sci-fi book. Really, the plot is all about the investigation of the murder, the search for evidence, and the incarceration of the criminal. This is a mystery novel done the science fiction way.  But that aspect was actually the fun enjoyable part of the book. The morally challenged banters, the deceptive maneuverings, and the cunning and shrewd exchanges between Reich and Powell were exhilarating.

Of course, the concept of intent versus positive act in crimes was included in this book, albeit it was not played out as well or as extensively as was done in The Minority Report.

What I failed to appreciate however was how Bester chose to lay down his world building and science fiction elements, his style.

For example, the explanation of the varying levels of Esper classification was carried out in a rough unrealistic fashion.

“First, the background, Mr. Reich: There are approximately one hundred thousand (100,000) 3rd Class Espers in the Esper Guild. An Esper 3 can peep the conscious level of a mind---can discover what a subject is thinking at the moment of thought. A 3rd is the lowest class of telepath. Most of Monarch's security positions are held by 3rds. We employ over five hundred...”  (15)

The instance above plays out when Reich turns to one of his employees, but the facts therein stated are not the things an owner/CEO does not know when he runs and owns a company that employ Espers. What happens here is that Bester directly laid down the ideas thread bare, without any effort at subtly building his world. This instance is repeated again when he tried to connive with one of his Esper employees to which in response he gets this;

“You don't understand. We're born in the Guild. We live with the Guild. We die in the Guild. We have the right to elect Guild officers, and that's all. The Guild runs our professional lives. It trains us, grades us, sets ethical standards, and sees that we stick to them. It protects us by protecting the layman, the same as medical associations. We have the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. It's called the Esper Pledge. God help any of us if we break it... as I judge you're suggesting I should.”(19) 

The point is, these are things that are not introduced through a normal conversation, they made certain characters stupid and seemingly oblivious to the operative facts of the world they were supposed to be living in.

Another aspect of Bester’s style that bothered me was how he transitioned between scenes in his story. They felt rough at times and I experienced this momentary feeling of displacement and surprise that I’m reading another unrelated scene.

It was okay (2.5 Stars), but I will not recommend it to people when they ask me about sci-fi books. Instead, why not read the Hyperion Cantos and have a science fiction experience of a lifetime. And please do forgive me for using Hemingway as attention step for this review. :)

This book form part of my HUGO AWARDS reading list.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Title: The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Publisher: Dutton Books
Original Publication Date: January 10, 2012
Pages: 318

This is a story of boy meets girl. 

The boy, Augustus Waters of Indianapolis, walked with a hobbling gait, a crooked and triumphant gait. This gait perhaps was a metaphor for particular triumph over osteosarcoma a year and a half ago that will lead us to a belief fraught with existential crises. The boy loved metaphors. A passion that perhaps sets this story in motion, for the girl might have been very a well a metaphor for a ghost. The girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster, loved only two things. The first, the fact that she has stayed true to the precarious belief that once she leaves this world, she will not have caused a scar; the second, the novel An Imperial Affliction and how she unceasingly yearns for a plausible denouement to its story. She did not know she will love a third time. Augustus meets Hazel in the heart of Jesus, cradling a cancer-support group peppered with stories of lost balls, encumbered by wars pre-destined to be lost, and haunted by lists populated by those who must be remembered as commanded by the ratio, 14:1.  He knew immediately that she’s his forever.

This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.*

It’s not 'just another' love story.

I have not read other fictional novels containing cancer, or ones whose characters are fighting cancer, except for those medical journals and publications I happen to randomly come across once in a while, which of course cannot be compared in its aspects. So I do not have any point of comparison whether John Green aspired and achieved differently what he sought to when he wrote The Fault in Our Stars. What I have read however is his three other books, and perhaps I have substantial grounding to compare it.

John Green's stories are formulaic. They follow an identical framework, one which John Green's fidelity in rendering his books under such distinguishable yet ubiquitous rubric is, arguably, second to none. Let me say now that The Fault in Our Stars has been shaped under the same rubric. It is, essentially, no different from his three other books, only now instead of depression, teen angst and dubious teenage know-it-all rebellion, we have cancer as the mechanism that sets this story in motion.

This was a tragedy fraught with an existential crisis. Why you ask? It's simple. I have believed that for tragedies to have those heart wrenching and tear jerkers, the characters have to slowly, or all at once, identify and connect with the reader. This is not saying that empathy is no less of a medium in such instances, but, as I have felt in Green's earlier works, it is hard to identify with his characters.

It is hard because they seemed to be unreal, and even raising the characters to a pedestal, accentuating them as heroic models seemed to have failed for me. I'm not saying they are unreal in the sense that the pain and suffering that Green wrote in his characters are unreal (that is the part that actually successfully came across to me). What seemed unreal to me is that, aside from the frivolous aspect of these teenagers randomly spouting words like existential, hamartia, and resonances in everyday conversation, for basketball free throws and fleeting shadows which just seemed a tad unrealistic, it was that they suffered from immanent character inconsistencies.

It is curious to me why a person bent on leaving the least mark and scars on this world would readily go out and commit on leaving another scar. Or that a person detesting leaving legacies would seem to act in way that is characterized by nothing but leaving one (but then again this was the actual point of the book, wasn't it?). Or even of the fact that a person who lost a leg to cancer, even if declared free from it for a year and a half, would not engage in regular check ups only to be struck down with a massive recurrence. I'm not knowledgeable on this, but it seems stupid considering the vicious stories of virility and incomparable propensity of cancer cells to relapse (the cancer in this instance was one of those instances that it was relegated as a mere plot device). Perhaps too much love of metaphors makes one forget of the real things that matter.

Reading this was unique. I somehow visualized it as having composed of two parts. The romantic YA part and the part of story tackling cancer. The foregoing discussion has pertained, not strictly but majorly to the YA parts, which I rated 2.5 Stars. The parts which 'really' talked about cancer, I gave another 2.5 stars. I made it this way because I too felt that Green managed to capture a fraction of the truth on cancer and its derivatives, on teens fighting it.

For example, this statement is no stranger to me:

“Any attempts to feign normal social interactions were just depressing because it was so glaringly obvious that everyone I spoke to for the rest of my life would feel awkward and self-conscious around me, except maybe kids like Jackie who just didn't know any better.”

In its actuality, this rating is a five out of 10 but I am not stingy enough not to give that real five-star rating as it has some considerable leg to stand on. If I were a teen and was rating this, I would have felt five would have been an understatement. This proposition stands on a two-fold premise.

Green's quotability is one. I may not have been ineffably impressed with his prose, but he sure wrote a book peppered with statements and phrases one could unceasingly quote. It occurs to me that there are many ways to romanticize this work, this is one. Perhaps this too is the reason I've been seeing an innumerable number of Facebook posts that previously I did not know originated from this book.

This for example fully delivers.

"I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."

Or this hidden gem here.

" occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again."

But the real strength of this book lies in its audacity to compel, or endear people to read it, which in turn has led to an immeasurable number of audience. From the individuals whom I've considered as intellectual forces to be reckoned within Goodreads and in personal circles, to those who are much like my sister where young teen giddy love is alive, not only have they found the time to read this book, they even took time to write reviews bearing their hearts out. Considering this in a global scale, I do not doubt that a lot of people came to appreciate reading, or perhaps had their first real reading experience with this book. That is something great. John Green made that happen. This book made it happen. Of course, this should, as it is, only be the footstep of what is to be a marvelous development in reading for individuals.

The general message is actually good. Let not sickness define you.

Withal, I further learned to never again underestimate the power of peer pressure, or one's sister's coercive and threatening gesture to force you to read something.

I hated Augustus' cigarette metaphor and strongly stand that it was pointless and dangerously equivocal of his intentions. I recognize that this is a desperate act for any semblance of control in answer to the recalcitrant cancer, but still, it failed for me.

*opening italicized lines lifted from 500 Days of Summer :)

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago

Title: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
Author: Jose Saramago
Publisher: Harvill Press
Original Publication Date: 1991
Pages: 341

Appreciation of this book dictates that you have to contend with two premises:

First: That Saramago's signature writing is characterized by sentences that are paragraphs long occasionally digressing from the thought of the sentence.

Second:That this book is about the humanization of Jesus Christ necessarily entailing innumerable repercussions to the orthodox belief of his 'socially' constructed divinity.

Of the two, I met with some negligible difficulty with former.

Saramago's writing is incomparably unique and beautiful at the same time. It is unique for his sentences are literally paragraphs long  lengthened by serial commas and seemingly unending semicolons. But Saramago's writing does not lack beauty. In fact even in his long winded sentences, there is fluidity in his labyrinthine like thoughts. It cannot be hardly expected that sentences as long as his comport themselves into solitary thoughts. This is hardly the case as his sentences sometimes tend to digress from the precedents he has laid down. I often find myself pausing irregularly, suddenly turning pages back, and rereading certain passages over again. But once you find the coherence in his thought and the connection between the phrases, one will find writing unlike any other.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is an incomparably fearless work. Works like these tend to create an unprecedented outcry from the religious community, as it did in this case, which however did not impede Saramago winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In most Christian orthodox beliefs, the arrangement of the written Word, what books to include and not, were contemplated over a time span of centuries and most were in pursuit of a certain desired conclusion, the rendering of Jesus Christ’s divinity. Also, Jesus formative years from 12 years of age to 30 are not recorded or written. This book is a fictional retelling of that life, including the years before his ministry.

This is an attempt on the humanization of the life of Jesus Christ. He is portrayed as flawed, easily angered, subjected to passions, desires and doubts; he is portrayed as <i><b>“human”</i></b>. As an extract, he wrote how Jesus fell in love with Magdalene, learning the warmth and passion of the loins and how through his ministry, she remained to be on her side, as an apostle no less.

The controversy over these kinds of themes and books has always been curious to me. The contention that lies on the alleged challenges to his divinity is misplaced and unnecessary. I guess people tend to forget the fact that Jesus was born of a human mother, but more importantly, he himself was both burdened and liberated by the human flesh. He was subject to pain, hunger, and passion naturally. We have here a perfect human model who was able to rise above the yoke of the world, but in failing to acknowledge that he himself was condemned to the very maladies we are subject to, we tend to be caught in a cyclic self-defeating belief. You see, faith in Jesus Christ should not be that he was faultless, kind, and magnanimous because he was divine. It should be anchored on the idea that he was human, like us, and that he saw kindness in the world, he gave compassion where none was asked, he made the right and honest decisions were conventionality dictated otherwise.

To consider the question of this book as an affront to the faithful is both hilarious and tautological. Faith is a funny thing. It is meant to be tested, to weather it from the storms of challenges, to keep resolute in times of trials and temptations, to be unyielding in the most pressing of times, there lies faith, not in the cradled bosoms of the fearful and the apprehensive.

For a similar book to enjoy, read  Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France (4 Stars)

This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Title: The 48 Laws of Power
Author: Robert Greene
Publisher: Viking Adult
Original Publication Date: September 1, 1998
Pages: 480

In the confines of my sociological classes, where my known companions were Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Mills, saying that I loved this book would perhaps even amount to an affront to the value I have assigned to it back then. 

When I entered law school and got oriented in the ways of the law, the cunning, ruthless, and decisive ways of the legal world, I appreciated this book. 

It was practical and in these present days it simply made sense. In a dog-eat-dog world, you had to arm yourself. This was the perfect weapon. But power can be achieved in a multitude of ways and Greene wrote this handbook in perspective of a certain limited spectrum. 

To avoid any definitional debate and to put this review's foundation on the right track, POWER as used in this book needs to be defined. I would mention Thomas Hobbes' working definition of power as derived from the Leviathan (4 STARS) as  “a man’s . . . present means, to obtain some future apparent good, which is divided into two kinds: (1) natural, derived from inborn abilities of the body and mind, including intellect, strength, wit, and artistic ability, and (2) instrumental, derived from the acquired faculties and advantages of friends, money, or reputation (1651),” but there is greater propensity to consider the definition written by Robert Dahl in his article: The Concept of Power (1957), (here's an online link to the article) stating that, "power is the ability of A to get B to do something he or she would otherwise not do. In the case of authority, B’s behavior is driven by obligation, not force, but the operative condition is the same: B does something he or she would otherwise not do because of A’s will."

The kind this book talks about is rooted in deception, it is sustained by cunning, and realized by manipulation. Yes, that is the kind of power this book seeks to achieve. So if dear reader, you seek such kind of power, continue on and revel in this book. The draconian, the Machiavellian, the power hungry, the deceiver, the cynic, now this one's for you. 

To which in the same sense I would caution the veracious and the pure souls in reading this. If you're one seeking the generous and the warm kind, I would go as far to suggest that you instead read the succeeding selections, for this book is effective like that, it can change someone. 

The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm (3 STARS)
A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis
A Lover's Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
Because love is a powerful force just like that. :)

The title says it all. This book contains 48 laws of power to which one chapter is adroitly dedicated to the discussion of each law. The chapters' form can be generally characterized through first a discussion of the law itself and a recommendation on how to apply and realize this law. Greene further indurates these discussions by providing the nuances in every law and countering the said nuances themselves. The foregoing discussion is followed either by an allegory or an anecdote lifted from the lives of people who have been notable in the fields of war, politics, and deception, a list which the likes of Talleyrand, Clausewitz, Bonaparte, and Bismarck populate. Green concludes the chapters by providing a summary of the discussion through an approximated equivalent imagery representation and a brief quotation from a notable individual to probably stand as an authority on the matter. 

The writing is simple and direct as it should be for books categorized under the self-help genre. The typesetting is interesting, it somehow adds to the appeal of this book. Every chapter contains stories separate from the allegories and anecdotes directly infused in the discussion of the law itself (personally, I give thanks to this book for introducing me to Clausewitz, Gracian, and several other authors and books). These references are pivotal if not indispensable as Greene derives the strength of his arguments and laws from historical figures. Of course, his statements, however overreaching and cynical at times, seem to resonate with a certain veracity when kings, emperors, warlords, and philosophers of incomparable renown are included in the picture. What is surprising though is that a number of his references come from Baltasar Gracian, a Jesuit. 

Coming across the numerous reviews of this book, the discussion and debate of whether this book is amoral or immoral, sometimes bordering what some people designate as 'evil' strikes me as discussion that can be easily resolved, if not clarified. You see, people are not simply engaging in a definitional debate here. The contention of what is good and evil is a value judgement dispute, something that has been in place even before the history of man was conceived. I say this in recognition of the dangers that cultural relativity presents. This right here is the dilemma, if everything is relative, can there exist a universal moral code operative not only over a single class or culture but for the entire race that would help us in qualifying the contents of this book? Kant and his Categorical Imperative would agree that it exists, but let us not stray to far from this review. 

The point of all this is that, if you think  selectively trusting your friends (Law #2), concealing your intentions (Law #3), taking credit for others work (Law #5)... is good, then you may as well validly and relatively argue that this is a "good, heaven-sent" book, and so too does the converse work and I will leave you at that.  

The truth however is that a fine line does exist between what is good and evil. True, it is a fine line, but it is not something that is indiscernible. The sad thing is that most people choose to turn a blind eye rather than being critical and responsive. People furthermore tend  to consciously complicate simple things resulting in the unduly blurring of the boundaries, leading to our own undoing.   

If it helps, here's what Robert Greene thinks of what you've just read; 
"Everyone assumes I practise all of my own laws but I don’t. I think anybody who did would be a horrible ugly person to be around." (The Telegraph, 2010)

For all that, this still occupies a special space on the permanent bookshelf on my reading table, along with Machiavelli, The Little Prince, my hard won thesis, my camera's manuals and my journal, cradled securely by my direwolf bookends. It remains to be special, certainly not as valuable as when I first read it, but still worthy of the place it occupies.

If your looking for an academic read on power, read Power: A Radical View by Steven Lukes (4 STARS), a book containing a number of articles by key contributors in the field like Hobbes, Foucault, and Dahl. It explores the conception, aspects, derivatives and several perspectives in viewing power.

Demon (The Gaea Trilogy #3) by John Varley

Title: Demon (The Gaea Trilogy #3)
Author: John Varley
Publisher: Berkley Books
Original Publication Date: 1984
Pages: 464

What if you could talk to god, and ask one thing? What would you ask of him or her?

John Varley played with this concept in this trilogy together with ideas of cultural variations, religion and psychological developments. It was exciting, novel and conspicuously distinctive from most science-fiction works of today.

The book was written in 1979, and in 1980, it was listed as the first official winner of the Locus Award in Science-Fiction. But considering that time frame, all the books in the series are an easy read and arguably a page turner. If I recall correctly, I labeled the books as currently reading months earlier but in actual time consumption, I finished all three in less than a week.

I liked how in Varley’s world building, he presented numerous interesting ideas on cultural development and religion. The idea of the self-sustaining alien environment is appealing and just like the mysteries carried in Rendezvous with Rama and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the idea of a more advance entity gracing us is riveting.

But what made me rate the books from the average three to a measly two is as conspicuous as the books’ appeal.

I did not like any of his characters. They were designed with weak foundations and even weaker developments. Simply put, they were not enthralling. In the later parts of the trilogy, I still failed to neither identify nor maintain a veritable connection with the crew.

The further reason is that Varley’s books can be abridged in two simple story arcs. The first is the discovery to the overthrow of the god and second the sex, yes you read that right, sex. Let me set this straight that outright, there is no fundamental issue between these two topics, the problem lies in the story itself. You see, when John Varley first presented Titan, the process of reproduction between the Aliens was nothing but interesting. I admit it was unique and well thought out. In the later parts of the trilogy however, when the process have been deconstructed and it has worn out its appeal and novelty,  the science and the beauty of the process was relegated to nothing but mere physical intercourse (including humans of course). So what happens is that the whole story is actually an intercourse (no pun intended) between these two pieces of the puzzle, something like this, sex-discovery-sex-plotting-sex-conspiring-sex-overthrow, so you see the problem, or is it a problem at all?

Would I recommend this trilogy? Perhaps not. I actually engaged in finishing the three books because I could not literally bear leaving something hanging, even if that means plodding through another two books.

As for me, if I could ask a god, I would, in his infinite capacity inquire, when George R.R. Martin would actually come around finishing his GoT series.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1) by Catherynne Valente

Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1)
Author:  Catherynne Valente
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Original Publication Date: May 10, 2011
Pages: 247

“Make it a rule never to give a child a book you would not read yourself.” 
― George Bernard Shaw

I love reading, and I want my future children, and my future children’s children to love it too. I cannot however, just as any form or object of love, force them to love it too, what I can do however is guide them in learning to love it, by helping them sort through the millions of books out there, directing them to the good ones, to the really really good ones. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making now occupies a special place in that future for my children. This goes to show that I too enjoyed this book. 

The book’s narration shifts back and forth from an omniscient narrator to the second person point of view. The usage of the technique is wonderful. It radiates the feeling that the book itself is telling you the story, an aspect that perhaps highlights the book’s age appropriateness as a children’s literature. The narration gives of a lively, vibrant and engaging narration. There are a lot of references to creatures of fantasy both familiar and unique to the book which is in keeping to its general plot. These creatures however are vividly portrayed in manner that will not give children the nightmares. I do not recall encountering big words, jargons, or technical definitions. The conversations were natural, crisp and direct. What sets this book apart from most children’s lit is the prose with which Valente wrote in. It is neither an exaggeration nor romanticism in play when I say that this is one of the most fluid and beautiful prose I’ve have read. The book cover and the drawings are adorable. The book’s entirety is simply riveting. 

As most children’s books go, this is no exception to its class in its distinctive features in respect of the substance and weight of its message, subtlety in delivery of that message and of course the conclusion, to which I am reminded again that it is us, adults who have suffered through a decadence of belief and imagination, who need dumbing downs in our daily serving of dreams, fantasy, and literature. Let me liberally quote statements from the book which adults know of as reality.

“And she definitely wanted to get somewhere, even if she didn’t know where somewhere was. (25)”

“But splendid things are often frightening. Sometimes, it’s the fright that makes them splendid at all. (39)”

And one of my personal favorites…
“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living.(56)”

“Of course not. No one is chosen. Not ever. Not in the real world. You chose to climb out of your window and ride on a Leopard. You chose to get a witch’s Spoon back and to make friends with a Wyvern. You chose to trade your shadow for a child’s life. You chose not to let the Marquess hurt your friend—you chose to smash her cages! You chose to face your own death, not to balk at a great sea to cross and no ship to cross it in. And twice now, you have chosen not to go home when you might have, if only you abandoned your friends. You are not the chosen one, September. (162)”

These are some of the messages in this book to which pales however to the message its entirety seeks to impart, that of loving, losing and letting go. Truly it is a masterpiece to deliver this kind of real life lessons in a medium such as children’s book and still convey it without loss of substance. I will be looking forward to the other books in this series with delight, designate a special place in my future children’s book shelves and definitely recommend it to someone looking for a delightful read.  

Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France

Title: The Revolt of the Angels
Author: Anatole France
Original Publication Date: 1914
Pages: 282

I read this book as part of my Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees reading list. As it turned out it is one the longest list I will ever try to finish. Sometimes I too wonder where I found the audacity to attempt to foray in this kind of reading list.

The Revolt of the Angels is my initial foray into Anatole France's works, which definitely is not my last one. It was not his first, as France was apparently a poet and a journalist too, but is considered to be his most profound novel. I was a sucker for riveting titles and killer first lines, so I picked this book and read. And read I did.

Anatole France, born 16 April 1844 and died 12 October 1924 was a French poet, journalist, and novelist. His was a lifetime of books. The family business was a bookstore, one which, arguably, could be the best environment to raise a future Nobel Prize awardee. He was schooled in a private Catholic institution which lends credulity to the fact that Anatole France was one hell of a radical as exacerbated by his writings. The rest, as one would say, is history. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. Shortly, in 1922, as a response by the institution we all know as the Roman Catholic Church, all his works were banned through the Prohibited Books Index, a list which has been abolished since 1966 and contained the likes of Sartre, Rousseau, Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Galileo to name a few. Oh what a delight that list was.

The book itself was written in 1914, a time when France was besieged by the incoming Germanic invasion brought around by the First World War and was troubled at home by the numerous Socialist objections. What dominated this part of French history however was the power struggle between the Church and the State, one that is contained in this exceptional book and which probably served as the backbone for this exceptional work. Overly simplifying this dialectical issue, the struggle existed because the Church is seen to be representing the archaic system of institution embodied by the Monarchy against the desire of the Republicans who utterly detested political and class affiliations that are perpetuated by these monarchies. So from here, Anatole France wrote.

I obtained my FREE e-book copy through Project Gutenberg and was translated from the original French by Frederic Chapman. Apparently, licenses on century old books do not exist. As expected of a work in the early 1900s, a lot old English words and words derived from both Latin and French were used like architrave, frieze, verbena, narcissi, demiurge, though let that not deter you from missing on this work. The prose is beautiful as expected from an Nobel Awardee.

Revolt of the Angels tells us of the story of Arcade, a Guardian Angel, the lowest caste of the nine-tiered order of these heavenly beings. It narrates his pursuit of knowledge and how such knowledge led to become the foundation with which he challenge GOD, or as he called it, the DEMIURGE – the creator of the material world – or Ialdabaoth. Yes, this is the same GOD most Christian churches would profess belief to.  The book further tells us how he conspired with other ‘fallen’ guardian angels and plotted the overthrow of Ialdabaoth. Intertwined with Arcade’s story is Maurice’s plight of losing his guardian angel, his dishonor and fornication (to which a certain extent Anatole France himself engaged in).  The novel’s theme perhaps lies in the age-old philosophical conundrum of knowledge (or science) pitted against religion. Perhaps this conundrum is epitomized by Arcade’s statement:

“When the angels possess some notions of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and physiology; when the study of matter shows them worlds in an atom, and an atom in the myriads of planets; when they see themselves lost between these two infinities; when they weigh and measure the stars, analyse their composition, and calculate their orbits, they will recognize that these monsters work in obedience to forces which no intelligence can define, or that each star has its particular divinity, or indigenous god; and they will realize that the gods of Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, and Sirius are greater than Ialdabaoth.” (39)

What comes across to me however is that we human individuals are like Arcade, like these Angels in revolt. We seek the truth behind things. We learn, and learn and still crave for knowledge. But to where does this knowledge lead us? To me too at the same time we are Maurice. Just like him we all seem to have fallen into a trap. We love life itself so much that we fear losing it, that in any semblance of hope or continuity, we have sometimes turned to belief in numerous institutions, uncritical and naïve. That instead of uplifting the human soul, we have formed for ourselves unbreakable shackles that continue to limit our perception of the world.

"I sought out the laws which govern nature, solid or ethereal, and after much pondering I perceived that the Universe had not been formed as its pretended Creator would have us believe; I knew that all that exists, exists of itself and not by the caprice of Iahveh; that the world is itself its own creator and the spirit its own God. Henceforth I despised Iahveh for his imposture, and I hated him because he showed himself to be opposed to all that I found desirable and good: liberty, curiosity, doubt.” (139)

But what does exactly limit our perception? Is it really a religion, a church, a system of belief? Is it not fear and ignorance that severely limits human understanding and compassion, so much so that in the first place, no actual conflict exists between these forces? Is knowledge really the answer? What does this knowledge refer to?

In the closing part of the book, when the Army has been assembled and Arcade went to ask Satan to lead the army on their march, Satan said this in response:

“As to ourselves, celestial spirits, sublime demons, we have destroyed Ialdabaoth, our Tyrant, if in ourselves we have destroyed Ignorance and Fear." “…We were conquered because we failed to understand that Victory is a Spirit, and that it is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth.” (292)

The beauty of this statement lies in its verisimilitude.  Our demons are given birth by ignorance. It is nurtured by fear and is encouraged by blind obedience. These demons have always been personal in nature. Yet the discrepancy in societal response has become fundamental in nature.  We have raised countless institutions that are impersonal and by being so, wholly unresponsive. And more vital to all of this, we fail to recognize “that it is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth (292).” 

I have left the institutional church long ago, embarking on a more personal attempt in understanding things. In a sense, I have aspired to be spiritual without being religious, and have met a great many debates and contest on this aspect. Since then however, I have struggled to conquer my own demons. I have sought to eradicate cynicism and suspicion in receiving and responding to others, and have tried to look for that piece of kindness in everybody. The first step is always recognizing that perhaps the fault lies in ourselves, for this too is the hardest step to make.

This here is a good book. It may literally challenge fundamental beliefs of the religious institution, but what it truly offers is a much needed case of retrospection and examination which doesn't hurt to engage in once in a while.  I would recommend it to everyone except that one should still take caution choosing whom you recommend it too. Perhaps if you enjoyed this book like me, a similar theme albeit carried in another plot was written by Jose Saramago, yet another Nobel Prize awardee, entitled The Gospel According to Jesus Christ(3 STARS).