Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky/ Kent Williams)

It all started when Nick called for help in choosing his next purchase among the graphic novels before him. I asked him what his options were. At the mention of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, I totally tuned out the rest. In the end, Nick bought me a copy of my own, and it was the first birthday present I received this year.

Thing is, I've been meaning to watch the film when I first heard the story. How Mr. Aronofsky first cast Brad Pitt to star in this surreal, multi-dimensional quest to save a life, and how he had to subsequently pack up when the star walked away from the project. I missed the screening when it was released in Manila, and up until now, I still haven't gotten around to seeing it.

Thank goodness for the graphic novel, though. I found Kent Williams' art a fitting complement to Mr. Aronofsky's tale(s?). Isabella, Queen of Spain, sends her captain Tomas to the mystic land of Chetumal for the Tree of Life, in defiance of the Church. Their story, fact or fiction, is the subject of present-day Izzi Creo's novel. Izzi is dying of cancer while her research scientist husband Tommy slices open monkeys to find a cure. Does she die? Ask Tommy who, in the far future, is floating through space with the Tree of Life. In a bubble. Towards a star about to go supernova. All throughout this interweaving of lives, Mr. Williams' art does an admirable job of keeping up. It turns striking and bloody as the conquistadores duke it out with the Church and the Mayans, sparse and monochromatic during Izzi's battle with cancer, soft and lush when Tommy turns Zen in space.

But The Fountain survives more on the mood it envokes rather than the clarity of its narrative, which is hardly the point anyway. Visually and emotionally, it is multi-layered and ambitious, yet it communicates on a very personal level. Tommy's struggle with Izzi's sickness, in particular, impresses upon the reader a moment of pure heartbreak: a missing ring. At the heart of The Fountain is the survival of love: the strength to face death and embrace life in spite of it. 'Welcome the pain,' it exhorts, but without any cynicism or bitterness or emo-artiste-pathos.

Personally, there is much to celebrate today, and the graphic novel only serves to drive the point further home. So laugh. Cry. Live. Die. Rejoice. It leaves behind a message of hope which is perhaps, in the end, the nicest present of all. Have a nice life, you.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)

Why did it take me years to find Eva Ibbotson? After spending an afternoon with her A Countess Below Stairs (also known as The Secret Countess), I was determined to find more of her books. Powerbooks carries her children's books, but of her adult titles, I could only find A Song for Summer, and I'm not really in the mood for a World War II novel.

What was it with A Countess Below Stairs that drew me to the story? The premise is a fairy-tale. Young Anna Grazinsky escapes the revolution that destroys her pampered life in Russia and finds herself in the employ of the soon-to-be-married Earl of Westerholme. Please. We know how this will end, right? But Ms. Ibbotson draws a very charming heroine in Anna, all grace and smiles and never-say-die attitude. While one may complain about the flatness of her characters (the good guys are unerringly good, the bad guys are comically bad, and there are really no surprises here), they somehow seem fresh under Ms. Ibbotson's pen. Muriel Hardwicke, the ambitious woman to whom young Rupert is engaged, is obsessed with eugenics and makes for a fine caricature of one both deplorable and hilarious. Ollie Byrne, the Westerholme's crippled neighbor, is simply adorable whether she's bursting with laughter or sulking in her room. Proom, the kind yet rigid butler, is as enterprising as he is observant, the hidden knight with shining cutlery. And Ms. Ibbotson even throws in a dog.

Countess is a feel-good romance, a historical fairy-tale, plain and simple. A romance fan won't be able to keep from smiling throughout the read. It's no Gosford Park, but readers will get a feel of the class system at work at the Westerholmes' as well as its surrounding households. It's no Pride and Prejudice, but it creates a satisfying romance amid the social commentary. The novel is infused with Anna's innocence and good nature, that somehow it's enough to leave you thinking that all is right with the world.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Love. Precocious evolutionary move, fashioning Cylons to be capable of experiencing it. I don't know if it was engineered as a tactical imperative,'s not for the faint-hearted, is it? Perhaps Cylon love is not the same as human love. Perhaps it's designed to hurt a little less. - Romo Lampkin, Battlestar Galactica

Let's be Cylons together.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)

Less than twelve hours in Singapore and already I needed a distraction from what could have been (or could not) the most important interview of my life, unless I count Judgement Day. Armed with a map, an umbrella, and a phone I couldn't use, I braved the rains to look for my favorite bookstores.

It seemed I wasn't the only one negotiating through unknown territory that day. At Borders, I picked up China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, where friends Zanna and Deeba find themselves in a strange version of their own home. While UnLondon immediately brings images of Neil Gaiman's London Below to mind, the new-world-as-seen-by-a-young-protagonist reminds me more of Clive Barker's Abarat. But let's set aside the comparisons. In fact, that's what Un Lun Dun is all about: the breaking of preconceptions and stereotypes.

The city's Chosen One isn't the Chosen One. The prophecies are useless. The amazing quest that one would expect young heroes from other dimensions would undergo doesn't happen the way you'd picture it. In this regard, Un Lun Dun does a remarkable job to break one's notion of how a quest myth should turn out. At one point, I wanted to reason with the protagonist, "But that's not how it works!" before realizing how brainwashed I've been by the fundamental structure of quests. Still, Joseph Campbell's monomyth holds true: hero enters a new world and is called to a quest, hero faces trials, hero reaches resolution, hero returns. (Or at least, that's the theory in a nutshell.) And that, of course, is what happens here. In a nutshell.

It took me a while before I could get used to the chapter breaks. Forgive me, Mr. Mieville, but the term I will use now is 'sputtering' because reading the first few chapters reminded me of my first time behind the wheel. The car moved a meter or so, and then stopped. Another meter, and then stopped. While I have never gotten the hang of driving, I was thankfully able to adjust to Un Lun Dun's flow.

The commonality of myths is often addressed in fiction, but it's refreshing to see it in a work primarily addressed to children. Un Lun Dun isn't just for fans of Mr. Mieville, who will appreciate his change of pace (and perhaps, like me, try to find my own UnGun); it's also for anyone who's looking for a fun (and maybe read-aloud) adventure with umbrellas and milk cartons, but one that still leaves the reader with something to think about as he closes the book.