Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India Black (Carol K Carr)

Told through the no-nonsense and irreverent (almost anachronistic, though I'm no history expert) tone of its protagonist, India Black spins a tale of espionage and mystery set in Victorian England. The eponymous Miss Black runs Lotus House, a brothel that caters to gentlemen, mostly minor aristocracy, military officers, and high-ranking civil servants. Little does she know that the death of one of their regulars will embroil her in politics, state secrets, and matters of national security.

The key to enjoying this book is enjoying India's perspective. If you don't find yourself taking to her tone, then I'm afraid there will be little else to like about this one. It does not offer much in the puzzle solving area; the book is too straightforward to be classified as a true mystery. A good part of it merely follows India and fellow agent French as they trail behind the antagonists. Still, I enjoyed India and her interactions with French (no romantic overtones here yet, as a caveat to readers looking for some) that I bought the second book right away.

As a fan of historical mysteries, I've always read about how members of the ton would solve a few cases here and there, or capture the occasional spy. As a brothel madame and a former prostitute herself, India won't be seen in grand ballrooms or taking leisurely strolls with a chaperone. It was this markedly different perspective that encouraged me to give India Black a closer look. I found her an engaging figure. Her friends, especially Vincent, were equally interesting. There are plenty of moments here where I laughed out loud both because of India's wry observations or their occasionally comic, even bumbling, attempts to capture their quarry.

Where India Black was a spy thriller, India Black and the Widow of Windsor tries harder to introduce more mystery elements. Whether these attempts are successful is a matter of subjective opinion, but for the most part I was satisfied. That, and I was becoming more and more intrigued by India and French's back stories, which were both conspicuously absent in the first book.

Queen Victoria heads to Scotland for the holidays, but word has reached the Prime Minister's office that in Balmoral nests a plot to take her life. Prime Minister Disraeli dispatches India and French to go undercover and suss out the would-be assassins: French upstairs with the rest of the titled guests and India below stairs among the staff and help. Ms Carr steps up her game with Widow of Windsor. The seeds of romance have been sown. The mystery element, though not hard to figure out, is a welcome addition. Also included are brief hints into India's past as well as French's current situation. As a reader, I was appreciative of these gestures to enrich the series both plot-wise and character-wise.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of Ms Carr's books. Fans of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series or Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey series might enjoy picking up some India Black for an unapologetic protagonist and some memorable escapades.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Gourmet (Muriel Barbery)

Hungry to remember the most delicious meal he's tasted, a dying food critic trawls through his memories in Muriel Barbery's The Gourmet. In Pierre Arthens, Ms Barbery brings to life the passion, arrogance, and harshness of a talented mind, told not only through the protagonist's recollections, but also through the thoughts of those around him -- wife, mistress, son, nephew, doctor, servant, beggar, cat.

The Gourmet is a book for the senses. It meticulously recreates details meant to entice the reader, bring her closer to Arthens' world. Taste is a given, of course, since Arthens recounts his favorite meals for that singular moving flavor, but that does not mean that the other senses are abandoned. Consider scent:

'...rub the leaves between my fingers: slightly acid, sufficiently tart with a vinegary insolence... (p420)'

Or touch:

'A sensual dust tinged the pinky copper of the crustaceans with an exotic gold: the Orient, reinvented (p58).'

When Ms Barbery describes (this edition is translated from the French by Alison Anderson), she does not scrimp; she infuses the each page of Arthens' memories with incredible detail. Whether she's talking about bread or whiskey or mayonnaise, the language cannot be faulted.

But what richness and fondness Arthens has about food is certainly missing in his relationships with his family. Told in alternating chapters are the perspectives of the people closest to him, each showing vignettes of the food critic as they knew him. It paints a clearer picture of the dying man, how loved he was or how reviled, depending on whose perspective you take. Here resides anger, loss, and regret.

In the end, when Arthens finally remembers his most delicious meal, you realize that the novel isn't just about the significance of food. It's also about the events that shape our character and the things that we value -- and how these define the life we've lived. The Gourmet is exotic, pleasurable, intense.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Secret Lives of Dresses (Erin McKean)

Old-world charm enters the life of a young college undergraduate when she reacquaints herself with her grandmother's boutique of vintage dresses. Dora, who is majoring in "vagueness studies" (read: Liberal Arts), is called home from her final months in college when Mimi suffers a stroke. As a gesture to the grandmother who raised her and hoarded dresses for Dora that she never wore, Dora keeps the boutique open. Erin McKean's The Secret Lives of Dresses is a light-hearted romance despite being situated in the middle of a family tragedy -- a good choice for a reader looking for something fluffy to enjoy over the weekend.

The novel is permeated with a genuine love for vintage dresses, evident in the way each is thoroughly described. Most of the dresses in Dora's grandmother's shop have 'secret lives' -- short stories written specifically for that dress, told from the dress' point of view. It's an interesting addition to a chick lit novel, with the obvious difference in tone between the narration and these vignettes making the entire reading experience not just quirkier but also richer.

Nothing came as a surprise to me but it didn't keep me from enjoying the rest of the book. Con, the romantic lead is solid and likeable, though one-dimensional. The other characters are fleshed out better, but I think the author has a certain attachment to some characters (like Gary) that's more than necessary. Fleshing out minor characters isn't bad but when it doesn't tell the reader anything new or significant, then it would be better to keep it at a minimum. Since I mentioned Gary earlier, I'll keep at it: we already get what he's supposed to be. All the extra chapters further detailing his relationship with Dora just seems superfluous. It's not as if Dora is pining for him incessantly now that they're apart so I don't understand why he needs to be constantly mentioned throughout the novel, as if he stands any real chance to get the girl.

There are also other moments when the novel's flow isn't as seamless as it could be. Most note-worthy is when it alternates between the hospital and the boutique because there just seems this huge emotional divide between the family drama (which bordered on Lifetime movie variety) and the charming vintage store moments. Still, The Secret Lives of Dresses is a lovely crossover between the coming-of-age novel and a romance. It hits the right spots. It's idyllic and sentimental in parts, and I think those are enough for to let any romance fan keep on reading.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: Philosophy and the Poet

Our bookworm for February is Noelle Leslie dela Cruz, a published poet and an Associate Professor in Philosophy at De La Salle University, who shares her work at Blue Moon Huntress. When she's not in the classroom, Leslie also helps maintain the Buy Your Own Coffee Book Club, which was begun by one of her colleagues and some philosophy majors. "Somewhere along the way, perhaps largely because we aggressively promoted it in Facebook, we generated some interest outside our school," Leslie explains. "So far we’ve already discussed Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Dante’s Inferno, Exupery’s The Little Prince, and Murakami’s new book, 1Q84." They usually meet once a month at a different coffee shop in the Metro Manila area.

1. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
I'd say, in no particular order: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. All of these, in one way or another, address love, mortality/morality, and the nature of reality. I'm really partial to novels that are written lyrically, have more levels than you realize, and are ostensibly about human existence. I'd say these books are "existentialist," without the baggage of philosophical jargon. The mere act of reading them changes you as a person.

2. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
The authors I mentioned in number one are of course among my favorites. Others are Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami. A recent discovery is David Ebershoff, whose book The 19th Wife (which about Mormonism) I'm currently reading.

I'm a romance reader as well, but not as much as the last decade. If there's a romance writer I still read, it's Madeline Hunter, who writes excellent medievals and regencies.

3. What are you looking forward to reading in 2012?
I'm perpetually trying to catch up on my huge to-be-read pile, so I'm trying not to go gaga over new titles. I want to be able to read some notable titles I had missed out on. For 2012, it's my goal to read Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Atonement by Ian McEwan. If there's time, I also want to read Kafka on the Shore by Murakami, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff.

Leslie considers highlighting memorable lines as her way of personalizing her books. 'I don't feel like I've read them unless I've written on them,' she says. Photo by her friend Arch.

4. Take us through some of your reading habits.
I wish I could say I had the discipline to read only one book at a time. I think I used to do that when I was younger, when many authors were new discoveries for me. (I usually stick to one when I'm devouring an author's backlist.) But now, especially after I got a Kindle, the sheer number of good books out there necessitated a change in reading strategy. But though I'm usually in the midst of reading several books, I usually read only one book per genre (e.g. literary fiction, romance, nonfiction, history, or poetry). It helps that most of what I read are in my Kindle, where I have a special "Currently reading" folder.

5. What's it like to be in a book club?
Participating in a book club is a delight. It forces me to read interesting works I probably wouldn’t have read on my own. It’s also nice to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise met had it not been for our shared interest in reading. My only frustration though is that you can’t always count on committed attendees. Usually it’s just my colleague and me and a handful of our students who attend regularly, sometimes not even the students. I blame it on the hectic schedule we have at DLSU, as well as the existence of other media that have supplanted reading. Low participation can be very disappointing especially if you’ve enthusiastically read a book and are raring to discuss it, only to find that only two or three other people would actually show up!

6. I don't know anything about Philosophy. Can you recommend some titles that would help me along?
All the great books, I think, already address philosophical issues, even though they may not overtly be about philosophy. But if you’re looking for the latter type, Alain de Botton is a prolific popularizer of the discipline (check out The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he features the life and ideas of six important thinkers). Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, an epistolary novel about philosophy, remains a good introduction, as is Who Needs Philosophy by Ayn Rand. The book that first got me interested in philosophy is From Socrates to Sartre by T.Z. Lavine, which I read in high school. It was Lavine’s exposition of the Cartesian meditations that got me hooked.

If you’re looking for authors who are highly philosophical, or who address philosophical issues, check out the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Haruki Murakami.

7. How does having a philosophical mindset help you appreciate works of literature? Do you think it's a form of literary criticism?
I think one need not necessarily be in the discipline of philosophy to approach books philosophically. If you’re inquisitive by nature, ponder on the great questions (e.g. Why are we here? What is real? Is there life after death? Does God exist? etc.), or tend to be a critical thinker, then chances are you philosophize along with—or through—books.

As for literary criticism, I’m more of the formalist school so I tend to be suspicious of suspicious ways of reading. I’m referring to all the -isms that reduce the work of art into a simplistic gender, race, or class paradigm. Approaching books philosophically, on the other hand, is less criticism, I think, than conceptual experimentation. You enter the imagined world of the book and consider the questions it asks about any and all aspects of human life.

Leslie also believes that the best thing about reading is "being able to expand your world without leaving your chair. This expansion includes 'traveling' to other places, meeting new people (fictional or real), and dialoguing with people both living and dead. You know, reading is a way of life. I can’t imagine what my consciousness would be like if for example I had not read Thoreau, or Conan Doyle, or Murakami. I believe that familiarity with literature is a prerequisite for wisdom. Good books teach us how to relate with others, how to see what is normally hidden, and even how to be moral! Reading is one of the compensations of being human, and one of the things that fortify us to continue being one."