Thursday, April 3, 2014

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, #1)

by Hilary Mantel

If I were to rate the readability of Wolf Hall from a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the tear-your-hair-out, scratch-your-head-in-frustration kind of difficult, then I’d give it a 6. Flat out.

My first attempt to read this was in January 2013. I got as far as a handful of chapters before I got utterly exasperated with the writing style – mainly, with Mantel’s penchant for pronouns, causing difficulties in identifying the actual person being referred to. Half the time, I didn’t know who was speaking, when reading a conversation – imagine my headache when three or more characters are involved in a dialogue. So I set the book aside and thought, perhaps I wasn’t ready.

I set to read it again last December, but again, I wasn’t successful. I didn’t think I cracked it open anyway; there were just too many books demanding for my attention. So: second attempt, another failure.

But I really, really wanted to read it, having won the Man Booker in 2009 and because it’s historical fiction – the setting of the novel is 16th century Tudor England, and I have a certain fondness for historical fiction. I don’t know a lot about that era as much as the next person, and I didn’t think Tudor history expertise was indispensable anyway. So I took the chance of asking people from the book club if anyone would be interested in reading it with me (what we call over there as “buddy reading”), just so I would have a specific pace to follow and someone to share thoughts with, whenever I would hit a bump in my reading. Fortunately, some friends were up to the challenge, and so I finally got to finish reading Wolf Hall.


Anyone who knows the basics of Tudor History would be able to easily pick up the storyline of Wolf Hall. The characters are the same people who have created an intriguing English history during that era: Henry VIII, the king famous for his many wives and under whose reign the ties between Catholic England and Rome were severed; Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who suffered terribly in the hands of her husband; Anne Boleyn, the most famous and ambitious concubine I have ever read about, and Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer primarily but quietly responsible for the Protestantism of England – and for many other things that were to shape England’s future.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Required Reading 2014: April

It's 35 degrees outside as I type this, and boy, what I wouldn’t give for a tall glass of ice-cold mango shake right about now. Summer is definitely here – hello, April!

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But I’m not complaining. The other day I was thinking, is it just me or did March really take much too long? It felt like the days and weeks dragged by (taking me along with it), and so even with this debilitating heat, I felt glad when April rolled around. Brand new month for reading!

Here are the books I finished reading last month:

  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr – TFG’s book of the month. The first mystery I’ve read in a while. 4/5.
  • The King In Yellow* by Robert W. Chambers – Referenced by HBO’s True Detective. Weird fiction. 3/5.

I’m still reading The Tudors by G.J. Meyer, which is okay because it’s non-fiction, and I’m in no hurry to finish it.

And finally, for this month’s reading list:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

by Yiyun Li

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li is one of the books that I was dared to read this year, courtesy of the book club's I Dare You To Read year-ender/welcome activity last January. A short backgrounder: participants to the activity were asked to name one Best Read and one Worst Read for 2013 (if they could bring their print copies or share digital copies of the books, that would be even better), and then everyone gets to pick one title each from the collated Best Reads and Worst Reads lists, which he/she will be "dared" to read within the year. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers is the book I picked from the Best Reads list, which my good friend Benny cited as one of the best books he’s read for 2013. Knowing his penchant for remarkable literary works, I'm glad I picked it, even if I had no idea what the book was all about.

It's the first time I've heard of both author and book, so I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t a book I would pick up on my own volition or give a second glance sans recommendations, taking a chance that I won’t be wasting my time or money. Thanks to the book club's activity (and Benny, of course!), I was given a chance to acquaint myself with this exceptionally talented author whose roots are from China. And what better way to get to know Yiyun Li than through this collection of short fiction, each one full of heart and nostalgia and raw emotions, they're just too good?


There are 10 stories in this collection, all of them about Chinese people – both in their native China and in the United States, as immigrants. All of the stories are replete with Chinese culture, tradition, myths, and history, and all are so poignantly told that it felt like silently communing with the characters. They reminded me of the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, who wrote about immigrant Indians in the United States and whose award-winning short fiction are guaranteed to tear at your heartstrings.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The History of Love

by Nicole Krauss

There were more or less 20 pages left in my reading of this book last December when I realized something: I have a certain tolerance when it comes to sad books and sad endings, so much so that when that threshold is breached, I get turned off. Of course, the value of the book would not be lost on me, but I would most probably let off a cynical remark in the course of my reading. “Oh, the poor soul, nothing seems to be going right.” “Oh, poor thing, it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong in this world has gone wrong for you, here’s a knife, just kill yourself and be done with it.” Things like that. I have read a lot of sad books, don't get me wrong, but there is nothing that beats The History of Love. Every word reeks of sadness, I got drowned in it.

Leo Gursky is a Polish immigrant who escaped his native country during the Holocaust. He is now living out his last days in New York, spending his twilight years dreaming about (1) the book that he wrote when he was younger – a book called The History of Love – thinking it was lost but not knowing that it was actually published; (2) his lady love Alma Meminger, for whom he wrote it and who is long dead; and (3) his child Isaac, now also a renowned writer. Day in, day out, Leo gets out of bed in a struggle, lives the day, and retires at its end, not knowing if tomorrow will usher in a new one for him, or if he will breathe his last while asleep.

Meanwhile, teenage girl Alma Singer – the namesake of Leo’s one true love – who believes her mother is still overcome by grief over the loss of her father, devises ways on how to remedy the situation. As her mother at the time was translating a work – a book called The History of Love – upon the instance of a gentleman whom she thinks might make a good match for her mother, she takes it upon herself to discover his identity.

Eventually, the lives of Leo and Alma converge at some point, and what transpires is sure to rip your heart apart.


The story moved me to near-tears, I will grant it that. Stories of lost loves will always do that to you. But what stayed with me after reading this book isn’t the lost love between Leo and Alma – yes, it still affected me some – but I was more heartbroken with the father-son non-relationship between Leo and Isaac, and how this non-relationship wrapped up. If I had to choose, that would be, for me, the ultimate tragedy among the many tragedies in this book.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Required Reading 2014: March

February couldn't have flown fast enough if I wanted it to - I was too busy with the online discussion and in the preparation for the offline discussion of the book club's book of the month, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver. And while it is always fun to be discussion moderator for my favorite bunch of bookish people, I can’t say that I didn’t feel just a teeny weeny bit relieved when it was done.

Apart from Carver’s book, which I had to reread for the discussion, I was able to finally (!) finish Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is long overdue anyway. The lone title I picked for my February reading list, The Tudors by G.J. Meyer, will be carried over to this month, as I am still reading it and currently at page 154 (23%) of the book. This is going to be another long haul, the book having 600+ pages. Another tome, I know, after Wolf Hall, but I need to follow up on this Tudor history obsession. Besides, it isn’t often that I actually pick up non-fiction, so I need to get this obsession out of my system.

On to March!

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I picked only two books for this month’s reading list:

  •  A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li – From the I Dare You To Read activity over at the book club, I was dared by my good friend Benny to read this. This collection of short stories is one of his best reads for 2013, and I picked it because I figured I could use one short story or two whenever I feel saturated by the royal intrigues and such. Also, I figured I could get started on the Dare, too.
  •  The Alienist by Caleb Carr – The book club’s book of the month. My sister Maria is discussion moderator, and the theme is psychological thriller.

I know I probably overshot this month’s reading list again but that’s okay. Why rush, right? :)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Club Discussion Mod, Take Two

Last weekend was my second time to be moderator for my book club's monthly online-and-offline book discussion. The first time I moderated a discussion was in November 2012 for Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, supposedly with horror as theme. This time, the theme for this month's discussion is short stories, and the book club chose Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories.

The other contenders for book of the month were Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies (moderator's choice), Junot Diaz's Drown, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. Carver's most popular collection of short stories won in both the online and offline polls, and while it wasn't my personal choice, later on I actually felt thankful that it did win -- the stories, being highly subjective and open to interpretation, were a rich source for a stimulating discussion.

The face-to-face (or what we have coined as "F2F") discussion was held at Cafe Adriatico, Remedios Circle, Malate, Manila (when I'm F2F moderator, the choice of Manila as venue is a given) and was a well-attended affair -- I had counted 24 people, excluding myself, to be there based on the event RSVP and sign-ups for the activity that I prepared, but 27 people showed up! To be honest, I was worried that the area I reserved for our purpose might not hold our number, but thankfully, it did. But it was a huge challenge to be on top of the discussion when there are so many people wanting to talk all at the same time. We did create quite a racket that day, much to the obvious annoyance of the waitstaff.

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