A Horse Walks Into a Bar: Winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

by Cygne Sauvage

Since last year, the Man Booker International Prize has been awarded to a single book. Prior to this, it was a biennial prize bestowed to a collection of work either originally in English or translated to this language.

So, this is now included in my reading list, that is, if ever I will find a copy in any of the remaining mediocre bookstores present only in the metropolis. I have attempted to order books online, but this feat presented a bigger headache for me. Anyway, I have vowed not to spend precious moments on whining about the inefficiencies of the systems in my land of birth. Instead, I promised to devote my time to promoting the sustenance of the intellect and the education of those who still have the willingness to embrace novel wisdom, regardless of age.

I  collect winners of the Man Booker International and Man Booker Prize as well as other awards given to works of fiction for the reason that I regard the citations as benchmark for a book’s quality. I discovered that this is not so, although I claim my judgment to be just my own.  Man Booker prize winners that I have read, so far,  and did not disappoint are The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, Amsterdam by Ian McEwan and  The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. I started the Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst last Christmastime hibernation, a regular escape mechanism from the materialism of the season, but I put it down after Chapter 4.  Since then, I haven’t had the inspiration yet to pick it up.  I had been longing to read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, but I am still searching for my copy from the irresponsible borrower.

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Reading as a dangerous feat

by Cygne Sauvage

During the 18th and 19th centuries reading a book, particularly in bed, was considered not only a dangerous feat but a depravity.  In the context of that time when tools for illumination comprised of burning candles, a voracious reader who could not control the urge to finish a novel and thus would bring it to the bedroom  was deemed to be courting death.  Many, generally the elite and the erudite for they were the ones who could afford and have the enthusiasm as well as access to volumes of reading materials,  met their ends in the privacy of their sleeping quarters, a circumstance that turned trendy in those periods of time when reading a story was considered a communal activity.  Because of the prevalence of this deemed undesirable practice it had come to be equated by the religious authority to an immoral act and defiance of the Supreme Being.  A lighted piece of tallow when abandoned as the absorbed reader  unconsciously fell asleep could turn an entire house, in fact a whole estate, aflame with the tragic consequence of loss of lives. Thus, aficionados of the written works were then warned to shed off the vicious vice and were directed to spend, instead, the darkness in prayer.

Discussed in the article in The Atlantic: “ Writings from the 18th and 19th centuries frequently dramatize the potentially horrifying consequences of reading in bed. Hannah Robertson’s 1791 memoir, Tale of Truth as well as of Sorrow, offers one example. It is a dramatic story of downward mobility, hinging on the unfortunate bedtime activities of a Norwegian visitor, who falls asleep with a book. Even the famous and the dead could be censured for engaging in the practice. In 1778, a posthumous biography chastised the late Samuel Johnson for his bad bedside reading habits, characterizing the British writer as an insolent child. A biography of Jonathan Swift alleged that the satirist and cleric nearly burned down the Castle of Dublin—and tried to conceal the incident with a bribe.”  Continue reading here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/05/reading-in-bed/527388/

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Painting by Marc Romyjos

More than two centuries later, books have evolved from printed form to digitized version, compressed in gadgets along with gazillion data. The electronic gizmo has become the indispensable companion of its owner who brings it not only in the private bedroom but anywhere including the lavatory, dining table and even in the steering wheel. Reading has become everybody’s favorite pastime, taking in facts as fiction and worse fake news as truth. The difference between reality and fantasy has become so blurred, ruining lives and relationships from the microcosm of the society to the grander schemes of political leadership and world’s corporate bigwigs.  Massive disinformation has made life more perilous.

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Good looks absolve Mr. Grey of crime

by Cygne Sauvage

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The world is still very much fascinated with a feudal relationship between genders. Except that the glorification of the “lord-victim” set-up is justified only when the masculine side of the relationship exudes power, pelf and good looks, with the last qualification the most essential as evidenced by the tremendous gross sales of the series on Mr. Grey.

The truth is I had not gone beyond the third page of the first installment, Fifty Shades of Grey. Its prose just did not appeal to my literary palate, especially that I had just devoured the absorbing book of John Le Carre’s latest edition, The Pigeon Tunnel.  On the other hand, I had digested all the reviews from respectable and reputable publications about this book series that tackles a sadomasochistic tryst hatched from the imagination of EL James. The write-ups all point to the main ingredients from where emanates the titillation of the fans, particularly the female sector which comprised the big bulk of readership: the male protagonist must be affluent, dashing, oversexed and oozing with beastly tendencies for violent pleasures, while the feminine partner must be virginal, submissive, innocent, delicate and most importantly, young and comely. Otherwise, the spell cast on the readers, especially among the thirty-something and above dames either enduring illusory relationships  or pining for blissful matrimony, will be non-existent. Accuse me not of sweeping judgment. All of my female contemporaries who belong to the age group just mentioned as well as the personal predicament described are ardent fans of the series though many of them are in state of denial, for reasons I cannot fathom. It is as if by having read the series one had committed a graver misdemeanor than the male lead character.

Charm coupled with opulence absolves a psychologically deranged bachelor from his crime of seducing a weak girl and inflicting physical harm, albeit the supposed victim does not fend off her partner’s twisted temperament.

Mr. Grey is not even an original personality in the  world of literature, if we can consider EL James’ volumes in this erudite class. He is not as interesting and suave as Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester and definitely far from the ingenuous imaginative evil of Marquis de Sade, the aristocratic debonair who captured the literary kingdom and left a legacy through his name as the term for such deviant psyche. Unlike Mr. Grey who is mere panache, the Marquis was the equivalent of a geek in his time being a writer, a poet and an artist.  Accordingly, the Marquis’s works influenced the succeeding centuries’ impressionist artists such as Monet and Degas. Two hundred years after,  his erotic writings still  generate shocking ripples. The Economist, in fact dubbed him as “The Original Mr. Grey” (Read here http://www.economist.com/news/21589093-marquis-de-sade-still-shocks-200-years-later-original-mr-grey)

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Hurray for real books

by Cygne Sauvage

STORK

As a book lover, I appreciate not only the content but the aesthetic design of the cover, the lovely array of colors that result from aligning them in shelves. Our family’s library, in fact, is the only vibrant section in the decrepit structure we call home. Not that the books are neatly compiled, something quite impossible in a household of geeks and bookworms who snatch an edition as often as they grab edible materials from the refrigerator, and don’t have the frame of mind to return it to its former place. So, the volumes seem to have evolved lives of their own, taking spaces that suit them, spinning off to a beautiful topsy-turvy setting.

According to this article in The Guardian “Real books have trumped ebooks. The digital revolution was expected to kill traditional publishing. But print books are ever more beautifully designed and lovingly cherished.”

Continue reading here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/14/how-real-books-trumped-ebooks-publishing-revival

 

 

 

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After peaking into what seems to be a profound mystery, it ends in ‘nothing’

by Cygne Sauvage

 

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Discussions of wars always evoke horror.   Novels dealing with this genre tell of heroic tales, more often romanticized, distorted and unequivocal,  of either who’s perceived as the aggressor or oppressed, depending from what points of view the stories emanate from, or the author’s ideological position.

The Sympathizer, a successful first attempt of the author Viet Than Nguyen in the sense that it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, differs from what is considered a typical narrative of war exploits of the protagonist.  In fact,  Nguyen does not brand his lead character, who remains the unknown storyteller bearing only the title of the Captain relating his predilection to another unnamed superior he alludes to as the Commandant,  as a paragon of a good soldier.  The narrator’s exposition of events displays more, not subtly, his compunction, weaknesses and guilt, as if wanting to clarify his deeds, cleanse his soul of culpability. His actions which he succinctly owns up to all, he explains, may be irrational in  periods sans armed conflict,   but very pragmatic and  acceptable in otherwise situations.

The tragedy in this entire tale, set in the then South Vietnam and partly in the neighboring countries of the Philippines and Thailand,  is not the series of macabre mutilation of live bodies nor of the number of lives cold-bloodedly halted by trigger happy lunatics, but the absurdity of war dictated by supreme hunger for power. The lowly fighters are in the armed struggle not out of love for one’s country but because they have no choice. Either that or escape to what could be a more hellish predicament.  Everybody just wants to survive, his/her reason for involvement does not go beyond,  toward a much greater or nobler reason.

The Captain‘s  circumstances that lead to his involvement in the war demonstrates a case in point. He is driven by his personal attachment to people engaged in the larger arena of combat. He risks his life to save his friend.  Such passionate attitude and attachment originates from  acquiring that sense of belongingness for the first time when these pals saved him from school bullies. Outside of this incident, the Captain has always considered himself as an outcast. As a love child of a French priest with a young Vietnamese lass, he is neither deemed as a denizen of the country where he was born, nor looked up to by his father’s compatriots as somebody among them.

But then, like himself, everyone is an outsider, that is, to the ongoing war as metaphorically exhibited in  the movie, which has the semblance to “Apocalypse Now,” where he was sent on a mission.  The locals are afforded mere cameo roles. His purpose to manipulate the director for more substantial characterization and participation for the Vietnamese is not accomplished, though earned him a huge compensation.

The novel’s erudite prose is a very delightful read, though at times, unnecessarily high falutin, on the verge of being grandiose. The first three chapters engender excitement and curiosity for what is thought as ostensibly mysterious plot.  The reader’s mood is dampened by the succeeding sections, as the narrator’s character turns jaded, the subsequent events shallow.

Despite this, reading through this novel is not a waste of time.

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Should books smell like café latte?

by Cygne Sauvage

At the start of summer vacation for public schools in the country where I am based, I was pressured to accede to a family friend’s request to accommodate her daughter as a student trainee.  The 17-year old lass is on her way to the final year of senior high school in the succeeding term.  Her mother boasted that her third female offspring is knowledgeable in computer where she spends most of her time.

Interviewing the student-trainee  reveals her  deficiency in communicating both in verbal and written form.  When asked what book she has read during the last year, apart from what they were required in their homework,  she proudly responded that she is into The Diary of the Wimpy Kid. I told her that that’s way below her education level, and unashamedly she said that she enjoyed it because of the simple words and the pictures, an easy read.   When I queried what books they were required to read in school, she groped for an answer, and then suddenly remembered that their readings were those posted by their teachers on their tablets, which every student is required to own one.

This millennial girl could be the typical student, not the exception. Despite the advancement in communications technology, these young peoples’ capability to correspond or exchange ideas has been hampered by the pre-designed repartees facilitated by electronics and social media. In everything, from how to respond in situations to expressing one’s feelings, a certain emoticon is ready to be pressed to match it. Words are lost, real emotions uncaptured, remains repressed.

The gift of communications is honed by diligent reading. Social media has likewise summarized everything in pictures. Electronic books pose no attraction as they’re just a bunch of words.

There must be an effective way of motivating young people to read books. Libraries and bookstores must present alluring atmospheres that would draw them like ants to a drop of honey. Should we make books smell like café latte’ since millennials crowd coffee houses? Incidentally, an article in Popular Science says that “old books actually smell like chocolate and coffee.” Read it here:  http://www.popsci.com/old-book-smell#page-3

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“Bibliomania”

“Bibliomania, the Dark Desire For Books That Infected Europe in the 1800s.”

“Book lovers and collectors feared becoming a victim of the pseudo-illness.”

While not a real psychological illness, book collectors and bibliophiles described “bibliomania” as a medical condition.”.  Read here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/bibliomania-the-dark-desire-for-books-that-infected-europe-in-the-1800s

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