Monday, February 8, 2010

silver phoenix: beyond the kingdom of xia, by cindy pon.

I know very little about fantasy -- I mean, I know what it means and what stories/novels would be considered fantasy -- but if you were to ask me, "What is the archetype of fantasy literature?" or "What classic fantasy tropes do you think have been written well?" or even "What fantasy novel do you think is the most telling of its genre?", well, I'd look at you like you grew three heads in the course of a few seconds. So really, I know nothing in the most direct sense about fantasy novels.

But this is one of the best fantasy books I've read of all time. OF ALL TIME.

It's set in ancient China, complete with the folklore and customs and culture, with a female protagonist who runs away from home to go find her father. The trope in of itself has been done before, but there is such originality that Pon brings, like the language and prose-- simple and lilting, that makes me feel like I'm there with Ai Ling. One of my favorite things that I love about her, though, is her resoluteness and true acts of bravery. When she met up with the sea dragon, I seriously got shivers because of 1) my love for dragons who aim to protect humans, and 2) everything was peaceful and full of light and everything felt right.

Oh, some of my favorite things is all the bits with Ai Ling and Chen Yong. Their bond! It is seriously so impressive to see how they changed and evolved, how Ai Ling grew up along the journey, with Chen Yong watching. This part made me SAD:

"It was a mistake to ask you to accompany me to Master Tan's. We should go our separate ways." He spoke without looking at her.

The numbness remained. Good. She willed her features to stay composed.

"Get her a room." Chen Yong threw two gold coins on the bamboo counter. They clinked and rolled in opposite directions before the barkeep's large palms stopped them both.

"Oh. She'll get the best in the house at that price," the barkeep said, grinning widely at them.

"I don't need your alms," Ai Ling said, her heart thudding in her ears.

Chen Yong turned without saying another word. He shoved the dark blue cloth aside and vanished.

Sometimes the way they look at each other makes me ♥_♥ at my page. Mostly, I'm fascinated by Chen Yong and his journey. I love how Pon never divulges much, only what the reader needs to know -- I guess to remain as mysterious as possible? Or possibly so she can explore in her sequel -- but the way he makes Ai Ling woozy and feel, makes me so happy--

Ai Ling's legs quivered at the thought of climbing a mountain, no matter how small. Chen Yong rolled up the parchment and met her gaze. The skin under his eyes was dark, as if faintly smudged with soot. Weariness from travel had sharpened his features, making his amber eyes deeper set, his jaw line and cheekbones more defined. She blinked and half turned, embarrassed, when she realized she was staring.

--the way she easily forgives when he smiles or stands near her. The farewell at the carriage at the end! So much pining! Ugh, them.


This might be my favorite passage out of the book, though--

Chen Yong retrieved the bundle and sat down next to the fire, removing a thin folded parchment with careful hands. The page was yellowed, the black calligraphy visible from the underside as he held it to the light.

Ai Ling watched as he folded each letter after reading it and opened another with gentle fingers. Li Rong sat up, scratching his head. He opened his mouth to speak, saw the expression on Chen Yong's face, and lay back down again.

So it went until the mist dissipated and sunlight shone through the bamboo leaves above them. Chen Yong sat hunched near the flames, his broad shoulders folded forward, in a posture of reverent prayer. He was oblivious to everything by the words written by a father he never knew. Ai Ling's gaze did not stray from his face. Faint lines creased between his dark brows at certain moments, crinkled around his eyes when he narrowed them as he read.

Finally he folded the last letter and tied the blue ribbon around the bundle once more. Having stayed silent longer than she would have believed was possible, Li Rong spoke. "What did the letters tell, old brother?"

But Chen Yong didn't reply and wiped the tears from his face.


But really, if I'm going to leave you with anything, it'd be this--

"Eating like this reminds me of our journey," Chen Yong said.

"I come here often with a snack. I think about it a lot."

"And by snack, do you mean two sweet buns, a thick slab of bread, and lots of dried pork?" He laughed before she could retort. But the sound of it lifted her own spirit, and she chuckled despite herself.

"I usually just have a fruit myself," he said.

Ai Ling tossed a persimmon into his lap. "I'm sorry if you don't know how to eat properly."

He threw his head back and laughed again. She tried to capture the moment like a sketch within her mind, the feeling of his shoulder pressed against hers, the warmth of the autumn sun on their faces.

harry potter and the chamber of secrets, by j.k. rowling

Remember when I said that the best part about this series was the worldbuilding? Clearly I have not met the Weasleys in depth. They are so charming and hilarious and adorable, with their flame-hued hair and sharp, witty sense of humor! Ron! Ginny! Fred! George! Mr. Weasley! Even Percy, who is adorable by acting weird when he's finally dating a girl he really likes (god, boys are so fucking weird ♥).

I think it first started here, where I was CHARMED OFF MY FEET and didn't know what to do because I was beaming my face off:

"Harry?" said Mr. Weasley blankly. "Harry who?"

He looked around, saw Harry, and jumped.

"Good lord, is it Harry Potter? Very pleased to meet you, Ron's told us so much about--"

"Your sons flew that car to Harry's house and back last night!" shouted Mrs. Weasley. "What have you got to say about that, eh?"

"Did you really?" said Mr. Weasley eagerly. "Did it go all right? I-- I mean," he faltered as sparks flew from Mrs. Weasley's eyes, "that-- that was very wrong, boys -- very wrong indeed..."

"Let's leave them to it," Ron muttered to Harry as Mrs. Weasley swelled like a bullfrog.

And I love the fact that Ron is always blushing, cheeks or ears going pink--

"It's a bit small," said Ron quickly. "Not like that room you had with the Muggles. And I'm right underneath the ghoul in the attic; he's always banging on the pipes and groaning..."

But Harry, grinning widely, said, "This is the best house I've ever been in."

Ron's ears went pink.

♥_♥ CAN I PINCH HIS CHEEKS? UGH, HIS LITTLE FACE. And Mr. Weasley's love for all Muggle-related things -- "But you're Muggles!" said Mr. Weasley delightedly. "We must have a drink! What's that you've got there? Oh, you're changing Muggle money. Molly, look!" He pointed excitedly at the ten-pound notes in Mr. Granger's hand. -- and Mrs. Weasley's exasperation at her entire family, how she's so annoyed, yet so fond. I love them! If I don't get more Weasley family interaction, I will be massively disappointed, to be honest. Don't let me down, Rowling!

Besides that, Hermione is still a nerdy, adorable thing--

Ron shook his head, wide-eyed. Hermione, however, clapped a hand to her forehead.

"Harry -- I think I've just understood something! I've got to go to the library!"

And she sprinted away, up the stairs.

"What does she understand?" said Harry distractedly, still looking around to tell where the voice had come from.

"Loads more than I do," said Ron, shaking his head.

"But why's she got to go to the library?"

"Because that's what Hermione does," said Ron, shrugging. "When in doubt, go to the library."

As for Harry, hmm, I don't really have an opinion of him either way. I thought it would change in the second book, but it hasn't. I don't hate him, but I don't particularly love him, either. Sometimes he can be annoying and makes me roll my eyes, and other times I'm kind of fascinated about what the kid is even thinking because he's really smart. He's kind of average to me, a wash. I'm much more interested in Ron and Hermione's relationship with each other and how much they will support and defend Harry till the end than Harry himself. I don't know if this will change, but I'm interested to see how Rowling develops his character as the books roll along.

Oh! Ahahaha, okay. I could tell Gilderoy Lockhart was a fake during the first press thing they had in the bookstore in Diagon Alley. What a doofus! Oh, but did he bring the lolz. The pixies!

Monday, February 1, 2010

GLBT Reading Challenge 2010

Signing up for this challenge, as well, mostly like the Rainbow Level. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to read -- probably feel around as I go, which I think works best with me, anyway -- but I'm really excited for this. We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

franny and zooey, j. d. salinger

I had to take time to digest this book. I'm not sure why, or if I actually finished digesting it properly, but it felt kind of intense to me, this weird coming-of-age story that made no sense, yet all the sense in the world. I got introduced to the Glass family, and they are truly odd and weird and interesting. Mrs. Glass reminds me of my own mom -- her intrusiveness and her stubbornness and her inability to pay close attention while still paying close attention.

The weirdest, and maybe best, thing about this book, I think, is actually Franny and Zooey. We're introduced to Franny and well, she's strange. She waxes poetic philosophy about the world around her being unoriginal and lacking creativity and beauty. It's the weirdest thing (and it's kind of eerie how Zooey does the same thing, only with more cynicism), and when she breaks down in the bathroom after breaking out in cold sweats--

Abruptly, then, and very quickly, she went into the farthest and most anonymous-looking of the seven or eight enclosures -- which, by luck, didn't require a coin for entrance -- closed the door behind her, and, with some little difficulty, manipulated the bolt to a locked position. Without any apparent regard to the suchness of her environment, she sat down. She brought her knees together very firmly, as if to make herself a smaller, more compact unit. Then she placed her hands, vertically, over her eyes and pressed the heels hard, as though to paralyze the optic nerve and drown all images into a voidlike black. Her extended fingers, though trembling, or because they were trembling, looked oddly graceful and pretty. She held that tense, almost fetal position for a suspensory moment -- then broke down. She cried for fully five minutes.

--that was the most painful part, and even after the initial reading, it still hurts, it's still this breathing thing because that little intense bit is still physically painful and yet, so lovely, because I can imagine this girl, tucked away in a restaurant bathroom, pressing herself together and crying until she couldn't, or until she's forced to pull herself together. (Mostly it just reminds myself of me, and when I was in similar positions one too many times.)

It kind of picks up after that, without so much depressing excerpts (although, it dipped off some more), and came back with one of the coolest and most striking scenes I've read in a book (because I love the visceral feel to it, the grit, the depression, the attention to details, the only backstory you'll ever really need to get inside his head): Zooey emerged in his bathtub, fingers pimpled after spending so long in the water, reading his letter from Buddy while a cigarette sits in between his fingers. That image will probably stick with me for a while yet.

(I didn't have any particular feelings about the letter, to be honest, except for this part:

I was standing at the meat counter, waiting for some rib lamb chops to be cut. A young mother and her little girl were waiting around, too. The little girl was about four, and, to pass the time, she leaned her back against the glass showcase and stared up at my unshaven face. I told her she was about the prettiest little girl I'd seen all day. Which made sense to her; she nodded. I said I'd bet she had a lot of boy friends. I got the same nod again. I asked her how many boy friends she had. She held up two fingers. "Two!" I said. "That's a lot of boy friends. What are their names, sweetheart?" Said she, in a piercing voice, "Bobby and Dorothy." I grabbed my lamb chops and ran.

In his head, Buddy probably heard Zooey and Franny instead.)

There's so many little things that someone can write a paper on (Like a trufax literary paper explaining the juxtaposition of coming one with yourself and coming one with God, or what's the importance of all the little details, like describing what's in each rooms or what's with all the cigarette smoking anyways?, or even the similarities between the aforementioned scene with Buddy and the little girl and Zooey watching the other little girl underneath his window, playing with her dog) and I don't want to get into that -- or maybe I kind of do -- because there are so many things I have yet to really understand, like hmm, what was Salinger even trying to say. (I think I got it, but maybe I don't, and with books, as long as you take something from it, there really is no point to be taken.)

But this, this was beautiful--

Franny now lay sleeping on her side, facing into the back of the couch and the wall, her chin just grazing one of the several toss pillows all around her. Her mouth was closed, but only just. Her right hand, however, on the coverlet, was not merely closed but shut tight; the fingers were clenched, the thumb tucked in -- it was as though, at twenty, she had checked back into the mute, fisty defenses of the nursery. And here at the couch, it should be mentioned, the sun, for all its ungraciousness to the rest of the room, was behaving beautifully. It shone full on Franny's hair, which was jet-black and very prettily cut, and had been washed three times in as many days. Sunshine, in fact, bathed the entire afghan, and the play of warm, brilliant light in the pale-blue wool was in itself well worth beholding.

--and the phone call between them at the end made me realize what it truly means to be at peace with oneself and with the people you've loved and lost. (To say that this family, particularly Franny and Zooey, weren't taking the death of their brother Seymour pretty hard would be a lie, and I think that's the root of her breakdown and the bitterness in his heart.) So when Franny smiled at the end -- For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling. -- it made me feel good that she felt good.

I don't know if I particularly love this book -- I love so many parts of it, though -- but I definitely don't hate it. I'd like to read it again, to get into their heads one more time and better understand the mechanics of their thinking. And then maybe read about the Glass family some more.

the no. 1 ladies' detective agency, by alexander mccall smith.

This book had a very unique storytelling presence that I quite enjoyed. (A good friend sent it to me back in August, and I have finally sat down and read it. I feel really bad since it wasn't her book to begin with. Uh, I at least didn't damage it? :D?) When Precious talked about Africa, it reminded me of Haiti, the way she described the land and her feelings toward it. It made me stop and think, about what Haiti means to me, about the people and the culture. It was blunt in a way that made the narrative's affirmations clear, and I liked that. For example, this passage--

But why would I want to go to Zululand? Why should I ever want anything but to live in Botswana, and to marry a Tswana girl? I said to him that Zululand sounded fine, but that every man has a map in his heart of his own country and that the heart will never allow you for forget this map. I told him that in Botswana we did not have the green hills that he had in his place, nor the sea, but we had the Kalahari and land that stretched farther than one could imagine. I told him that if man is born in a dry place, then although he may dream of rain, he does not want too much, and that he will not mind the sun that beats down and down. So I never went with him to Zululand and I never saw the sea, ever. But that has not made me unhappy, not once.

(The entire chapter surrounding Obed's -- Precious' father -- history and life was kind of interesting to read. It's like listening to your grandfather's tale of yonder, his endless stories of how he got here, the pain and suffering he went through, and that small beacon of hope that got him through it and how He Made It, basically. My own parents have a ton of those stories.)

I also really loved how this book asserted women, for the most part. Of course, most Africans have a different culture than ours and women are still seen to have a distinct role in society, but it was really awesome to see people, especially Precious, breaking those boundaries and going into territory specifically designed for men.

I really liked this proverb--

"We are the ones who first ploughed the earth when Mother (God) made it," ran an old Setswana poem. "We were the ones who made the food. We are the ones who look after the men when they are little boys, when they are young men, and when they are old and about to die. We are always there. But we are just women, and nobody sees us."

--because it's something that's happening even today, and I think people forget just how important and vital women are sometimes, doing "thankless" jobs and the such.

Besides that, it's a kind of awesome book where Precious Ramotswe is a lady detective, the first of her kind, and sells her late father's cattle to buy a house and a business and becomes quite successful despite some people's discomfort at her being in that sort of position. Oh, I loved how she kept bringing up Agatha Christie every time someone was like, "But that makes no sense! You are a woman!" Like this--

"Women are the ones who know what's going on," she said quietly. "They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?"

The lawyer looked taken aback. "Agatha Christie? Of course I know her. Yes, that is true. A woman sees more than a man sees. That is well-known."

"So," said Mma Ramotswe, "when people see a sign saying NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY, what will they think? They'll think those ladies will know what's going on. They're the ones."

The lawyer stroked his chin. "Maybe."

"Yes," said Mma Ramotswe. "Maybe." Adding, "Your zip, Rra. I think you may not have noticed..."

SHE'S SO SASSY! I love it. And the whole story with Nandira was the the sweetest thing. She found her real Jack after all! I can't wait to read the rest of the books from this series, just to see if Precious gets her own happily ever after.

harry potter and the sorcerer's stone, by j.k. rowling

Okay, let's get this out of the way: I've never read the Harry Potter books in my life. I know, I know. I'm trying to correct this great grievance! It's never too late!

The best part of books, for me, isn't the characters -- which is actually a major, major plus because I can't read an entire novel about an irredeemable asshole --, but instead the worldbuilding and setup for the universe. And this one was awesome. She made up a sport for it! That is so neat.

Ron Weasley might be my favorite. He's terribly adorable and endearing and so cute. I just wanted to hug him! And he made me laugh sometimes! I kind of saw myself lol projecting on Harry some at the beginning when he was at the Dursley's (so predictable, self!) because it was kind of horrible how they were treating him, and I found Harry's general obliviousness kind of charming. Hermione is so sassy; she's such a nerd, but she saves them, and they make such a kickass little team.

I loved this part--

Ron, at the next table, wasn't having much luck.

"Wingardium Leviosa!" he shouted, waving his long arms like a windmill.

"You're saying it wrong," Harry heard Hermione snap. "It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the 'gar' nice and long."

"You do it, then, if you're so clever," Ron snarled.

Hermione rolled up the sleeves of her gown, flicked her wand, and said, "Wingardium Leviosa!"

Their feather rose off the desk and hovered about four feet above their heads.

"Oh, well done!" cried Professor Flitwich, clapping. "Everyone see here, Miss Granger's done it!"

Ron was in a very bad mood by the end of the class.

Ron was UPSET and then he MADE HER CRY and then--

But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can't share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

THEY SAVE HER FROM A TROLL. THAT IS SO ADORABLE, OH MY GOD. *_____* (Am I supposed to be shipping Ron/Hermione? Because I totally ship it.) I'm so excited to read the rest, yessss.

interpreter of maladies, by jhumpa lahiri.

The best part about this book, and there are many best parts, is the simple and clear language that Lahiri writes her stories, a story that tells one thing, but it can be translated into so many other little things because it's just so sharp. I love that all of her themes in the stories are about love, friendships, and relationships with people you love -- or are supposed to love -- or just people you meet.

This made my heart ache--

But the more I tried to distract myself, the more I began to convince myself that Mr. Pirzada's family was in all likelihood dead. Eventually I took a square of white chocolate out of the box, and unwrapped it, and then I did something I had never done before. I put the chocolate in my mouth, letting it soften until the last possible moment, and then as I chewed it slowly, I prayed that Mr. Pirzada's family was safe and sound. I had never prayed for anything before, had never been taught or told to, but I decided, given the circumstances, that it was something I should do. That night when I went to the bathroom I only pretended to brush my teeth, for I feared that I would somehow rinse the prayer out as well. I wet the bursh and rearranged the rube of paste to prevent my parents from asking questions, and fell asleep with sugar on my tongue.

--because it's such a child thing to do, to pray with chocolate, but just the nature of it is so clear-cut and real.

"Sexy" left me unsettled, left me feeling too much -- if that was possible -- because there were way too many people getting hurt, way too much unsettled emotions being spoken and unspoken. "A Real Durwan" made me terribly sad because all I can think about is how the residents of the apartment building cast out Boori Ma when she did nothing wrong, an old lady just trying to do her duties as she sees fit.

"The Third And Final Continent" though, was the perfect way to end the book, left on the hopeful tale that things can actually work out in the end.

I love how it went from this--

For five nights we shared a bed. Each of those nights, after applying cold cream and braiding her hair, which she tied up at the end with a black cotton string, she turned from me and wept; she missed her parents. Although I would be leaving the country in a few days, custom dictated that she was now a part of my household, and for the next six weeks she was to live with my brother and his wife, cooking, cleaning, serving tea and sweets to guest. I did nothing to console her.

--to this--

"She is a perfect lady!"

Now it was I who laughed. I did so quietly, and Mrs. Croft did not hear me. But Mala heard, and, for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled.

--and ended the book with this--

In my son's eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world. In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected. But I remind myself that he has a father who is still living, a mother who is happy and strong. Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.