Joie de Vivre! (Two from Susie Morgenstern)


I’d never heard of Susie Morgenstern before I picked up a hardbound copy of  A Book of Coupons (#109 for 2009) from the Book Sale bargain bin. It was P15, in pristine condition, and I initially thought it was one of those booklets that had tear-out coupons for little good deeds that you could give out to friends and family members.

When I got home, I realized it was a chapter book and read it in one sitting. A few weeks later, I found a copy of Susie Morgenstern’s Secret Letters from 0 to 10 (#110 for 2009) for P10 at a roving book sale and I ended up reading it in one sitting too!

Reading the back flap of one of the books, I found out that Susie Morgenstern is one of the most popular children’s  book writers in France, with over forty books for children. Interestingly, while she writes primarily in French, she is an American who moved to the south of France over thirty years ago! Her recent books, however, have been translated in English, so now more readers have been enjoying her books.

Continue reading “Joie de Vivre! (Two from Susie Morgenstern)”

Reading in TagLish

The fourth book I read during the 24-hour read-a-thon is Para Kay B by Filipino scriptwriter Ricky Lee (book 63 of 2009, book 11 of diversity challenge- FFP book discussion selection), the assigned reading for April for my book club Flips Flipping Pages, which will hold the discussion tomorrow (which prevents me from attending Dianne’s graduation party, but I’m really looking forward to the discussion).

Even before this book was chosen for discussion, I was meaning to get a copy because all the storefronts of National Book Store (to my international readers, NBS is the biggest book store chain in the Philippines) had a poster of the book and I was really intrigued by the full title, which reads: Para Kay B (O, kung paano dinedevastate ng pag-ibig ang 4 out of 5 sa atin) which roughly translated is: For B (Or how love devastates 4 out of 5 of us).

The novel, written in TagLish, a combination of Tagalog (a dialect which is the basis for the national language Filipino) and English, is comprised of five different love stories: a) Irene and Jordan (who made a childhood promise to marry her and then disappeared from her life); b) Sandra and Lupe (who happens to be her brother); c) Erica (who is from the love-less island of Maldiaga) and Jake (the son of the woman who takes Erica under her wing); d) the widow Ester and her maid Sara; and e) the voluptuous Bessie and the young, naive Lucas. The stories appear to be unrelated until the last few chapters, which reveal the link that binds them all.

Filipino was one of my better subjects in school (even in college when Filipino class was quite difficult), but reading this was harder for me than I anticipated because I haven’t read anything with this much Tagalog in a long time. To my non-Filipino readers, Tagalog (and Filipino) and the rest of the local dialects in the Philippines are read phonetically (sounded out syllable per syllable), as opposed to English, where words can be recognized on sight.

The second part I had difficulty with is the structure of the novel — no quotation marks. Quotes are mostly narrative, although there are some dialogues that read as a script. I have always had trouble reading novels that are straight narration (or with little dialogue) because I get bored, and when my concentration slips the text tends to meld together in my mind and I get lost reading. Perhaps it’s his background as a scriptwriter, or an intention to defy the conventional structure of the novel, but it took awhile before I got used to it.

During the readathon, the infernal heat was also driving me crazy so I had to haul my patootie to the McDonalds a few blocks away so I could concentrate.

The voice was also an acquired taste for me. When I read, I usually hear the narrator’s voice in my head (which I used to think was strange, but my Flipper friends tell me they do it too), and I hear a different pacing of the words for every book, and the voice and accent vary with the narrator (yes, Harry Potter in a British accent). I found Para Kay B too talkative, like the narrator was trying to get out so many words all at once, and I sensed a shrillness to it that grated on my nerves at some points in the book.

I liked the statistics proposed by the title, hahaha, because so far I’ve always been in the 4 out of 5 (loooooong story, and never mind) and I think a lot of people will agree with the statistic. In his end note, Ricky Lee states how (paraphrased) he wants to be read by everyone — the people riding the mrt, those watching over loved ones at the hospital, parents putting their kids to sleep — and not just his fellow writers or literature students. Love (or the absence of love) is a universal theme that most anyone can relate to, and Lee’s use of TagLish makes it more accessible to the average Filipino.

*Spoiler alert: do not read beyond this point if you plan on reading the book. Am writing about the resolution because a lot of my readers probably won’t get to read the book, seeing as it’s written in TagLish. I was contemplating writing this entry in TagLish like some of my Flipper friends but checking my stats, I found that only 41% of my readership is located in the Philippines, and I didn’t want to deprive them from reading this entry*

I did perk up later in the book when one of the characters (not Ricky Lee) turns out to be the writer of the five stories mentioned above. The stories are not resolved in their respective chapters, and are left hanging because of the writer’s (the character who is the writer, and not Ricky Lee) belief that 4 out of 5 love stories do not get a happy ending.

As the writer looks over his first draft, the 5 female characters suddenly appear in front of him, and they are disgruntled about the lack of resolution in their stories. They question his integrity and skill as a writer, fight among themselves, and even present the writer with a demand letter because they don’t want to be part of the 4 out of 5 statistic.

The character-talking-to-author ruse is a popular for stories about authors or illustrators, but I still found this to be the most enjoyable part of the novel because it was so funny in TagLish.

Finally, the writer issues his own demands — that the characters not pop up from out of the blue, that he write the story that he wants to tell, that he has the right to edit or revise as he chooses, and that the final say is his.

But he does change his mind about the story, and revises his draft to a conclusion that would satisfy both himself and his characters. He also realizes the difference between writing and real life, (paraphrased) how the writer has the power to change everything even after he’s written the story down — the bad changed to good and the tragic ending made happy — while in real life, that’s it, no revisions (I like this passage a lot).

Towards the end of the novel, he brushes off his theory on love, stating that theories are for insecure people, but he backtracks, posing the question, who isn’t insecure when they’re in love?

Edit at 11:24 pm: Am clarifying why I like this last part (more than the rest of the novel) after reading Gege’s review because I realized I didn’t elaborate on this aspect to the story.

My reading of the novel is that it’s an attempt (albeit it comes off a bit contrived, very movie-ish) at postmodernism, defying the traditional structure of the novel: one of the characters turns out to be writing the story (but is not the author), the characters become self-aware (that they’re characters of the story), voice out exactly what they think of the story (and attempt to vote off the writer) and have a hand in manipulating the outcome.

As the Flippers well know, I like postmodernist techniques in books (whether it’s picture books or novels) and I was pleasantly surprised to find it in this book because I wasn’t sure I was going to like it.

Para Kay B wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but in the end I enjoyed it, and I’m glad the discussi
on moved it up my reading list. I’m looking forward to discussing it tomorrow and meeting Ricky Lee in person.

One last, a drawing I made for the journal (token) we’re giving Ricky Lee at the discussion tomorrow. Will post some photos of the event in another entry this weekend :)

My copy: paperback, from NBS Bestsellers (10% discount from Anvil). Just a little rant: the binding is terrible, it’s glued at the edges and then stapled down, and the binding was giving way even before I read the book.

Oh, and props to INKie Ivan Reverente for the great illustrations, and I’m glad he joined us at INK this year.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars

The One with the Dramatic Reading

Book #36 for 2009
Love you Forever by Robert Munsch

Friends fans will remember an episode (Season 10- TOW Emma’s cake) where Joey does a dramatic reading of a famous children’s book as a present for Emma’s birthday.

Scroll forward to around 7 min:

Joey is reading Love You Forever, a timeless story about a mother’s love for her child, and how the child grows up to pass on this love to his own child.

I finally have a copy because it turns out I got one as an exchange gift from the INK Christmas party (thanks Nic!) and I squealed in delight when I found out. I’ve been wanting a copy of this book ever since the Friends episode, and I’m glad I didn’t have to buy it at full price.

Haha, now I can’t seem to be able to read it without the Joey accent!

my copy: paperback, from exchange gift

my rating: 5/5 stars


(This post is rather lengthy, I know — I’ve just wanted to write about this book for so long!)
There was one book I forgot to list down among my top picks for 2008, one of the buzzer beaters, which I finished on the 28th of December: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Dodie Smith’s more famous work is the children’s story The 101 Dalmatians, but before that, she wrote a novel entitled I Capture the Castle in 1948.

I only learned about I Capture the Castle because J.K. Rowling named it as one of her favorite books — I love the books she recommends; my cousin and I discovered the Cirque du Freak series also because JKR raved about them.

I found a fairly new copy at Book Sale (the best! I swear!) last year, but it took a few more months before I finally found an opportunity to read it without interruptions — on my holiday trip after Christmas, where I indulged in a lot of fresh air and four days of reading bliss.

Meet the Mortmains

I Capture the Castle is the journal of 17-year old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling English castle in the countryside in the 1930s.

The Mortmains are dirt-poor but such characters! Cassandra’s father (she calls him Mortmain) is something of a one-hit wonder writer. His first book, “Jacob Wrestling” was a big hit in the past decade, prompting him to move his family to the countryside for inspiration, although it never came — he has a ten-year old case of writer’s block. The Mortmains have a 40-year lease on the castle, but over the years, they have had to sell off all the good furniture just so they can buy food.

Cassandra’s mother has passed away early on, so her father remarries the young Topaz, who is well-meaning but flighty. She is a model who poses nude for artists, and habitually “communes with nature” (er, frolics in the meadow) in nothing but hipboots.

Cassandra’s elder sister, Rose, is the family beauty (golden haired and rosy-cheeked) who despairs of being poor and wants to hook a rich husband (her main fantasy is to live in a Jane Austen novel). Their younger brother, Thomas, is often away at school on a scholarship courtesy of the local vicar, and although he doesn’t appear often, he is quite endearing as well.

The family also includes Stephen Colly, the son of one of their old servants, who continues to help out around the house even though they have nothing to pay him and he ends up getting a job outside to contribute towards the family budget. Stephen also happens to be in love with Cassandra, but unfortunately, Cassandra loves him like a brother.

Finally, there is the snowy-white bull terrier Heloise, who rounds out the family picture.

Things change for the family one fateful night, in a rather comical episode. Rose is overcome with despair about being poor, and attempts to do a Faust by hauling herself up on a pulley to wish upon the gargoyle mounted high on their kitchen fireplace. That same night, they meet the Cottons — the rich family who are now the landlords to the castle, including their two bachelor sons, Neil and Simon.

I will have to stop there before I reveal any more of the story, but more amusing episodes follow, and even as I’m writing this, I can’t help but laugh at the memory — the bathtub confrontation, the fur incident, the two wireless radios, the lockup in the tower… Equally plentiful are the sigh-inducing moments that make the book a throwback to 19th century English novels like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.

Cassandra and Rose also remind me of the March girls in Little Women, especially when they had to dress up for dinner at the Cottons’. Rose reminds me of Meg and Jo, when they had to go to a party and had to make do with shabby gowns. The sisters also keep an old dress form in their room, christened as “Miss Blossom,” whom they pour their hearts out to whenever they’re troubled.

A heroine like no other

I Capture the Castle is one of this century’s most beloved novels, and now I know why — Cassandra Mortmain can charm the socks off a stone monument!

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

This is how the novel begins, and it sets the tone for the rest of the story. It’s Cassandra’s voice that is the cornerstone of this book, and it reveals a guileless, intelligent, and feisty teenage girl, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about.

She says the most original things, and outside of EM Forster’s A Room with a View, I don’t think I’ve ever read so many lines that spoke to me all in one book! Most of the lines that struck a chord with me in this book were Cassandra’s random thoughts — some plain amusing, some thought-provoking, and others just overflowing with emotion. Her uncanny wit and sharp perception make the book such a delightful read.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:

On life:

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

“Time takes the ugliness and horror out of death and turns it into beauty.”

“I wonder if there isn’t a catch about having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things?”

“I should rather like to tear these last pages out of the book. Shall I? No-a journal ought not to cheat.”

On contemplation:

“Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.”

“I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.”

“I was wandering around as usual, in my unpleasantly populated sub-conscious…”

“I have noticed that when things happen in one’s imaginings, they never happen in one’s life.”

On family:

“The family, that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor in our innermost hearts never quite wish to.”

On writing:

“I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.”

“Only half a page left now. Shall I fill it with ‘I love you, I love you’– like father’s page of cats on the mat? No. Even a broken heart doesn’t warrant a waste of good paper.”

I hope these beautiful lines tempt you to read the book, because I don’t know anyone else who has read it, and I’d love to talk about the book with someone :)

There is a 2003 movie on the book, but I’m afraid to watch it because it might ruin the book for me. If anyone has watched it, please let me know how you found it, especially if you’ve read the book too.

My copy: trade paperback, bought at Book Sale for P170 (yes, I shelled out P170 at Book Sale for this — so much worth it!)

My rating: 5/5 stars

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a novel about the unconventional love story of Henry de Tamble and Clare Abshire. Clare, an artist, and Henry, a [hot — hehe] librarian, attempt to live normal lives, pursuing familiar goals — steady jobs, good friends, children of their own. All of this is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control: Henry suffers from Chrono-Displacement disorder, which causes him to time travel involuntarily, pulled back and forth in the sea of time to significant moments of his past, present and future, while Clare’s life progresses normally with the rest of the world. The novel depicts the effects of time travel on their relationship, and how they test the boundaries of love.

I’d been eyeing this book since December when I saw it at Fully Booked. I was waiting for Powerbooks to get it in stock (for the Powercard points), but I was also wary at first, because I thought it might get too sci-fi for me. After reading Camille’s review, and because Powerbooks had it in stock already, I decided to get it, and I read right through it in one night because I couldn’t put it down.

I can’t even begin to explain how the story flows because if you try and think about the chronology you’ll get the chicken and egg dilemma — Clare and Henry met when Clare was 6 and Henry was 36, and were married when Clare was 22 and Henry 30 – and it’ll thoroughly test your concept of time and space.

It’s a very engaging read, with the words flowing like poetry. The characters come to life on the page, their emotions drawn out so vividly that they seem palpable to any reader. Even though Henry’s condition isn’t something we experience in real life, Niffenegger paints a picture that makes you feel pretty damn close to experiencing it.


HENRY: How does it feel? How does it feel? Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plaid cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite black jeans and the maroon socks with an almost-hole in one heel, the living room, the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have vanished. You are standing, naked as a jaybird, up to your ankles in ice water in a ditch along an unidentified rural route. You wait a minute to see if maybe you will just snap right back to your book, your apartment, et cetera. After about five minutes of swearing and shivering and hoping to hell you can just disappear, you start walking in any direction, which will eventually yield a farmhouse, where you have the option of stealing or explaining. Stealing will sometimes land you in jail, but explaining is more tedious and time-consuming and involves lying anyway, and also sometimes results in being hauled off to jail, so what the hell.

Sometimes you feel as though you have stood up too quickly even if you are lying in bed half asleep. You hear blood rushing in your head, feel vertiginous falling sensations. Your hands and feet are tingling and then they aren’t there at all. You’ve mislocated yourself again. It only takes an instant, you have just enough time to try to hold on, to flail around (possibly damaging yourself or valuable possessions) and then you are skidding across the forest-green-carpeted hallway of a Motel 6 in Athens, Ohio, at 4:16 a.m.,Monday, August 6, 1981, and hit your head on someone’s door, causing this person, a Ms. Tina Schulman from Philadelphia, to open this door and start screaming because there’s a naked, carpet-burned man passed out at her feet. You wake up in the County Hospital concussed with a policeman sitting outside your door listening to the Phillies game on a crackly transistor radio. Mercifully, you lapse back into unconsciousness and wake up again hours later in your own bed with your wife leaning over you looking very worried.

Sometimes you feel euphoric. Everything is sublime and has an aura, and suddenly you are intensely nauseated and then you are gone. You are throwing up on some suburban geraniums, or your father’s tennis shoes, or your very own bathroom floor three days ago, or a wooden sidewalk in Oak Park, Illinois, circa 1903, or a tennis court on a fine autumn day in the 1950s, or your own naked feet in a wide variety of times and places.

How does it feel?

It feels exactly like one of those dreams in which you suddenly realize that you have to take a test you haven’t studied for and you aren’t wearing any clothes. And you’ve left your wallet at home.

When I am out there, in time, I am inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself. I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides. I startle old women and amaze children. I am a trick, an illusion of the highest order, so incredible that I am actually true.

Is there a logic, a rule to all this coming and going, all this dislocation? Is there a way to stay put, to embrace the present with every cell? I don’t know. There are clues; as with any disease there are patterns, possibilities. Exhaustion, loud noises, stress, standing up suddenly, flashing light-any of these can trigger an episode. But: I can be reading the Sunday Times, coffee in hand and Clare dozing beside me on our bed and suddenly I’m in 1976 watching my thirteen-year-old self mow my grandparents’ lawn. Some of these episodes last only moments; it’s like listening to a car radio that’s having trouble holding on to a station. I find myself in crowds, audiences, mobs. Just as often I am alone, in a field, house, car, on a beach, in a grammar school in the middle of the night. I fear finding myself in a prison cell, an elevator full of people, the middle of a highway. I appear from nowhere, naked. How can I explain? I have never been able to carry anything with me. No clothes, no money, no ID. I spend most of my sojourns acquiring clothing and trying to hide. Fortunately I don’t wear glasses.

It’s ironic, really. All my pleasures are homey ones: armchair splendor, the sedate excitements of domesticity. All I ask for are humble delights. A mystery novel in bed, the smell of Clare’s long red-gold hair damp from washing, a postcard from a friend on vacation, cream dispersing into coffee, the softness of the skin under Clare’s breasts, the symmetry of grocery bags sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be unpacked. I love meandering through the stacks at the library after the patrons have gone home, lightly touching the spines of the books. These are the things that can pierce me with longing when I am displaced from them by Time’s whim.

And Clare, always Clare. Clare in the morning, sleepy and crumple-faced. Clare with her arms plunging into the papermaking vat, pulling up the mold and shaking it so, and so, to meld the fibers.

Clare reading, with her hair hanging over the back of the chair, massaging balm into her cracked red hands before bed. Clare’s low voice is in my ear often.

I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going, and she cannot follow.


And Clare, Clare is really something else.

CLARE: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays. I keep myself busy. Time goes faster that way.

I go to sleep alone, and wake up alone. I take walks. I work until I’m tired. I watch t
he wind play with the trash that’s been under the snow all winter. Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?

Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting.

Why has he gone where I cannot follow?


Sigh. For a strange premise worthy of science fiction, Niffenegger manages to create a hauntingly bittersweet romance that has you laughing and crying all throughout, experiencing love and loss along with Henry and Clare. Beautiful!

My copy: trade paperback upgraded into hardcover with dustjacket (mooched from Vee in CA)

My rating: 5/5 stars