On Dead Stars and Romantic Afternoons

I had a draft of this post from last night early this morning, before my shift ended, but I decided to chuck it all because that was my end-of-night-shift self talking and that self is usually more talkative than my usual self (imagine that). Let’s start over.

I wasn’t supposed to moderate a discussion for this year, but being one of the head moderators/administrators, I was ready to pick a vacant month to moderate in case no one steps up. It came a little early, after a friend made a deal with me and told me she’ll handle our other activity if someone else moderates for this month. It just so happened that the previous days, I was chatting with another friend about several activities that we can do for the group, and I realized that maybe if I moderate again, I will be able to make those activities happen.

So when 2013 rolled around, I was actually already planning my discussion. It didn’t even matter what book won, because I was going for an easy read — an easy and romantic read, because my discussion was during February. I was all about embracing the inner romantic of course! :D

The “book” that won was actually a short story, Dead Stars by Paz Marquez-Benitez. My original book of choice was Fourteen Love Stories but I could’t find a copy of it anywhere. So I decided to just stick with that story, and it won, mostly because of familiarity as this was one of the stories discussed in Literature class for most of us.
f2f14b

We had the face to face discussion last Sunday. I honestly felt more prepared for this discussion than my first one, probably because I have been preparing for this for so long. Heh. Plus the fact that I had several sick days in February, and I ended up having a lot of time on my hands despite my busy schedule. I had several activities planned, and while I was very excited, I was also kind of wary. Will it fly? Will people like it? Or will they think it’s too corny/cheesy? Am I just doing everything for my own fulfillment?

Discussion time :D

Discussion time :D (Photo c/o Reev)

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Les Misérables

Les Misérables Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Publisher: Signet Classics
Number of pages: 1463 (!!!)
My copy: paperback, gift from Angus

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean – the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread – Les Misérables (1862) ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope – an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. This Signet Classic edition is a new version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the classic nineteenth-century Charles E. Wilbour translation.

* * *

Just so you know, I never had any intention of reading Les Misérables. I have a friend who talked about rereading this book last year for research before NaNoWriMo season came around, and I remember vaguely wondering how can one reread such a thick book. I had no intention of reading this, thinking that my life can remain untouched by this tome, until some friends from the book club started a reading support group for the unabridged book. I still didn’t join them, but I applauded them for their efforts. Until…one day, I wandered around the thread, and saw their discussion. And then the briefest of brief thoughts came into my mind: Maybe it won’t be so bad reading such a thick book if you have friends reading with you.

And then, Maybe it’s not so bad. You’ve read A Game of Thrones and The Historian and what’s a few hundred pages more?

Then my friends started inviting me to join them, and I felt like giving in. It could be an interesting challenge, right?

So finally, by end of 2012, I said yes. Angus gave me a copy of the unabridged version and I started reading it by January 1. If you’re like me who has no idea what Les Misérables by Victor Hugo was (I know, I know — I was living under a rock all my life), this is the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who was shown mercy when he least expect it, but is chased by his past even if he tries to change his present. There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course, but that was the main story arc. I never watched any of the musicals, or the first movie with Liam Neeson. I have zero expectations and I knew very little in the story — only fragments of a discussion in a college Theology class, and the knowledge of the song On My Own, because who doesn’t know that song?

The goal was to read as much as I can in the book until we had watch the movie. I wasn’t dreaming of finishing the book before the movie because that gave me about 16 days to just read, but I wanted to reach at least halfway. I didn’t. I watched the movie, got spoiled and tried to read again. My reading progress was slower, because I knew what was going to happen (and this is going to be another post in itself!), but I was in too far into the book to drop it. A half-read book is a half-finished love affair, right?

Until finally, exactly 45 days since I started reading Les Misérables, I finished it.

Les Misérables is long. And sometimes tiresome. And sometimes I wonder what Hugo’s point was in several chapters/books. But besides those things, I must admit: Les Misérables is a beautiful book. There’s so many layers and complexities in this book that’s kind of hard to remember when you’re deep into some of its very boring and tedious chapters, but when you step back and think about what you’ve read with the other parts that that boring part came with, you see that the boring parts sets the stage so the interesting parts become colorful and detailed. For example: I probably could’ve lived without knowing about Paris’ sewer system back then, but I wouldn’t have appreciated Valjean’s attempts to get out of it, just how dire his situation was when he was there. Hugo is talkative, but it ties well together — you just need to have a little more perseverance and slog through the slightly boring parts. (Y’know, just like life. Heh. :P)

If you think watching the movie is enough for you to know what Les Misérables is all about…well, no. There’s so much in the book that wasn’t in the movie and it makes several characters stand out on their own a bit more. For example: Marius in the movie was shown as a revolutionary, but in the book, he wasn’t. Not as much as Enjolras was, anyway. Marius just wanted to show his grandfather that he can make it on his own, and then he falls in love. Which is also another thing — in the movie, Marius and Cosette just made eyes at each other, but in the book, there was a longer and slightly more interesting “courtship” between the two of them. And there were the other characters that we hardly got to know, as well as Jean Valjean’s whole thought process throughout the novel. The book gives the characters and the story so much more depth, making the sad scenes a bit more heartbreaking and the victorious scenes mean so much more.

Les Misérables is long, and arduous at times, but I am so glad I powered through it. It’s totally worth all the lugging around and the times I spent trying to stay focused on the story. It’s a story of forgiveness, mercy and love in all forms – and I personally think we need more stories like this. :)

This is officially the thickest book I’ve read in my life time, and now I feel like I can read any door-stopper now without getting intimidated…

…but maybe not anytime soon. ^^;

Rating:

rr2013-01

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The Scent of Rain

The Scent of RainThe Scent of Rain by Kristin Billerbeck
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Number of pages: 305
My copy: ebook review copy from Netgalley

Could it be that the life Daphne’s always wanted is right under her nose?

Daphne Sweeten left Paris–and a job she loved–to marry the man of her dreams in the U.S. But when he stands her up on their wedding day, she’s left reeling and senseless. Literally. She’s been trained as a perfume creator and now her sense of smell has disappeared along with her fiance.

She has to figure out why her nose isn’t working, fix it, and get back to Paris. Meanwhile, she’ll rely on her chemistry skills and just hope her new boss at Gibraltar Products, Jesse, doesn’t notice her failing senses. They’ll be working together on household fragrances, not posh perfumes. How hard can it be?

As Daphne and Jesse work on a signature scent for their new line, she feels God at work as never before. And the promise of what’s possible is as fresh as the scent of rain.

* * *

Daphne Sweeten is a professional nose — by that, we mean she’s a chemist who is trained to be a perfume creator. When she gets stood up on her wedding day, though, her sense of smell disappears. Trying to piece her life back together, she works for a small company in Ohio, hoping to get her sense of smell back and fly back to Paris, which she gave up for the supposed love of her life. But her new job requires her nose, too, and her new boss, Jesse, doesn’t seem to notice that she cannot smell anything. They’re not creating perfume anyway — she can definitely do this, right?

I’ve always considered Kristin Billerbeck books as a comfort read ever since I read and liked her Ashley Stockingdale series years ago. It’s been years since I last read a Billerbeck book, but even so, it was easy enough for me to get immersed in the book. There’s a certain familiarity in the way she writes, in her characters and her stories that makes her books easy reading, hence the comfort read label. :)

The Scent of Rain has that Billerbeck formula — a girl who has some sort of romantic fiasco, a guy who’s all bad news for her and a guy who’s obviously good for her. Then there’s the supporting cast: the best friend, the family (who, more often than not, cares for the main character in a really strange way), and the church group who will help her get back on track. And there’s the villain, who we all hate, but we will eventually understand, because of something that will happen. This book has all the common ingredients in a nice and clean chick lit novel, with the bonus factor of the main character’s job, a perfume specialist. I really liked the scent aspect of the book, and it gave me a whole new perspective with how to scents work with our senses. And I agree — scents can bring memories! I remember holding on to a perfume bottle for so long because it reminded me of this particular memorable event in my life. :)

It’s a very enjoyable read, and I found myself rooting for Daphne and wishing that Jesse would finally make that step to move their relationship forward. I liked the set-up, though, and their relationship seemed very organic despite the short time they spent. There was just the right swoon, too, but not too much that it’s too cheesy. It was fun, but not mindless and it’s clean but not too prudish.

I think my only complaint is that certain event in the end that brought about the big changes — it felt a little too convenient despite it being a bit surprising, bordering on being a deus ex machina. But other than that, I really enjoyed reading The Scent of RainIt’s not super duper amazing, but it’s good, and it makes me want to start looking for my own personal scent.

Reading this book makes me want to revisit the Ashley Stockingdale series to see if I still like it as much as I did on my first (and second) reads. Hmm.

Rating:

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Every Day

Every Day by David LevithanEvery Day by David Levithan
Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Number of pages: 304
My copy: paperback, from National Bookstore

Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl.

There’s never any warning about where it will be or who it will be. A has made peace with that, even established guidelines by which to live: Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere.

It’s all fine until the morning that A wakes up in the body of Justin and meets Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. From that moment, the rules by which A has been living no longer apply. Because finally A has found someone he wants to be with—day in, day out, day after day.

* * *

I can’t exactly say I’m a huge, huge fan of David Levithan’s books, although I admit that I like reading his stuff. I mean, I enjoyed The Lover’s Dictionary immensely and I am rather charmed by Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, but it doesn’t make me feel like I would go out and read everything he ever wrote. For Mr. Levithan, I still rely a bit on reviews before I actually get one of his new books again.

And that is why I got myself a copy of Every Day. Truth be told, the summary isn’t enough to get to me — I tend to avoid paranormal things unless I’m watching the series or I strike a particular mood, and Every Day‘s synopsis kind of reminds me of those insta-love things that I don’t really like. Granted, it seems more sci-fi than paranormal, but it wasn’t until I read Wendy’s review of the book that kind of sealed the deal for me.

So A is a…being. Something. He wakes up in a different body everyday, and he has no attachments, no nothing. He cannot afford to have them because nothing is permanent in his world anyway. Until one morning, when he wakes up in the body of Justin and meets his girlfriend, Rhiannon. Suddenly, there’s something that makes him want to stay — and it’s Rhiannon.

We don’t get explanations why A jumps from one body to another, so we pretty much have to accept what he can do at the start. It was a bit hard for me to swallow, especially when my mind gets confused when A is in a female body but in my mind he is still a male. Then I recount his/her interactions with Rhiannon, and it gets even more confusing. There’s a lot to question, and if you’re sci-fi buff, you’d wish for an explanation, and that was never really provided in the book.

However, there is something about the way Levithan writes. Just like Dash in Dash and Lily and that unnamed narrator in The Lover’s Dictionary, Levithan’s words captured me and made me dog-ear so many pages in the book. Case in point:

What is it about the moment you fall in love? How can such a small measure of time contain such enormity?…The moment you fall in love feels like it has centuries behind it, generations – all of them rearranging themselves so that this precise, remarkable intersection could happen. In your heart, in your bones, no matter how silly you know it is you feel that everything has been leading to this, all the secret arrows were pointing here, the universe and time itself crafted this long ago, and you are just now realizing it, you are just now arriving at the place you were always meant to be. (p. 23)

This is what love does: It makes you want to rewrite the world. It makes you want to choose the characters, build the scenery, guide the plot. The person you love sits across from you, and you want to do everything in your power to make it possible, endlessly possible. And when it’s just the two of you, alone in a room, you can pretend that this is how it is, this is how it will be. (p. 175)

Every Day had the right amount of angst and hope and sentimentality to make me sigh at the early parts of February. Some book club friends and I had a readalong for it, and we had a very interesting discussion about love, about A and if there’s anything selfish about falling in love. I honestly felt sad for A because he cannot afford to have memories, and so he clings so hard to Rhiannon because she seems to be the only good thing that he can hold on to.

It’s sad, and somehow you knew it was a doomed thing from the start. I wondered how Levithan would end it, and I was really pleased with what he did with the ending. It seemed the most right thing to do. It wasn’t the easiest decision, but perhaps it was the best for the both of them. It doesn’t make it less sad, though.

But…that’s love. More than being a decision, love is choosing what’s best for the other person, even if it is at the cost of your own happiness. I read this article sometime last year that hits this right on the head (emphasis mine): How do you truly know whether you are committed to this person and that you truly love him or her? Here’s how you know: Your love is directly proportional to your willingness to act unselfishly, to even let the person think less of you, if in doing so you are serving their spiritual advancement.

Every Day isn’t the kind of book that will give you all the warm fuzzies, but I think it’s a pretty good one even so. And while I still can’t say I’m a huge David Levithan fan after this, I will still be on the look out for his books, if only to read passages such as the ones above and one like this:

When first love ends, most people eventually know there will be more to come. They are not through with love. Love is not through with them. It will never be the same as the first, but it will be better in different ways.

Rating:

Required reading - February

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Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Blackbury
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
My copy: Unabridged Audiobook

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a grim alternate-future setting ruled by a tyrannical government in which firemen as we understand them no longer exist: Here, firemen don’t douse fires, they ignite them. And they do this specifically in homes that house the most evil of evils: books.

Books are illegal in Bradbury’s world, but books are not what his fictional — yet extremely plausible — government fears: They fear the knowledge one pulls from books. Through the government’s incessant preaching, the inhabitants of this place have come to loathe books and fear those who keep and attempt to read them. They see such people as eccentric, dangerous, and threatening to the tranquility of their state.

But one day a fireman named Montag meets a young girl who demonstrates to him the beauty of books, of knowledge, of conceiving and sharing ideas; she wakes him up, changing his life forever. When Montag’s previously held ideology comes crashing down around him, he is forced to reconsider the meaning of his existence and the part he plays. After Montag discovers that “all isn’t well with the world,” he sets out to make things right.

* * *

There were several times when my bookish friends and I would joke around about burning some books that we don’t like, especially that vampire series that just doesn’t seem to want to die (or well, I think other books are replacing it now?). It’s really all just a joke, because for the life of me, I can’t imagine myself burning a book, no matter how much I disliked/hated it. I remember this one time where I heard of a book being torn in front of some people in school — some hater getting at it at the face of the authors — and even if I didn’t witness it first hand, my heart hurt just a little bit at the thought of a book being damaged like that.

in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, doing such things to books are a commonplace. Books are illegal, and firemen go around hunting for books (and houses of books) to burn. Everyone’s focused on television and other seemingly mindless things, and anyone who thinks otherwise are considered dangerous. Guy Montag is a fireman, and he has lived with burning books, until he meets his neighbor, Clarisse. Clarisse makes him ask questions about his life — his wife, his job and all the question about books. He slowly realizes that maybe his life wasn’t really what he wanted it to be and sets out to do something about it.

It’s been a while since I read a dystopian book, so it took me a while to adjust to Fahrenheit 451‘s world. Since I was listening to this on audio, it took me an even longer time to really get into it. I liked the premise of the book, and as a book lover, Montag’s world felt depressing. I didn’t want that, and when I got to the chapter where Montag and his firemen buddies burned a house of books, I was wincing all the time. Ack. Perhaps there’s also something about the way Bradbury writes (and how the book was narrated) — the rhythm of his words felt almost hypnotic. I suppose it helped that I listened to the audiobook, because I thought the narrator had a very fitting voice for the story.

I liked Fahrenheit 451, and I think that it’s still quite relevant now. Bradbury wrote this book as a statement about how “…television destroys interest in reading literature,” and while that is still true, I think that there’s another competition that’s really taking everyone’s interest: internet. I mentioned during our book discussion how everyone’s so attached to being online now — myself included. I remember reading this story about the mom who gave his teenage son an iPhone for Christmas but with a contract, and this particular line in the contract got to me: Turn it off, silence it, put it away in public.  Especially in a restaurant, at the movies, or while speaking with another human being.  You are not a rude person; do not allow the iPhone to change that. (Source) I’m very guilty of this, and I’m trying to get rid of this habit, and I realized that our attachment to our smart phones and internet is another way for us to lose interest in reading. I mean, I haven’t lost interest yet, but how many times have I ended up playing with my phone, going online in all my social media accounts on the times I said I would be reading? How many times have I chosen tweeting over making an effort to make actual conversation? Those kinds of things. It’s a bit disconcerting to think about it, but I guess that’s the point of this book, anyway. It’s definitely something to think about.

I just wished there was more to Fahrenheit 451‘s ending. I wished there was more to know about the people who memorized books so no one would ever forget them, and that it didn’t simply feel like an afterthought to the story. The ending kind of reminded me of The Giver — a bit open-ended, but good enough to leave the reader asking some questions. Especially questions like, If I can only memorize one book and one book alone, which would I pick? I do not have an answer to that question. Do you?

Rating:

Required Reading: January

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