Hello. It’s been awhile. I’ve been meaning to update this blog but just have not gotten around to it. It wasn’t because there was a dearth of things to write about. Quite the opposite; there were too many things to write about — books, movies, plays, people, places… life. How does one choose?
Anyway, several friends on Facebook have tagged me to list 10 books that have made an impact in my life. I’ve done this list at least once before, and even then it’s hard to limit the list to just 10. How do you define “impact,” anyway? I’ve read books that I’ve thought of as “fluff” that I still remember years later because they made me look at a situation in a different way; others have turns of phrases, elegant words used, a scene that was just so poignant I could cry; funny moments; fast-paced action…. It’s just hard to choose. Sooo… because the blog needed updating and I needed to write this list, I figured I’d just do it as a blog entry. Two birds with one stone and all that. I’m tweaking the criteria to books that I’ve read or reread in the past year and a half that I’ve loved — for whatever reason. Some of the choices will have links, as I’ve written about them at some point. As bonus, am adding quotes and excerpts so you get a flavor of the books. Have a taste and see if you like them.
So here goes, from bottom to top:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
“I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”
“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”
This book was given to me by B, an ex. He once said that I reminded him of the central character, Madame Renee Michel, a concierge for an upscale apartment in Paris, who has a rich hidden life devoted to philosophical musings, good books, great art and culture, which belie the image she presents to the world — fat, grumpy, addicted to bad TV. Given that description, I don’t know if I should be insulted or not. But no matter. We didn’t last, but I would always be grateful to him for giving me this book and introducing me to Barbery. The book turned out to be the keeper and I’m glad of it.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
“Life can turn on a dime. Sometimes towards us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flashing as it goes: so long, honey; it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”
“But I believe in love, you know; love is uniquely portable magic. I don’t think it’s in the stars, but I do believe that blood calls to blood and mind calls to mind and heart to heart.”
King takes on the hoary sci-fi trope of time travel, but this doesn’t feel clumsy or over-the-top, the way King can sometimes get. I lost a weekend reading this, and I’m glad I jumped into the rabbit hole to begin with. The premise of the book is of the classic, “If you could go back in time to kill Hitler, would you do it?” In the book, Jake Epping goes back in time, not to kill Hitler, but to prevent the Kennedy assassination, an event that changed the course of America’s history towards a darker path, as a character in the book believes. Won’t spoil how the story went down, but like most of King’s books, this one is a page-turner.
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
Actually, it’s the whole five books (so far) of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF), I just couldn’t find where the other books are, so only one is represented in the stack! I’ve known about ASOIF way before but just didn’t want to add another series to my increasingly heavy book debt. But then HBO debuted Game of Thrones, and how could I not after that? This series basically stole a year-and-a-half to two years of my life. I don’t begrudge GRRM a second of it. If only he can get on with the next two (or is it three?) books! C’mon, George!
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
“I’m in love with you,” he said quietly.
“Augustus,” I said.
“I am,” he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
“I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is biased toward the consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it — or my observation of it — is temporary?”
I don’t exactly remember how I came to read this book. But I’m glad I did. Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace just totally destroyed me! I don’t know of any real teenagers who talk — and think — like these two, but I would like to think that I had a bit of their precociousness and maturity when I was their age. Here’s what I wrote about this book when I was reading it. Besides, any book that makes me able to converse and keep up with teens, like my goddaughter, deserves a place on this list. Speaking of said goddaughter, she rattled off a list of all the John Green books that I should be reading/have read when I mentioned this to her just to show that I was a hip adult! I still have not read the other books by John Green. Three words: Monumental book debt.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
“What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“It was a long time ago now. And it was yesterday.”
Who doesn’t love a do-over? Kate Atkinson takes this concept and turns it on its head in this Groundhog Day-slash-Sliding Doors-ish tale of a woman who keeps repeating her life over and over again, by dying — literally being born again — every time she makes a monumental mistake. At first the story gets repetitious as chapters of Ursula Todd’s life gets, er, replayed again and again, but after awhile, the tale gets engrossing and I found myself muttering, “Please, just die already!” so she could make a clean start. How many heroines of novels do you want to die so they could finally live the life they were meant to?
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
“You’re the only person I’ve ever met who can stand in a bookstore as long as I can.”
“You eventually erase her contact info from your phone but not the pictures you took of her in bed while she was naked and asleep, never those.”
The story of feckless, reckless Yunior and the women he loves and loses. At first I didn’t think I could get into the romantic foibles of a Latino guy, but Yunior is so charismatic and his misadventures funny/poignant that it’s hard not to root for the guy.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
“I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.” (Dark Places)
By rights, Gone Girl and Sharp Objects should also be included in this stack but I couldn’t find my copies, so only one book is represented. At their simplest, these three books are thrillers. But what I love about them is that they’re really character studies of deeply flawed and hard-to-like protagonists. You’re not going to love her heroines — you’ll even hate them and sometimes be disgusted at their choices — but they’re no less compelling for all that. Flynn writes her characters like she’s making pen and ink portraits — the dark and light parts fighting for dominance and that’s what makes the books compelling. Goodness, I must have gone on and on about Gone Girl when I first read it and it’s still one of the books that really stayed with me.
The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word — our tragedy.”
I was surprised by this one. I always thought Barnes would be a difficult read, but I practically finished this in a day and a half. It’s easily one of the most readable on this list, not just because it’s a slim book, but because of how Barnes draws you in into the story of Tony Webster and his public school friends. The story is at once ordinary and yet, horrific in its own way. This book taught me that terrible things said in anger even if you said in the heat of the moment can have serious consequences. Also, it’s easily the most quotable. Or maybe I can relate more to Tony Webster’s musings…
The Best of This Is a Crazy Planets by Lourd de Veyra
“Sometimes memory can be a real bitch.”
Of all the books on this list, this is the one that’s laugh-out-loud funny — maybe because De Veyra’s observations are so inherently Filipino and spot on, that they strike me in the gut. You know how we say that cuss words have a really deeper impact when said in your native language (which in my case, is Filipino)? This felt the same. The language is easy and reads like how one converses in Filipino — part English, part Tagalog and street slang and full of funny observations about life in the Philippines. Reading this collection of De Veyra’s blog for spot.ph, I keep wishing that there was an all-English translation just so I could give it to non-Filipino friends but something would get lost in the translation, for sure! This book made me homesick.
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
“I prefer the company of books. When I’m reading, I’m never alone, I have a conversation with the book. It can be very intimate. Perhaps you know this feeling yourself? The sense that you’re having an intellectual exchange with the author, following his or her train thought and you accompany each other for weeks on end.”
“Book and reader, if they meet up at the right moment, it can make sparks fly, set you alight, change your life. It can, I promise you.”
This was a cold contact book for me. I really just picked it up because I liked the cover. But to my surprise, it proved to be a delight to read. The story is simple: A librarian discovers a reader has been locked in overnight when she opens the library the following day. She starts to talk to him, and the book is a one-way conversation — a monologue, really — that soon meanders into frustrations, observations, insights about the world, books, literature, love and other things. From the conversation, we find out that the librarian likes a quiet researcher named Martin (hence unrequited because she has not talked to him) and her love for books. It kind of resonated — especially her love for books, because God knows, I can natter on about books when I choose to (as this post shows!).
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
“Glenn used to say the reason you can’t really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, ‘I’ll be dead,’ you’ve said the word I, and so you’re still alive inside the sentence. And that’s how people got the idea of the immortality of the soul — it was a consequence of grammar.”
“The Adams and the Eves used to say, We are what we eat, but I prefer to say, we are what we wish. Because if you can’t wish, why bother?”
Atwood knows her way around a dystopia, I have to say. The first Atwood book I’ve ever read was The Handmaid’s Tale, and while these two books are not in any way similar, they do offer a glimpse into a society that has gone through great upheaval. This is book two of Atwood’s MadAddam trilogy, in which we read about the aftermath of a biological disaster (the flood in the title). I have not read Oryx and Crake, the first book. I really just picked this up because I liked Atwood and liked the first page when I was browsing through this in the bookstore. This book focuses on the God’s Gardeners, a marginalized “sect” dedicated to preserving plant and animal life. Reading this, I don’t get why this was the “second” book when it read like a stand alone. But I have since discovered that it basically describes the same events as the first book but from the point of view of the lower classes (the pleebands). All right then. I am always up for getting lost in a good story and Atwood will just let you dive in and feel your way around.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
“Mr Jarndyce, and prevented his going any farther, when he had remarked that there were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.”
“London. Michaelmas. Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud on the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”
Full disclosure: I have not actually finished reading this — in fact, I have just started. But I thought to include it as well because I used to read a lot of Dickens and for my money, he really knows how to set a scene! Anyway, like Library of Unrequited Love, I bought this because I loved the cover and the edition of the book. I also thought the plot intriguing — about a long court case, contested inheritance and murder. It’s like a plot of Law and Order! (Dickens must be turning in his grave to be compared so!)
For those curious enough to read my former list, here it is copy-pasted from Facebook. I edited it slightly for non-Filipino followers:
Supposed to be 10 books, but had to put in 12 because, well, I couldn’t stop at 10!
Don’t take too long to think about it. Ten books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First 10 you can recall in no more than 10 minutes. Tag 10 friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what books my friends choose.
(Some of these are surprising because I didn’t even realize that they made such an impact!)
1. IT (Stephen King) The book that really got me into “the master.” It also told me that friendships formed in childhood are very powerful and have the most impact on us as adults, whether we remember them or not; whether we stay friends with them or not.
2. Different Seasons (Stephen King) Horror and literary genius can co-exist.
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish your feelings—words shrink things that seem limitless in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within, not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.”
3. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) Was prescient in portraying the idea of a rigid fundamentalist religion, which became a reality with the Taliban and is also gaining popularity in the States and elsewhere…
4. Blue Moon (Laurell K. Hamilton) Essentially, detective noir about vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. Heaps of fun.
5. The Wars of the Roses (Alison Weir) English history that reads almost like really cool historical fiction.
6. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien)
7. Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage (Pete Lacaba) Still the best first-person account of the First Quarter Storm, a time of great upheaval in the 1970s in Manila. Back then, students had sit-ins and demonstrations against the Marcos dictatorship. It was a dark time as well because students were being jailed and classified as political detainees or fled to the mountains to join the New People’s Army, the militant arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The country must have lost a significant chunk of its intelligensia during this time. The book is also a great template for writers on how to write a first-person news narrative. If I were stuck in the frontline of some war and have to write about it, this is the kind of writing I’ll be aiming for.
8. Dateline Earth: Journalism As if the Planet Mattered (Kunda Dixit) This book was used as supplementary reading when I was in college and it stuck with me. Before Al Gore popularized the idea of climate change, environmental concerns and the politics that went with it, as well as how media (Western and otherwise) portrayed the news and the way we write articles, this opened my eyes that news was relative and the way we handle news is relative. A whole country might be wiped out in a flash flood because it cut too many of its forest reserves but if it occurred somewhere in, say, Nepal, Laos or the Philippines, it will not be big news, compared to say, the yearly forest fire in California. Sad.
9. Microserfs (Douglas Coupland) Nobody portrays cubicle life better than Douglas Coupland
10. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell) Very complex and compelling book about what it means to be “human,” the notion of “faith,” the search for God and beings “out there,” and explores the idea behind Star Trek’s Prime Directive: non-interference. Very heartbreaking! If you read this, you have to read the sequel Children of God.
11. Any Amanda Quick novel. Because any list should have lighthearted romantic fiction. Why? Because it’s fun.
12. World War Z (Max Brooks). You’d think a book about zombies should read like total schlock, but it doesn’t. It’s almost anthropological the way the writer presents a case of zombie infestation. A zombie novel at its most basic, this also realistically shows how an epidemic spreads and how different countries and individuals deal with it and its aftermath.