Sunday, August 20, 2006

In the absence of... humor

Some people have been telling me that they find this blog a tad too serious. I really couldn't figure out why at first, then I realized that, well, maybe it's because people are used to blogs that contain light banter and the occasional rant and rave.

Or maybe it's because I don't put smileys on my posts, like :) and :P.

Or maybe it's because I don't insert the oftentimes irreverent "Hehehe."

Or maybe it's because I don't include jokes every now and then.


I'm just thinking too much.

Anyway, for those who think that this blog is too serious, here's something for you.

Question: GMA, Erap, Cory, Ramos, and all the senators and congressmen take a boat ride, the boat capsizes, who gets saved?

Answer: The Philippines.

Hehehe... :)

(It has actually been a shitty day and I really needed some form of release. Writing this post felt good.)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

"The Rule of Four" hardly rules

Book review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

by Al Dimalanta

I have rather ambivalent feelings about this book.

When I first picked up The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason and read the synopsis at the back I was intrigued. It promised to be a historical thriller, something that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized (no, over-popularized, considering the flood of clones and wannabes at its wake). I had a dilemma, though: which cover color should I choose? It was such a difficult choice. The book was printed in four different colors, an obvious contrivance if you ask me, and I had to pick one. I went for the gold cover.

With the most difficult task over, I bought the book, went home and read.

The funny thing was, as I was reading the first few chapters, I had to keep telling myself to read on, not give up, and stay with the book. It was something that I didn’t really enjoy doing. The plot seemed sufficiently intriguing enough, but why was I pushing myself to read further? Something was amiss, and I wanted to figure out what it was and why.

The story revolves around the lives of four senior Princeton students, particularly focusing on the days leading to their graduation (Princeton is one of the leading research universities and the most outstanding undergraduate college in the world). The two main characters, however, are Tom (the narrator) and Paul, his best friend. Tom is the son of a Renaissance scholar who was one of several people who fervently studied a 15th-century book titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphii (I challenge you to say that four times without stammering). Tom’s father’s life was dictated by his obsession to unlock the mysteries of the book, which proved quite a daunting task even for a scholar of his caliber. It was an obsession that Tom swore he would never have. Paul, in turn, is an orphan and a brilliant thinker who took on the task of unraveling the book's puzzle by choosing it as his thesis subject.

Paul solicits Tom's help in the thesis and the latter finds himself immersed in the very same obsession that dominated his father's life. As Tom and Paul slowly unravel the secrets of the book, they find themselves in the thick of a generation-long struggle for power, recognition and fame, which involves two of Tom's father's associates. Not only did the Hypnerotomachia promise to shed light on the real turn of events in Florentine history (during the time of Italian priest-ruler Giloramo Savonarola), it also hinted on the location of a crypt containing priceless works of art hidden from Savonarola and were supposedly saved from his Bonfire of the Vanities.

As I previously mentioned, the plot seemed interesting enough – four friends in a race not only to solve an age-long puzzle, but also to stay alive. The various conflicts in the story, both internal and external, centered on how the Hypnerotomachia affected the lives of the central characters. There’s Tom’s internal struggle to avoid the same demons that haunted his father’s life, his strained relationship with his girlfriend Kate who initially considered the book as a rival for his attention, Paul’s struggle to merely survive the demands of Princeton (as well as his own idiosyncrasies), and the dangers that surrounded those who knew too much about the book. However, in the first half of the novel, I found the frequent interspersing of uninteresting chapters aimed at character development (and there are more than four characters that needed to be developed in this here story) unnecessary, therefore boring and even irritating -- much like frequent and lengthy commercial breaks during a televised championship boxing match.

Moreover, I didn't enjoy for I never was and never will be interested in countless Princeton trivia which are found in every turn (the authors’ puerile infatuation with Princeton was something I could not identify with). These, I thought, didn't contribute anything to the development of the story and can be considered as mere verbal litter for mere mortals (read: non-Ivy Leaguers).

The second half fared much better in terms of pace and readability although I doubt if many readers would have the endurance to reach this part. The action picks up as the answers to the mysteries behind the book are unraveled and, as such, redeems whatever literary stupor the book initially imposed upon its readers.

Although the whole story is concerned with universal themes of friendship, commitment, and the pursuit of truth, in the end, the story seems to lack a central unifying theme. In the process of reading, I often asked myself what this book is really about. Is it about the friendship of four roommates and the things they do to sustain such friendship? Is it about the commitment (or obsession) of Tom and Paul to unlock the mysteries of a maddeningly arcane book? Or is it simply a giddy narrative on a beloved alma mater? Whatever the central theme may be, it got lost in the muddle of pointless descriptions and narrations.

The book is the debut effort of Caldwell and Thomason, which explains the peremptory tone of the piece. My general feeling was that the authors wanted so much to impress by pulling out all the stops and putting as much as they could into one novel. The result is an intellectually self-conscious and arrogant book (both in language and content) that owes more to its braggadocio than to its ability to provide a totally satisfying, coherent and enjoyable read.

I have always believed that a fiction novel’s main purpose is to entertain the readers, providing a conveniently safe although transitory escape from reality. Everything else is secondary. Although admittedly a good work of fiction both entertains and informs, the informative value takes a backseat to the sheer enjoyment of a vivid and uplifting narrative. Needless to say, our rookie authors seem to have overlooked the need for their narrative to delight.

In the end, however, on the strength of the latter part of the narrative, I liked it, although I still had to convince myself that I did.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Life on a flat planet
(or why can't women be wizards?)

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Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett (1987)

I have always seen Terry Pratchett's books in store shelves but never really gave them any serious consideration. That is, until I came across a collaboration between him and Neil Gaiman entitled Good Omens (which I am still fervently trying to get hold of). All I knew about him then was that he wrote fantasy stories set on his very own fairy-tale world called Discworld. But that was just about everything I knew about the man.

I wondered, then, that if an extremely talented writer like Gaiman, whose books I immensely enjoyed reading, had decided to work with Pratchett, then I guess Pratchett's work deserved closer scrutiny (I know now that that was such an unfair assessment because Pratchett is actually the more senior writer and has received greater recognition in the field than Gaiman).

Anyway, I firmly decided to go out on a limb and read one of his books.

Being unfamiliar with Pratchett, I found myself in some sort of a bind in choosing which among his numerous books to read first. But then, since he wrote his novels in series (although, as I found out later, each installment can basically stand alone), then it was only logical for me to start from the very beginning. As luck would have it (which was how luck would always have it), the books I was looking for were not available. The first two books in the Discworld series were out of stock, so I had to settle for the third installment entitled Equal Rites.

As it turns out, Equal Rites is a wonderfully funny and witty satire on sexism and gender role expectations. But more on this later.

Now, in order to fully understand and appreciate Terry Pratchett's work, you must understand the workings of the world that he created and which is the setting for most of his novels -- Discworld.

Discworld is a flat planet riding on the backs of four incredibly large elephants who, in turn, stand atop the Great Turtle A'Tuin who undulates endlessly through space. The flat planet is orbited by its own teeny-weeny sun and is the only planet in the "multiverse" (as Pratchett calls it) in which the seawater falls over the edges in an endless "rimfall." It is also a place where humans naturally co-habitate with wizards, witches, trolls, demons, dwarves and so many other strange creatures.

It is also a place where Death takes an assistant and even goes into retirement.

Anyway, Equal Rites starts out with wizard Drum Billet, who foresees his death (in Discworld, wizards know exactly when they will die), setting out to pass on his powers and his wizarding staff to his successor. As a rule in the Disc, the eighth son of an eighth son is destined to become a wizard. There is one problem, though. The eighth son turns out to be a... daughter. Billet, not bothering to check the baby's gender, bestows his magical staff, completes the turnover rite and thus formalizes the dilemma. In Discworld, girls are not allowed to become wizards. Why? Well, it just hasn't been done before.

The baby Eskarina grows up to be a headstrong little girl and decides, at the age of seven, to pursue her destiny against all odds. With the reluctant help of witch Granny Weatherwax, Eskarina travels to the Unseen University in Ankh Morpork where wizards are trained, dead set at being the first girl wizard. (I must note here that Pratchett came up with the idea of a "school for wizards" years before J.K. Rowling wrote her very first Harry Potter book.)

Equal Rites is a hilarious satire on, well, just about everything (with particular emphasis on gender role expectations and societal norms). The plot is promising enough and it doesn't take long for the action to pick up. In fact, Equal Rites is an enthralling ride through much of Discworld as the readers, through the young Esk, meet new and bizarre (but always funny and lovable) characters. The ending, though, is a little off for me. Towards the end of the book, I felt that Esk was totally upstaged by Granny Weatherwax. Then again, the sheer thrill of the reading moved me to forgive this particular flaw.

I must admit that I enjoyed the book not so much because of the story but because of Pratchett's engaging style of writing. He is purposely funny without sounding contrived, witty without sounding arrogant. As such, this is not so much a review of Equal Rites as it is a testament to Pratchett's endearing style of humor. Pratchett has the talent of playing around with language, turning and twisiting words to suit his needs. On many occasions, I find myself rolling on the floor laughing (rolling on my bed, to be exact -- I never read on the floor).

Loyal Pratchett readers say that this is not his best work. They say that his style hasn't quite developed yet in this here book. If this is so, then I should definitely get hold of his later works. Still and all, Equal Rites is a good enough initiation to Pratchett's fantastic Discworld. It succeeded in convincing me to further explore that flat planet on the back of four elephants that stand atop a gigantic floating turtle.

(Note: I just finished reading Pratchett's Reaper Man and thoroughly enjoyed it -- much more so than I did this book)