Friday, January 23, 2009

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak couldn't quite make up his mind if he wants this novel to be a heart tugging tearjerker or a charming piece of whimsy. So he does both. Alternately.

When it's being whimsical, the reader awwws and ooohs and aaahs and falls in love with Liesel Meminger, feisty, kindhearted, intelligent, and funny. The relationship between her and golden haired Rudy Steiner has got to be the best love story I've ever encountered in a long time, maybe ever.

When it's tugging at your heart, it makes you despise war and prejudice while being awed by how pure goodness can happen against a backdrop of evil. Your heart breaks at the losses and shame Liesel has to deal with.

Her being of Aryan descent saved her from an acid shower, but didn't spare her the terrors of war and an evil rule. At the start of the novel, Liesel loses her brother (by death) and her mother (by disappearance). Her foster parents, who live in the poor side of town, subsist on very little but manage to lavish her with love. Mr. Hubermann's love more obvious, softer than Mrs. Hubermann's brash, savage affection, which frankly borders on abusive.

The appearance of Jewish Max Vanderburg spikes their lives with drama and danger, but also knits their family closer, brings out the good in Mrs. Hubermann, and intensifies Liesel's love for books.

Books -- one of the elements that make this story even more appealing. The lengths that Liesel goes through to steal books, her fascination with the Mayor's library, the power of words channeled by Max Vanderburg as he tells his own story -- I can relate. Zusak cannot fail but endear himself with the book nuts who read this.

All the events are narrated by Death. Cheeky. Sarcastic. Tortured. Death without the scythe. Warm. Compassionate. He's just doing his job.

Zusak uses bullet points and asides as a helpful devise to add meaning to the story. Sometimes the writing borders on gimmicky. Some parts are predictable.

Much of its predictability is also intentional. Zusak is his own worst spoiler. He shifts from the linear flow and goes fast forward to the future to warn you of pending doom. So you brace yourself for the worst. And when the worst does come, Zusak delivers the drama tersely, quickly. And just as your eyes brim with tears, he shifts his tone and gets charming and funny again. So if there's anything that I hate about the book, it's that I never get to a full 5-hanky bawl. And I so wanted to cry. I want my money back.

Okay, I didn't get my money's worth of tear duct purgation. Nevertheless, I loved The Book Thief. If the author was pandering to my sentimentality, well, it worked. This is fine story telling. This is a young adult book that adults can appreciate. It's hard to pick up another novel after reading this as visions of the book thief still lingers.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Let's do a Covey and start with the end in sight. (Yes, I know that is a paraphrase.) This has got to be the most frustratingly perplexing ending I've ever had the displeasure of reading, and not in an I-am-so-intrigued-and-delightfully-mystified-I’ve-got-to-buy-the-sequel kind of way, but in a head-scratching, what-the-fafaya-was-that-all-about way.

The start and the middle were not all that satisfying either. According to Wikipedia, Bellow’s style tends to be brooding, and this particular novel is a broodfestmania.

It is set in late 70s Bucharest. Post-earthquake, communist-ruled, dictator-led, impoverished Rumania. Not exactly party central. Dean Albert Corde is there to accompany his wife to deal with the impending death of her mother. He spends a lot of time sitting in his wife's childhood bedroom. Ruminating. A whole lot of ruminating. I guess there’s nothing else to do. His mind travels back and forth between Bucharest and Chicago. In Chicago, he has suddenly become a social and academic pariah because of a controversial article he wrote. He replays the events in his mind and contemplates his past motivations and his inclinations for the future. In Bucharest, he encounters the workings of a totalitarian regime and he criticizes and scrutinizes . All in his mind. He doesn’t really do anything much with his thoughts. In Bucharest, he doesn’t do anything to resolve his righteous anger and defy the authorities. Back in Chicago, he doesn’t even put up a fight for his post.

Though the narration is by a third person, the perspective is that of Dean Corde. And because Corde mostly just sits and ruminates, the plot moves at an excruciating crawl. Each progression of event is merely used as a jumping point to recall and reflect on past events. Yes, more brooding. If you delete all his introspection and retain only the narrative, you would be left with a very thin book.

Once in a while, he turns his attention to the cyclamens in bloom, seeing them as symbols for his state of mind and life. But the symbolic meanings can get too obtuse for the non-horticulturist reader.

Is it all that bad? When I managed to keep myself awake, I did spot some good writing, good turns of words and phrases. I liked his descriptives. Probably the most entertaining parts of the book. More like commentaries really.

“This heavy woman, and pale, eyes large and dark - - she was as intelligent as she was stout. Her hair, parted evenly down the center in two symmetrical waves, suggested that the fundamental method of her character was to balance everything out, and that she kept a mysterious, ingenious equilibrium, her fat figure and her balanced thoughts being counterparts. “

Also entertaining are some of the little stories Dean Corde encounters as a journalist. His fictional accounts of a ghastly rape, of rats and corpses in the trenches, are so dark; I think to myself, “How can Bellows think up fiction this vile?”

Mildly amusing is his nightmarish experience at the crematorium. He sweats through his coat in the middle of a harshly cold winter.

Bellows won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature years before he wrote The Dean’s December. And his writing showcases (shows off?) his intellectual chops. This is a book that cannot be read in isolation or ignorance of other books. Bellow litters the novel with allusions to other literary works, historical events, and philosophical ideas that the author assumes his reader knows. Huh! He didn't account for some fluffhead like me reading this.

I would still like to give Bellows another chance if I find another one of his books. Hopefully, pre-Nobel, and not something as slow, introspective, and repetitious as this.
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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pilipinas Kong Mahal

I wrote this entry about ten years ago back in those days when I was trying to create my own website from scratch. Back then, there was no blogger or multiply. I tweaked things just a teeny weeny bit to reflect current realities.

**G.S. was conceived, born, breast-fed, baptized, confirmed, nurtured, disciplined, educated, married, employed, unemployed, wowed
in Philippine soil. Once in a while she steps out of this Pearl of the Orient to get a whiff of foreign culture and px goods, but she always comes back, longing for all things Filipino, paunchy traffic enforcers and dirty stray cats excluded.

The usual Philippine intro starts with our archipelago being made up of 7,107 islands, but what I do I know about these thousands of islands when I've only been to about 8 of them? In my eyes, the Philippines is made up mountains and volcanoes; rice paddies and little hills; tiny barrios and middle-sized villages; a number of subdivisions which require you to have a sticker to enter; vast parking spaces pretending to be major highways; chinese-owned malls urbanizing every bustling town; business districts with its Starbucks cafes and yuppy hang-outs; cities with old churches and remnants of our Spanish culture; squatter shanties with TV antennae and exposed laundry; countless restaurants and bars; and a whole lot of places where you can have fun -- if you know how to have fun.

We are bursting at the seams with a population of 90 or so million people. It would be impossible to come up with a description of the Filipino that would embrace each and every citizen. Though we share a common history and though we can joke about quirks that make us so unmistakably Pinoy, I have to ignore those generalizations and just say that we are diverse. Diverse even in the way we look -- tall, short, brown, fair, chinky-eyed, wide-eyed, lithe, buxom, we are all these things, as we are the products of ancestors intermarrying among the native filipino, malay, chinese, american, spanish, arabic, japanese, european, and whatever possible ethnic combinations. We are diverse in culture, religion, political beliefs, lifestyles, tastes, sexual preferences, and education.

Fact books will tell you we have a total land area of 297,000 square kilometers. If you're like me with limited spatial sense and you cannot really relate to that fact, just imagine this -- as your 747 approaches th
e southmost tip of the country and gets ready to land at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, it will span the country for 15 to 20 minutes before it gets over the tarmac which is in the big Northern island of Luzon. I guess that means it is not very big in actual land area. But think about it -- over 7,000 islands mean a whole lot of shorelines. So when they say here that life is a beach, you can take it literally. We have islands and islets, beach coves and beach resorts, dive spots and surf spots, lakes, seas and rivers. Forget your Amex; do not leave home without a snorkel, your cute shades, your favorite tanning lotion and at least one smashing swimming get-up.

I was talking about Luzon a while back. That is one of the three major island groups which
are: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Southmost is Mindanao. I will not pretend to know a whole lot about it because I have not spent a lot of time in there. And it's quite different from the Philippines that I know. There is a rich diversity of cultures present -- Christian, Muslim and tribal. I have been to Cagayan de Oro, which is called the "City of Golden Friendship". That title is very much deserved - nowhere else in the world will you see a group of people with such an abundant supply of smiles given so freely away. Davao is a city with the feel of a metropolis but with the charm of a quaint province. And, of course, Palawan, an exotic island with world class beachfront resorts, an underground river, a crocodile farm, and nature's showcase of breathtaking wonders.

What can you find in the Visayas ? Do you have the whole day -- to just read about it? Beautiful, enchanting, seductive islands: Bohol, with its Chocolate Hills and historic churches; Ilo-ilo, with its mansions and old-world charm; Cebu, which is like a more laid b
ack Manila; and Boracay, with its reggae-thumping little bars, quaint inns and plush hotels, and little sandy nooks and crannies where horny lovers can have a quicky or two.

But Luzon is the island I know and love best. There are mountains, caves, lakes, waterfalls, lagoons, flatlands, rice terraces, little towns claiming their place in the map throug
h an "original" delicacy, fishing villages, golf courses, country clubs, jet-ski resorts, universities, red-light districts, steel-and-glass business districts, a chinatown, weekly town fiestas, local politics and bizarre tragedies which usually provoke CNN newscasters to utter the phrase "only in the philippines", slums with style, exclusive villages with mansions and beamers, malls and mini-malls.

In the center of all of these is the place where I was conceived, born, breast-fed, etc., etc. (see above), a place outsiders call MANILA, but is actually a metropolis of cities and municipalities so close together, with borders indistinguishable, set apart only by the traffic jams for which this country is notorious. If one looks at the city with dispassionate eyes like Claire Danes did, it may look like a filthy jumble of smoke-belching vehicles, dilapidated buildings, pothole-infested roads, street children begging for change, a city cursed with poor planning and even poorer maintenance. But in my eyes, it is HOME, a very small world where you see somebody you know in every corner.

It is a fascinating city with a lot of humor, where people-watching can keep you entertained for one whole lazy afternoon. That's what the traffic jams are for -- for people to slow down and notice the dancing traffic cop, appreciate how even those begging street children can find ways to entertain themselves and laugh and play. It is a city with a beat, though sometimes off or slow, it is a beat, nonetheless, that once it gets into your soul, is hard to shake.
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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Duo Steakhouse

Ground Level, Serendra
Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Metro Manila

632-8561200, 632-8561300

The Line:
A combination of excellent food and impeccable service to provide you the perfect dining experience in a comfortable setting.
The Bait:
Good steaks, according to glowing reviews
The Hook:
An extensive menu and like the line says, impeccable service
The Sinker:
Always crowded
The Catch:
P1,000++ per head, excluding wine

"Ano! Foie Gras na naman!" Okay, that sounds terribly noveau. And it was meant as a joke. But half meant after all the rich food we've had during the holidays. So even if it's our anniversary dinner, we were hankering for something that resembled comfort food. Duo is not the obvious place to find comfort food, but we've been wanting to try it for a long time.

For starters we had Seared Tuna Sashimi (P320). Good, but nothing beats the first time I've had something like this at Good Earth. Then we had Beef Carpaccio (P345). Mmmm. I'm trying to stop my eyes from rolling up as I remember it. It tasted divine and so fresh I could imagine the cow grazing just hours before it selflessly dedicated its life to us. The carpaccio was topped by this very refreshing vegetable, which the waiter told us was miniature arugula. Of course, we had to order the famous Tessie Tomas Salad (P390 for small and P675 for large), which tosses together roasted prawns, salmon, shitake mushrooms, and greens. What I loved about the salad is the not-so-ordinary balsamic dressing; very, very good.. And the small sized order is quite satisfying.

Good start. Okay, those were not necessarily comfort food but we were comforted by how good everything tasted and the fact that the good reviews were not just hype.

Moving on to our entrees. The menu presented an overwhelming list of steaks, seafood, and steak and seafood combinations. We were intrigued by the Blackened US Angus Porterhouse (P730) served with fried potatoes so my husband ordered it. It did not disappoint. I especially loved the Cafe de Paris topping.

But what made me a Duo fan was my entree, the Seafood Saffron Stew (P590). The waiter described it as something like bouillabaisse so I was a bit disappointed when I saw that the sauce was more like broth, rather thin. It wasn't what I expected, but it was a very pleasant surprise to taste it. I'm no food expert and I don't have a trained palate, but I can tell that this dish was created by a genius. It was such a soulful dish it was elevated immediately to comfort food in my book. And it felt healthy to be eating fish and mussels too.

Another thing that made us happy was the way the manager obliged our request (made when we reserved) for a discount on corkage for our first bottle of wine. Service was very good. The restaurant was booked for a birthday party and so we had to take the outdoor tables. We were afraid the service might suffer because of that arrangement. But our waiter was very attentive and very gracious. Not snooty at all as one might expect from such a restaurant. I also liked that even if we forgot to indicate that we preferred the small serving of the salad, that they automatically gave us the small one when they could have conned us with the large order.

The weather was very cool that December evening. The food was, as promised, excellent. And we did find comfort food on our anniversary.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruis Zafon

"Books are mirrors; you only see in them what you already have inside you.."

I finished reading Shadow of the Wind a few minutes ago. I'm breathless. Spent. Awed not just at the book but at the power of books like this to simultaneously dumbfound me and awake my emotions. And I'm writing this right now so that I don't chicken out of reviewing this book once the I-am-not-worthy feelings set in.

The Shadow of the Wind is "a story about lonely people, about absence and loss," says Daniel, the novel's narrator. It's also a story about pain, betrayal, vengeance, forgiveness, secrets, lies, evil, envy, about family dysfunction, a culture of sanctimony, about poverty in more ways than just material, about different ways people love and hate; is it too much to say that it is about the human condition?

Three narratives that mirror each other with uncanny similarities. Intensely emotional moments that take your breath away. Surprises that keep you gasping. Horrific events that make you want to turn your eyes away from the page. Love stories that make your heart bleed. A pace that leaves you panting and turning the pages even when your eyelids and heart say that you've had enough for one sitting. Too many coincidences that only a novel as spellbinding as this can get away with.

I like that though the story has layers of meaning that would reveal themselves in future rereadings, the first layer is already satisfying.

And the characters -- Don Ricardo Aldaya, his women, his secrets, and his fourteen thousand books. Fortuny, the hatter who dies alone and learns too late how to love. Jacinta and her Zacharias. The son of a warmonger Miguel, driven by anger, love, and principle. And Lain Coubert, and so many more. But my favorite is Fermin - who looks like Boris Karloff when he is asleep and dresses as if he were a screen idol, who is always either horny or hungry, but is always funny. Except when he's being beaten to a pulp by the vile Fumero. Fumero, so vivid in my mind in his sailor suit. All these characters, except maybe for the women Daniel and Julian love, have dimensions. You see both the good and the evil in them, and the reason for their evilness. You see the hero's cowardice and the villains' broken hearts.

I don't like some of the dialogue - stilted, unnatural. Maybe it's the translation. Maybe Zafon wants too much to narrate using the characters' words. And he does that a lot. Snippets, long italicized tracts of words from different people so you get the story in pieces, or in vague suggestions that can lead you to wrong conclusions. But in the end, he had to rely on Nuria's long Remembrance of the Lost to tie everything together, just in case you still haven't figured out the missing pieces.

There was one particular twist that I didn't like. Too much of a cliche. That I felt was unnecessary to move the story along. Crammed in the story are a lot of unoriginal subplots already seen in family dramas.

But you can forgive Zafon all that because this is reading that is what reading fiction is all about. It entertains you, and stretches your imagination, and inspires you to read more books.

This is my first read for 2009, and I couldn't have chosen a better one to start the year and continue my romance with the book.
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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Islandhopper Dons an Apron...

... and makes Pannacotta.

A few years ago, all I wanted to be was a domestic diva. Martha Stewart, pre-federal charges and prisondom, was my role model. I bought color coded chopping boards, planted basil on my window sill, and stocked up on every dried spice available to man. I remembered winning a baking contest when I was 10, and so I thought I had a promising future in the kitchen and I was going to be my own barefoot contessa.

I was so happy and proud when I made my first adobo. Nora Daza taught me. She did not teach me math so I did not know how to adjust the recipe for 10 for just the two of us. So for two weeks, all we had was adobo, the last serving of which as adobo flakes in a sandwich. But it was pretty good.

And then one time, I took a recipe from my Cooking for Two cookbook and substituted pork chops for lamb chops. It was a disaster. Energetically chewing the rubbery meat, my husband tried to say something so he complimented the uhm, the coca cola I served with dinner. Kitchen trauma. Ego catastrophe.

As somebody who thrives on compliments, I don't deal well with failure. So I threw away my Martha Stewart poster and with teary eyes said, I will never cook again. I cast out my culinary aspirations. Onion bulbs started sprouting plants inside the kitchen. Our first tank of LPG lasted 2 1/2 years. Far longer than some marriages do.

This domestic diva retired prematurely. Once in a rare while I whip up some puttanesca or throw a no-brainer salad. Sometimes, when I'm too lazy to wear a bra and eat out, my husband trusts me with simple dishes. Or I heat leftovers. I have successfully made Kalbi Chim and Osso Bucco once. And one birthday of mine, I did a whole production number, from scratch, by myself of a full course dinner that ended with scrumptious lava cake. No one died. It temporarily restored my self confidence, but generally, I stay out of the kitchen.

But once in a while, mostly when I'm watching Nigella, I think of that abandoned dream and of that souffle, and I think maybe it's not too late to be a culinary queen. And maybe someday I will be one.

But those dreams will have to stay in the back burner longer, because we're moving in with my mother in law. And she is the domestic goddess in the family. Not just because it's her kitchen, but because she's really, really good. So good, I cannot bear the shame of cooking by her side. And so I realized I would not be holding a spatula for a long, long time.

So, when we were discussing our Italian themed lunch last New Year's day, I raised my hand to say I will make the pannacotta.

I know, I know, long story. And all I wanted to share was this recipe:

1/2 liter fresh milk
1/2 liter whipping cream
2 packs of Knox unflavored gelatin
6 tbsps. sugar

Mix all ingredients and boil. Pour into dish. Set.
Top with mangoes or peach slices. Or strawberries. Or chocolates. Use your imagination.

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Boil until sticky. Cool. Pour on top.

--end of recipe--

Note: This does not travel well. Look at picture below; this was how it looked after a 15 minute drive to venue. I had to fix it to do a quick fix, but I was not able to restore it to its original perfection. So, my tip is if you're going to transport it, to do the topping wherever you'll serve the dish. Read more!

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Big 8 of 2008 -- The Year of Living Leisurely

The Lady of Leisure tag I have assigned to myself has always been meant in jest, or maybe as wishful thinking. In truth, the need for monthly salon trips and the propensity to stuff my shelves with books have compelled me to get out there and hustle for money. Also, the Proverbs 31 woman I aspire to be is not one to be idle.

But still, this year I did become a Lady of Leisure.

It must be a testament to the power of the word. I discovered that if you say something often enough, it becomes a reality.

My 2008, indeed, is the year of living leisurely. This year, I handled my career as if they were hobbies and attacked my hobbies as if they were my career. I learned that the art of doing nothing is not about slothful loafing, but about doing things with hardly any effort because they're fun and they feed the soul. Okay, I was lazy too. And stepping on breaks because of fear of making mistakes. And being true to my procrastinating nature, I kept a lot of plans and dreams in the back burner. I took it easy. I worked hard at having fun. In that respect, I was successful in my efforts, because I had more fun than is legally allowed.

I read 53 books in 2008. And it feels to me that that was my only major accomplishment. Well, what's the rush? I can relax now, I've already passed the deadline for the TOYM. And Grandma Moses remains an inspiration for starting late.

Anyway, enough preamble. This is the requisite year-end recap of the big things that happened to me in the year that was.

In no particular order:

1) Big Island Hopping - 2008 started with me flying off to the islands of the US for a wedding. In the 3rd quarter of the year, Hubbaluvvah and I were swinging our heads very fast watching formula 1 cars zip through the streets of Singapore. For somebody who this year earned what other people would find insufficient to buy a pu
rse, I was able to magically find the resources to travel. And shop. Thanks to God, generous relatives, and well-timed training gigs, I was able to hop across the big ponds.

2) Bye Bye, Onie - Probably the only sad note of the year. Surprisingly though, our first Christmas and New Year without daddy were not as morose as I thought they would be. I think it is because of a reassurance that dad is in a much better, happier, pa
inless place. Once in a while, I feel the pang of his absence and ache for him to be there, but it is followed by a peace that transcends understanding.

3) Blogerella - I have been blogging since 1999, back when the word blog was not even in my vocabulary. It was a way of scratching an itch to write, just write, just pound on keyboard any leftover angst not yet fully processed in pity parties equipped with copious amounts of alcohol and/or coffee and/or desserts. To just release words gurgling inside my head and bursting from my heart. But this year, I got into blogging more than just a way of self expression. I ventured out of the confines of Multiply and got into the more public spheres of wordpress and blogspot. I compartmentalized my mindburps into different blogs with different themes. I spent hours looking for templates and days adding widgets and gadgets galore. I tried to understand the science of hit rates. I twitterized. I am not yet sure why I'm doing all that, but I'
m game enough to watch how this bloggaholia will evolve.

4) Batangas Escapes - And when I just want to wean myself from the wawawa, I go where dsl means daylong sleeping and loafing and go to Batangas to read, walk, stare at the lake, and catch a whiff of rural eau de swine. Aahhh.

5) Books, Books, and Book Nuts - It's my mother's fault. Like most of life's major issues, this bibliophilia can be blamed on the parents, specifically the female parent. But it's true. She got me reading when I was 3, and indoctrinated me into book collection. And now, in 2008, I met a bunch of people called Shelfarians, and Flippers who made me feel stepping into a
bookstore without buying anything is a shameful crime. They are the reason why I can no longer see the floor of our second floor and why nothing strikes fear in my husband's heart than seeing me enter a bookstore. I acknowledge that it's madness and I am sick. Yes, I am Gege, and I am a biblioaddict. And aside from my mom, there are nuts out there that I can blame.

6) Big Black Eyebags - I live 6 timezones away from where my body is. For many reasons -- like #3 and #5 above , plus reading 75 student papers every week during the first term -- I've become friends with the hours after midnight. Sometimes I get to bed as my husband is leaving it to shower and go to work. This year's move to in-law land might/will have to change that. And that's probably a good thing. because eye creams are expensive.

) Beach Escapade - Camiguin, my only claim to still be deserving of my Islandhopper name. This was the first time I went to this kind of adventure without husband, friend, and the family grill. Solo at White Island. Woman against nature in my ballroom-proportioned bedroom at Enigmata Tree House. Careening toward the sea in a motorbike. And who could forget Dodong?

8) Butter N Toast - How many times in the past few months have I found myself sighing the closest to a sigh of contentment? It's not a resting in laurels kind of contentment, but just this wonderful feeling that this club is making a difference in the lives of individuals hungry for learning and passionate about self development. I love this club, and I adore the people in it.

So there. The big 8 of 2008. And as I wind down this recap, I remember one more big thing -- the bonds. The bonds I've formed with so many people this year. Bonding with hubbaluvva as he spends less time traversing Luzon and more time conversing with me (minor miracle there), the transatlantic and I-knew-you-20-years-ago bonds made possible by Facebook, bonds with people who hate the books I love and love the books I hate, bonds with family, with sisters in faith, with students past and new, with faceless cyberfriends, with people who care about giving the underprivileged a voice, bonds built through cups of coffee, bonds developed every other Thursday night, bonds in a smaller and smaller world.

I don't believe in luck. I don't believe in numerelogy. But 2008 was a pretty good year.
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