Saturday, November 22, 2014

Brando Skyhorse's The Madonnas of Echo Park


The Madonnas of Echo Park tells the stories of Mexicans who struggle through their daily lives in Echo Park, a section of Los Angeles. The book starts with "We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours," and ends with "This is the land that we dream of, the land that belongs to us again." A summary of the characters' attitudes toward the land they love and struggle to claim as their home.

Echo Park (Photo by User2004 at Wikimedia Common)

For a migrant worker, "I have no heartbreaking story of the journey here; the heartbreaking journey is here, in this small couple of square miles of land called Echo Park." And for the bus driver, "America is there for the taking if you aren't lazy and have no qualms about the kind if work you do." Succinct descriptions of their lives in the United States. They are among those who know that life is tough but also that America is the land of opportunities.

At the same time, Skyhorse shows his witticism when he said, through another character that "Catholicism gives everyone something to feel ashamed about." And the lady of the house spoke broken English to the maid, believing the latter doesn't understand a word. When in fact the maid understands the mistress and was learning English through her daughter. These bits of humor modulate the gravity of the subject matter.

Through the book, Mr. Skyhorse gives voice to the voiceless and shapes to the invisible. And he fills the writing with insights into the dynamics between these invisible people and the country that they seek to claim as home.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Possibility of an Island: Michel Houellebecq's The Brave New World


Book Review of The Possibility of an Island


The species have reached immortality. Through cloning and the propagation of historical memories. But the time of the humans is over. It is the age of the neo-humans, clones without joy and grief, without neurosis, without community, without sexual desires. Only a lifetime of reviewing and of analyzing the life of the human from which their DNA came. A lifetime of isolation, except for a pet. A lifetime of pseudo-touch through electronic communications. A lifetime of reflection and contemplation.

When the grief, the denial, the struggle to remain virile and attractive dominated the aging man or woman, the life of the neo-human seemed heavenly.  And no wonder the creator of these neo-humans chose to eliminate the neurosis associated with aging.

Neo-humans live without joy; and they die without grief. They don’t need food, only minerals and water. A superior race more suitable for survival. Living in a post-apocalyptic world. What does it mean when a few decided to leave their isolation, to end their immortality, to trek across the dried ocean surface, in search of a legendary community?

Would you choose to be human or neo-human?

The Possibility of an Island is a sad, sad depiction of the possibility, or impossibility, of humanity. Without youth and sexual virility, what is man or woman? When our mind and body decline, what do we make of life? Is a lifetime of tranquility more preferable to the fluctuations between joy and grief? What kind of Omega Point are we moving toward?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Call It Sleep: The Immigrant Experience


In Call It Sleep, David Schearl, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, straddles between his Yiddish background and the American culture. The dialogues in the novel—Yiddish written in prose and English in dialect—highlight the clash and synthesis of the two worlds. It is the essential immigrant experience, to straddle between two cultures, to struggle with identity, and ultimately to reconcile and integrate the two into a new creation.


Manhattan’s Lower East Side has been a microcosm of the “melting pot” where Jews, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and Russians mingle and yet retain their unique identities. Often, second and third generations move to more affluent neighborhoods, but this place remains “ground zero” for the dynamics of cultural synthesis. Henry Roth in Call It Sleep gives a glimpse of that cultural dynamics for the Jewish community. An essential novel for the immigrant experience.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Brief History of Time Review


In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking presents contemporary cosmology to the lay readers, describing the concepts of quantum mechanics and general relativity without the equations for probability waves or differential geometry. Even the student of physics may find the account interesting, and grasps the theories intuitively rather than mathematically.

Space-Time Fabric

The Big Bang Theory and the inflationary universe form the basis for exploring the frontiers of cosmology. And the search for a quantum theory of general relativity becomes the cosmologists’ goal to understand black holes, which will give insight into the nanoseconds during the Big Bang. Perhaps in understanding that period of time, physicists may unify the forces of nature and formulate The Theory of Everything.

Black Hole

Though we can find these cosmological concepts and theories in books and journals, Hawking presents them without all the mathematical hocus-pocus, so common men and women will understand the ideas behind the equations. Sure, there are some scientific jargons but they don’t overwhelm. And though the ideas have evolved since the book was published, the concepts provide the basis for understanding the challenges confronting cosmologists. I recommend the book for those who want a basic understanding of cosmology minus the differential equations and singularity points.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Albert Camus's The Rebel


In The Rebel, Albert Camus, the master of existentialism, analyzed the spirit of rebellion from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution. The Jacobans, rebelled against King and God and by making their principles divine, introduced the Reign of Terror.
Nihilism went further and eliminated absolute principles and its rise during the second half of the nineteenth century created terrorists who renounced virtue and principles and who rebelled against reality and history by destroying them. From the killing of gods to the killing of kings, rebellions had ushered in the terrors of Hitler and then of Stalin. The Soviets, in the name of the classless society in the future, a new heaven and a new earth where the lamb and the lion coexist, justified violence to guide the path of civilization, to force the end of history, the Marxist utopia.


Camus stated that absolute freedom leads to injustice and absolute justice stifles freedom and demonstrated it with examples from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution. And he believed that only through moderation, by limiting freedom with justice and vice versa, could a possible solution emerge.

Events in the past several decades have shown that his statement remains relevant in our time. From Timothy McVeigh to Anders Behring Breivik, we have seen terrorists kill in the name of their freedom, their absolute freedom, and of justice, their notion of absolute justice.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory: The Decay of Humanity


After dabbling in biology in The Elementary Particles and business development in Platform, Houellebecq turns to art in The Map and the Territory. Jed Martin was an artist who as a boy began drawing flowers in his small notebooks with color pencils.

Then, he turned to photographing manufactured objects such as such as handguns, diaries, and printer cartridges. But it was only when he began to photograph Michelin maps of France that he become rich and famous.


Houellebecq in tracing the rise of Jed Martin to wealth and fame also portrays his path toward the reclusive life. He lost his lover Olga. He lost his friend, the writer Michel Houellebecq. And he finally lost his father. In the end, he lived in a fenced estate and only drove to Carrefour to shop on Tuesdays.

Houellebecq delved into art not as a spiritual journey but as a vision of humanity in decline and decay. As in The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island, he envisioned the disappearance of the human species and the emergence of a new breed in a new world. A prophet for the twenty-first century.

Michel Houellebecq (Photo by Mariusz Kubik)

Although the murder and dismemberment of the writer Houellebecq is gruesome, the most poignant scene is at the end of the book when Jed Martin dying filmed the photographs of Olga, Houellebecq, his father and other past acquaintances. He put them on a canvas in front of his home and recorded them as they faded, wrinkled and decomposed into pieces through rain and sun. As Houellebecq put it, “That feeling of desolation, too, that takes hold of us as the portraits of the human beings who had accompanied Jed martin through his earthly life fall apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves the symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species.” The final testimony of decay, not only of Jed’s life but also of humanity.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review of Blindness: Saramago's Literary Novel in Study of Humanity


In Saramago's literary novel,“white blindness” strikes a man while he was driving. After he has gone to a clinic to check on his condition and the doctor couldn't find the problem, the disease spreads to the doctor and his patients. To contain the blindness, the government rounds up these victims in a mental asylum where the strong would oppress the weak.


The eye doctor’s wife, who keeps her eyesight after everyone have gone blind, leads a group of six people, including her husband, on a journey in the wasteland of the blind that reeked of excrement and decomposing corpses, to search for food.

To what depth would men and women descend to fill their bellies, to satiate that hunger which would smother all traces of humanity?

Blindness is a surrealist novel of the human condition, the struggle to survive that would release the cruelty and selfishness suppressed by law and punishment as well as the courage and perseverance in the face of suffering. It is the stench throughout the novel that would linger in the reader’s mind.


Albert Camus has The Plague; William Golding The Lord of the Flies; Cormac McCarthy The Road; and so Jose Saramago Blindness.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Invisible Man Book Review


Like the underground man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man lives underground, but he is invisible only because others refuse to see him for who he is. They manipulate him as a tool toward their goals.

Harlem Riot of 1964

When he was fighting in the battle royale, he was only entertaining the white men. When he studied at the college, Dr. Bledsoe showcased him to the trustee as a model of the school’s success. In turn, the trustee funded the school to heel his wounded heart. When he went to New York, the communists used him to solicit members and ultimately sacrificed him through the Harlem riot to promote their agenda. Even Mary, who cared for him like a mother, didn’t see him for who he is.

But such invisibility is not only that of an African-American, but of all Americans, and perhaps of all human. To exist but not be seen. To reflect light but be transparent. An object of others’ agendas rather than an individual.


Only when he realized his invisibility did possibilities emerge, did he become free. Only then did he found himself. The person he is, rather then the person whom others wanted him to be. And in the end, he decided to emerge from his hibernation. What are the possibilities? Or perhaps more disillusionment?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Narziss and Goldmund: The Spiritual Life and The Secular Life

Goldmund could not fit into the Mariabronn Monastery anymore than a square peg could fit into a round hole and soon left the cloister for the vagrant life. By sleeping in the woods, killing Viktor the thief, meeting the plague, studying under Meister Niklaus and romancing with Lydia and Julie, Lene and Agnes, he explored the sensual life as an artist. When Agnes rejected the old man that he was, he returned to the monastery to meet his friend and mentor Narziss before leaving the world.

Calw, Germany

On the other hand, at home in Mariabronn with the chestnut tree and knowing that his way differs from that of Goldmund, Narziss, isolated from the flesh’s pleasure and pain, lived out the monastic life, praying, meditating, searching for enlightenment through intellectual and ascetic disciplines. The way of the mystic was for Narziss as much as the way of the artist was for Goldmund.

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse, throughout his life, sought Goldmund’s artistic way¾ the emotional, prodigal, active, and sensual path¾ but ended up with Narziss’s mystical way¾ the intellectual, disciplined, contemplative, and ascetic path.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Buddenbrooks: The Saga of a Family

Thomas Mann's Novel on the Decline of a Family


Thomas Buddenbrook was a businessman, who followed in the family’s bourgeoisie pragmatism and achieved moderate success. But his brother Christian was the prodigal son, who squandered time and money in theater. And Thomas’s son Hanno, escaped harsh reality into the world of music. The conflict between the pragmatic and the ideal, reflected Thomas Mann’s struggles, and would surface again in The Magic Mountain.

Hamburg

The reader sees the family’s decline in Christian’s worsening pain, in Thomas’s gloom, in Hanno’s unhealthy teeth, and in the failed marriages of Tony, Thomas’s sister. Although Tony tried to leverage her and her daughter’s marriages to uplift the family status, their failures pointed toward the finale, where Christian was permanently institutionalize and Hanno died without children. Not only had the wealth dissipated, but also there was no heir.

Buddenbrooks is a monumental family saga.

Thomas Mann

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Franz Kafka's The Trial


K was accused of an undisclosed crime, based on a hidden law, by an unreachable court. Trying to uncover his crime, he encountered gatekeepers dedicated to blocking his eyes from not only the crime but also the law. At first, shocked or tickled by such a nightmare, the reader soon realized that his biases, prejudices and presumptions are those of K and that to the court administrators, K was the lunatic whose delusion had clouded his eyes.

The Court (Photographer: Matt Wade)

How could we be guilty of violating a law we don’t know of? How could there be a crime without a law? Perhaps K was guilty of holding onto such biases as logic and causality or merely of existing. Whether he understood the law or accepted the sentence, he couldn’t avoid the punishment just as a boy couldn’t avoid growing up.

Locating the crime, the law or the court pales against our discovering the colored glasses with which we see the sea and the sky, the banknote and the meatloaf, Napoleon and Genghis Khan, or for that matter, the man or woman in the mirror.


We created natural laws to rein in protons and electrons; we created civil laws to rein in John and Jane; we created ecclesiastical canons to rein in God. Then we organized these absolute truths to rein in our fears, hopes and humanity. So once in a while we should enjoy the shock as from The Trial and realize that we still could create absolute truths when we’re bored texting or twittering.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Brothers Karamozov: Dostoevsky's Epic Philosophical Novel


The crime: someone murdered Fyodor Karamozov, the wanton, irritable, and sadistic patriarch.

The punishments: Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son, committed suicide after killing his father. Dmitri, the eldest son, passionate and immoderate like his father, whom the court found guilty of the murder, was condemned to Siberia. Ivan, the second son, who was "enlightened" and rational, struggled with the guilt of convincing his half-brother Smerdyakov that since God didn’t exist, everything, including patricide, was permitted.

Optina Monastery (Photo by Иерей Максим Массалитин)

But as the dying monk Zosima had revealed and Dmitri soon realized, everyone was complicit in and thus implicated for the crime, since, for Dostoevsky, the web of sin entangled young and old to the extend that even children suffered from their peers’ sadism.

Through his dream of the hungry and suffering children, Dmitri realized his guilt in the desire, that mustard seed in his mind, to kill his father and therefore willingly took upon the punishment for the crime he didn’t commit. In doing so, he assumed a Christ-figure, accepting punishment for another’s crime.

The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor revealed Ivan’s enlightened rationalism for a humanistic dystopia, the socialist utopia that Dostoevsky condemned. Only when, in a hallucination, the "devil"--Ivan’s dark side-- revealed the parable of the learned atheist and thus rationalism’s arid futility did Ivan realized his guilt in rationalizing patricide and prodding Smerdyakov to commit it.

Fyodor Doetoevsky

And Smerdyakov, who mirrored Ivan’s unconsciousness and who carried the latter’s reasoning to the logical conclusion, like Judas, would not have the chance to repent or atone for his crime. In the end, Dmitri assumed his punishment.

Through the tormented consciousness of Dmitri, Ivan, Smerdyakov and other characters, Dostoevsky grabbled with morality in an enlightened but Godless world, a world that he could not accept.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Anna Karenina Book Review

To seek happiness Anna left the proper and dull Karenin for the dashing and exciting Vronsky, but in the end, committed suicide to end her misery. Rather than a comment on morality, Tolstoy through Anna Karenina, as in War and Peace, sought to contrast those who like Anna ignored or opposed the ubiquitous force which direct the destiny of individuals and nations and those who like Levin flowed with it. Both Anna and Levin, unlike Stiva and Dolly, could not passively regurgitate accepted behavior to satisfy social conventions and accept a banal existence, but they paved their paths one to the north and the other to the south.

Red Square, Moscow

Passion directed Anna to oppose social conventions and with all a rebel’s defiance pursued in Vronsky’s arms the happiness that Karenin could not provide. They would love as if the whole world belonged to them. But in the end she could not live like Robinson Crusoe and was not strong enough to fend off social forces, which proclaimed reality’s omnipresence.

Levin sought to transform himself and love Kitty as social conventions could only imitate. He sought to transcend social conventions, which were not in sync with the force that directed destinies, to attune to a higher melody, one that resonates wit the natural order of things.

Leo Tolstoy

The diametrically opposing destinies of Anna and Levin revealed, as in War and Peace, Tolstoy’s search to harmonize with a natural force greater than reason, passion or will. For him, to raise the sword against that force would be to embrace the inferno.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Animal Farm Book Review


"All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."

Joseph Stalin

In Animal Farm George Orwell reenacted the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, Major, Napoleon, Snowball, Jones, and Frederick incarnating Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Tsar Nicolas II and Hitler. But through the fable, Orwell critiques not only communism but also any corruption of power, leaders highlighting real or imagined threats to instill fear in followers and solidify power.

Leon Trotsky

As often repeated throughout history, people out of fear often would submit to the state’s unchecked power in exchange for security real or imagined. In the end, Napoleon exploited the animals just as Farmer Jones previously had and even emulated humans when he gave a dinner to neighboring farmers, who represented the leaders of other nations and would gladly play poker with the tyrant as long as they can benefit from the friendship. Animal Farm is a lighthearted fable for a serious subject.

George Orwell

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow

After a tsunami has taken his daughter and leukemia his wife, Yasahiro Kobayashi goes to the mountains of Hokkaido to commit seppuku, but not before he rescues an old man from several delinquents. "Black-Naped Oriole in Hokkaido Snow" is a story of a man wrestling  with love and lost, and life and death.


For the full story, go to the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.



Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Plague: Camus's Masterpiece on the Human Predicament

When the plague stealthily but mercilessly struck Oran, Dr. Rieux and his friends had to fight in the dark a noiseless enemy and could only rely on their courage and resilience. Whether the plague symbolized the Nazi occupation of France or the general suffering of our human condition, Camus focused on the internal character and strength of Rieux and his friends rather than the storm’s force and direction. Tarrou organized the sanitation team and Grand joined even though, as Rieux noted, their surviving it was only one in three. And the journalist Rambert could have left the city and returned to Paris, but was willing to risk not only his happiness with his girlfriend but also his life to struggle alongside Oran’s inhabitants to defeat the plague.

A Quote from The Plague

Unlike Meursault in The Stranger, who stood alone and alienated, Dr. Rieux fought the plague alongside his comrades Tarrou, Grand, Rambert and Castel. Though in the end, the plague took Tarrou’s life and those of several acquaintances, camaraderie had strengthened their resolve to fight this unknown and powerful enemy and highlighted the hope that in tumultuous hours and charred wastelands a few good men and women might sacrifice for the common good. And though when the city celebrated its victory, Rieux must mourn the loss of his wife, not through the plague but through a previous illness, newborn aroma seeped through the stench of the plague. As Rieux noted at the novel’s conclusion, the enemy might return; and in the next battle victory might escape beyond the city, but their courage and sacrifice would carry the fight across desert and sea.


An allegory of our existential condition, The Plague sprinkles hope without relying on Pollyanna.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

War and Peace Book Review

Beyond the panoramic Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, the muffled burning of Moscow and Napoleon’s dilapidated retreat, Tolstoy in War and Peace painted the Napoleonic War’s dislodging the cast of characters from their apparel concerns, gossipy sorties, troubled marriages and career ambitions and through their social clumsiness, oppressive ideals, spiritual dullness and determined naivete, extorted their unavoidable responses to these tidal waves.

While Napoleon sought to drive history’s course through his lashing will and reining determination by marching onto Moscow, Kutuzov by sensing and attuning to the historical current tactically retreated beyond Moscow and after the Napoleonic army’s natural dissipation trailed its chaotic retreat. Tolstoy, who believed historical crosswinds to be too complicated for any Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan to align, favored Kutuzov’s naturalistic craftsmanship and through Pierre, applied it to personal destiny.

French Retreat from Russia by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov

After his wife had left him, Pierre’s clumsy and sometimes-comic search for meaning led him to freemasonry, whose esoteric philosophy failed to pave a new path beyond the thorns and thistles. Although he accepted life storms serenely, his what for and so what would continue to harass him until he met Karataev, who showed him the life unified to the land, the sea and the air and harmonious with their rhythms¾a mystical naturalism favored by Tolstoy. However, at the novel’s conclusion, our hero’s life as a conscientious nobleman, a contributing intelligentsia and an accommodating family man, perhaps a sign that age would squander aspirations and the years would sap physical and emotional energy, smelled of defeat to his previous pilgrimage.

The Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard 

On the other hand, Andrei’s escaping from marriage, career and the mundane drudgery, and impulsively grasping after the wintry Polaris led to the battlefield where he almost died. Although Natasha’s love provided respite, her unfaithfulness confirmed his suspicion of an earthly Eden. In the end, even though he had forgiven her, he gave up that love for the ultimate rainbow, death, wherein he finally could rest. If he had not died, he probably would have been disillusioned by his love for Natasha.


It is sad that Andrei had given up youth, love and the possibilities of life, but it is equally sad that Pierre had decayed into a Nikolai Rostov after his courageous journey through what for and so what. Must we like the samurai commit seppuku to immortalize youth, vitality, creativity and aspiration so as not to decay into a grumpy and lecherous old man or a jealous and nagging old woman? Tolstoy’s determinism would dictate that Pierre would ultimately return to the natural cycle of birth, growth, education, career, marriage, procreation, contribution, decay and death. But whether we agree with Tolstoy or not, War and Peace would continue to tower above the greatest novels.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

1984 Book Review: The Ultimate Dystopian Novel

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four."

Under Big Brother’s omniscient eyes, Winston Smith tried to ignite his only freedom, the freedom to believe in "obvious" truths, but by the novel’s end, at the café Winston was unsure what two plus two would make, a sign that O’Brien had successfully reintegrated a "lost soul" and Winston had become like his friends and neighbors, unable to question and thus unable to revolt. What sends shivers down our spines is not the various tortures O’Brien performed, but after these tortures, Winston’s total capitulation¾mind, body, and soul¾to Big Brother. When the mind kowtows to external authority and ceases to reflect and question, then the individual had successfully metamorphosed into a machine.

Winston, by editing previous documents to conform to Oceana’s present position, such as whether Eurasia is friend or foe, had helped the regime’s guardians, who like O’Brien believed "who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past," mold the citizens’ minds. But Oceana, like other totalitarian regimes, also turned to the indispensable tool, fear, to chisel its citizens’ minds and hearts to its agenda’s shape and form. To stimulate fear and rouse its citizens to a common cause, it would when necessary create fathom enemies, either Eurasia or Eastasia, even though these totalitarian regimes also had similar ideologies, or rather, like Oceana, no ideologies.

Oceania Society

Under 1984’s dystopian sky, Winston must bow, not only because of Big Brother’s overwhelming power and presence, but also because of Winston’s inability to form any ideologies. Even though he wanted to think freely, he lacked the training and thus the analytical mind to counter O’Brien’s offenses. In the end, his mind followed the path of least resistance.

George Orwell

Orwell’s 1984 is a dark apocalypse of sub-human society where homo-sapiens had replaced machines to operate an efficient hierarchy, an apocalypse which any people would usher wherever and whenever they ceased to question "intuitively obvious truths."