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Testament of Gideon Mack

2 Jan

How do you even begin to define such a strange work? “Testament of Gideon Mack” is definitely not a usual pick for your bedtime reading, yet it reads peculiarly easy for a couple of sitting at the fireplace, if you will.  It has that fast, enchanting plot you would normally discover in a paperback thriller, but deals with such unusual subjects like faith, confusion, love, sex, and yes, -even apostasy.

The book is a novel disguised as a memoir of a priest that goes with the name of Gideon Mack, as the title faithfully suggests. James Robertson has intricately woven a tale of a man riddled with paradox : a priest who didn’t believe in God, engaged in extramarital sexual affair with his friend’s wife, and rolled marijuana joints for an old friend.  What was even more other-worldly is his alleged encounter with the Devil himself, which he met while he was missing in the belly of Scotland, -following his attempt to rescue a dog.

This encounter is the central theme of the book, acting as a powerful allegory for his whole life, and maybe as an attempt by the author to tackle the world in general.  For how best would you explain a world ridden with grievous problems like poverty, famine and diseases?  There’s no hypothesis that will serve this purpose better other than a tired God.  A God who planned something good for His creation, yet end up seeing not much use in it, grew exhausted, and abandoned them to fend off for themselves.  At this point, it is decidedly interesting that Robertson did not turn to atheism as an easy way out.  On the contrary, he insists that God (and the Devil) exists, if only to get disenchanted to continue whatever He has planned for mankind.

Of course, such a wild testimony by the character leads to many problems for him.  To begin with, his position as a priest is too rigid to afford him a gamble in dogmatical theology.  Even if you undress him of his frock, it still will not justify Gideon’s affair with Elsie Moffat, which was his own wife’s best friend and his best friend’s wife at the same time.  Of course, one could always argue that he’s just a man troubled by his own uneasiness about his faith and everything, but that’s beside the point.  The goal of this book, -or so it seems to me, is to get you questioning about life in itself, and why does it have to be this way.  Again, notice that Robertson never resorted to the easy premise that there is no God.  He insisted, through his character, that there is God, -and by extension, life after death.

Often morose, at times libidinous, “Testament of Gideon Mack” is a book where you will need to tread carefully; it serves as a companion while you were asking hard questions about life.  Yet, don’t let this discourage you, as Robertson is also a master storyteller.  The book definitely has a lot of entertainment value, even if you only look for exotic folklores and legends.  Don’t pass this one.

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Dante Club : Hell of a Debut

14 May

Anyone who is a movie buff will love a film that talks about a film. In the similar logic, enthusiastic bloggers will search and find blogs who talk about blogging. This kind of appeal, no,- strike that; this kind of devotion to a passion that got me picking up that copy of “Dante Club” and started reading.

Now, by talking about Dante Club, I make a risqué decision of writing about a book whose hype has passed away long time ago. In fact, Matthew Pearl has already launched his next novel, – The Last Dickens, for quite some time now. That’s why I started this piece with a statement about my passion. For a people like me, literature is a lust. And we know there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to our own personal fetishes.

Back to the book, it seems to me that a book like this could be read by more than one framework. You could try to read it as a detective story, for example. Which is good, particularly if you happen to be a fan of a classic, timeless piece of gumshoe like the ole Sherlock. Or you can try to delve into those rich details about classical pieces of Dante’s, dig deep into his life and just swallow ravenously everything Pearl had to offer as a Dante scholars. This is how I read the book. Quickly, I got lost in an informed exposition and discourses about Dante scattered throughout the novel. I had not much success in finding partners to discuss about classical literature in the past. So in this way, this book almost served as a peer who offer his own, personal interpretation of La Divina Commedia. It’s exhilarating, – to say the least.

However, this love of literature also has its bane, at least for me in this case. I was amazed, even almost flattered, to immerse myself in a world populated by a star-studded cast with the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not to mention Longfellow himself. I mean, who hasn’t heard about Paul Revere and remain quite unmoved by it ? This was augmented when I read about The Club itself. About how did it started the concept of what we know today as a Book Club. About the vast possibilities of intellectual discussion such a club could contain. Add to that some details of the personal lives of those literary giants, and I quickly got intoxicated.

In turn, this has made me failed my attempt to appreciate wholly the book as a mystery/thriller work. Pearl did it justice by carefully arranging the plot and giving the readers just enough excitement by using gruesome details of his depiction of the bodies. Yet I still fail to feel that bite I felt when I read a smart classic work of whodunit acted out by Holmes or Poirot. There was not enough atmosphere to create a sense of danger in this book. I’m referring to that sense of thrill you find where every page feel adventurous for you, – where you feel like turning a page is exactly like turning a dark corner in London where you just don’t know what you might bump into.

To do justice to Pearl, of course you can’t write such an amalgamated work of literary thriller quite satisfactorily. There is simply no technical way to do it well. You are torn between expounding on your literary theme, – and building that fast-paced, dramatic tension necessary for a thriller. Also, the fact that I am a fan of literature didn’t help at all. Maybe, just maybe, anyone who doesn’t have any idea about Dante will enjoy this book so much better than me. Because a hell of a debut this one surely is.

Tanril : A Colossal Masterpiece in Bahasa Indonesia !

19 Feb

Never before had I thought that I would feature a book review in my headline section of this blog. It’s not that I think books are not important, – but I usually reserve my headline column for special issues of human interest or other things that are dear to me. One book made me change my mind.

Enter “Tanril”. In the world of Indonesian books where most are mere manifestations of the word “mediocrity”, I was trembling when I read the first 20 pages or so of this book. It’s a work of an epic scale, telling the story of a young martial-artist in a very beautiful, lyrical way. It chronicles the life of Wander, a young, frail boy who refused to buckle to any challenge coming his way; and went on to achieve his dream in becoming an accomplished fighter in every sense of the word.

What particularly impressed me is the way the author, Nafta S. Meika, prepared the setting of this book. He painstakingly crafted every detail, scenery, and geographical arrangements to support the scenes of the story. On the back of the book, there is even a small dictionary, – so to speak, where he explained the meaning of his own created language used here and there throughout the book. I cannot help but think that if he continued to work at this level, then he surely has the potential to be Indonesia’s very own Tolkien. Especially when I happen to stumble at his blog post stating that he intended to make this book as a part of an epic series consisting of more than 10 books. Now, in itself that’s a mountainous task for a writer to tackle. In fact, I can only recall that a task of this scale was only successfully tackled once in Indonesian books by none other than the senior writer Arswendo Atmowiloto with his “Senopati Pamungkas” series. But this writer, – this writer -, he has started his journey fantastically with this book.

Another big achievement of his is his smooth and unpatronizing way to weave the details of eastern philosophy throughout the story. To come up with some bullet points of wisdom to be embedded into a story is already a high achievement in itself; let alone to be able to incorporate it into the book in such a way that will left the readers buoyed, smiling or nodding their heads in agreement without feeling that they are reading a condescending work. And when you consider that the writer must still be young ( He was mentioned as a graduate of Pelita Harapan, a young university in Jakarta ), my mouth was left agape wondering how on earth could he do that at his age.

If there is anything at all that I complain about this book is its use of small font and italics. It is rather inconsistent that sometimes you wonder why were some sentences were italicized at all. That being said, I still find that it’s a small price to pay when you read a book of its worth. If I started the book trembling, I finished it finding my mouth dry with amazement and salutation. I rest my case.

Bel Canto : A Review

15 Feb

Reading a book that won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award inevitably gave me a high set of expectations. A little bit of research got me to the Wikipedia page where I was told that Ann Patchett based her book on the Lima Crisis in Peru, – where a bunch of terrorists from MRTA took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of Japan’s ambassador to Peru, Morihisha Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito‘s 63rd birthday. So far so good. A prize-winning book with a promise of thrill based on a true events. I really could not ask for more.

True enough. The first several pages gripped me strongly with its detailed staging in preparation of the siege scene itself. This is great because not many writers would do such thing so excellently. Patchett’s greatest asset became apparent here. She belongs to the rare breed of authors who write so beautifully in a prose which is so lyrical that it almost feels like the text was sung instead of written.

However, this is exactly the same thing that makes the book fail to fill my expectations. Note that there is no good or bad here. It’s just that I expected a thriller when I got myself a love story instead. Nothing more than that. When I got to the halfway of the book, I was beginning to be bored at some points. It’s a good work, but sometimes it gets a little bit too sweet for my liking. From this point of view, it’s kind of hard for me to believe how could someone so sober as Gen could fall in love that easily with the female terrorist, Carmen. Of course, you could put forward the idea that anything is possible in love; – but realistically, I do feel that she could have built the relationship up more patiently so that a reader would not feel as disoriented as I do.

But does that make this book a bad work ? Not in my life I would say so. It shines brightly when one approaches to read it as a set of coming-of-age stories of its characters. Everybody in this novel experiences some changes to their lives, however small. And Patchett. Patchett described those evolutions in such a natural way, blunt but emphatic, that I could not help but feel like I actually know some of the characters. It is with this kind of approach that Bel Canto should be read. Slowly and savoring every tragic beauty of the details and subtle nuances.

For a reading guide of Bel Canto from the author’s official website, go here.  Please share your opinions about this book with me on the comments.  Thanks 🙂

Dark Blue : An Intriguing Concept

18 Jan

It’s been quite a while since I wrote about books here. In fact, when I look back every book reviews were the one I imported from my old blog. There’s not a single one I wrote ever since I moved to my own domain ! This trend should clearly be halted. 🙂

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A graphic novel called “Dark Blue” has recently caught my attention. I finished reading it at one sitting in about 30 minutes last night. Yet that doesn’t exactly portray the work as a light reading at all. It was a very serious, mind-bending work of art by the prominent comic artists Warren Ellis and Jacen Burrows.

The first thing that came to my mind after I read the book is that the writer could have worked more in the character development. Granted, this is problematic in the short, concise format of graphic novel. Nevertheless, some thoughts should be given to this side so as not to waste a great story idea they already implemented in the book. Especially as the story idea is closely related to a psycho-thriller, as compared to just another “action” comic book.

Taken from Heavyink.com, the story synopsis seemed ordinary enough :

“Warren Ellis’ critically acclaimed Dark Blue is available as a deluxe graphic novel illustrated by Jacen Burrows with full gray tones! Violent, disturbed cop Frank Christchurch has too many problems. He has a partner who’s convinced he’s mentally ill, a commanding officer on smack, and a killer whom no one else seems to want to catch. The pressure of his savage life is triggering murderous outbursts and hallucinations. Frank Christchurch is on the way down. And he might take everyone with him. Nothing is as it seems. “;

It wasn’t until about halfway of the book when the extraordinary twist became clear. The world where Frank Christchurch operates is just an imaginary one, – induced by an experimental drug. This notion would later be elaborated somewhat in Ellis’ afterword where he admitted his fascinated by a kind of drug which will induce a same hallucinogenic effect in all people who take it, – regardless of their personal background differences. A brilliant concept to develop upon, to say the least.

All of those being said, Dark Blue was technically beautiful. Executed flawlessly by comic artist Jacen Burrows, the panels will haunt you long after you closed the book. Mature, graphic images are presented in such ways to emphasize the disturbing nature of the story. In this aspect, – combined with the premise of the book -, this work is an excellent one…

Man Gone Down

22 Oct

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A stream-of-consciousness kind of book could be very hard to tackle.  Yet when you prevail, it often rewards you well for the efforts.

“Man Gone Down” is no different.  Frustratingly absurd at times, it simply refuses to be read as your usual bedtime story.  I had to read it in a full-concentration mode to fully appreciate it.  Oh yes, in some lighter passages you can let your attention wanders, but you would risk missing some beautiful thoughts which more often than not, lurks masquerading behind some imageries and powerful allegories.

Using metaphors heavily, Thomas takes us to a journey deep into a mind of a 35 year-old man who is in some crises in his life.  Broke and broken, the unnamed narrator gropes desperately for some grip to salvage his spirit for some serious survival.  Granted, this is a classic, maybe even overused, theme for a book; but Thomas daringly twisted it into a searching mental quest, questioning the biggest myth of all : The American Dream.

I will not pretend that I was able to comprehend this book wholly.  A work of this scope needs several re-reading to hit you as hard as it was meant to be.  Hell, my edition of it even has a set of reading guides at the end of it.  One thing I do know is, Thomas is a strong user of words.  At some of this book’s best, his diction makes my arm trembles.

Go figure…!!

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This book can be read online here.

Maya – Deliberations of Life and Love

22 Oct

I had high hopes with this one.  After all, Gaarder was the man who penned one of the modern classics that is Sophie’s World.

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And he didn’t disappoint me.  Maya is definitely a worthy successor to the likes of Sophie’s World and Vita Brevis.  Staying true to his calling, he takes us in a tour-de-force of hard philosophical questions that were difficult to imagine, – let alone deliberate, by anyone alone.  This, – I think, is where his greatest influence is supposed to be : in his provocations where one is forced to take a long, hard look at oneself and ponder why is he living at all.  Such incitements are necessary because by default, man always strive to fulfil, but not question, his needs.

Focusing more to the question of evolution and biology, Maya nevertheless feel a little bit constrained by the love-story plot.  This did not become obvious, however, until the last 40 pages or so.  A savoring reader thus will not have any problems in immersing into Gaarder’s typical mental discourses happening all over this book.

What more interesting is his try to take on mystery / thriller genre, – however slight.  Granted, in the end the mystery was only used as a device to build the momentum towards climax; but it’s still intriguing for me that he adopt such an adventurous plan.  Not that it didn’t work.  On the contrary, the execution was of such excellence that I was fooled into thinking that this is truly an enigmatic book in the same league as Eco.  Now that I had time to think about the issue, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all.  I mean, a man who can construct a very exciting verbal scene full of anguish between his human character and a gecko; will surely be able to keep us in his grip in one or two alternate methods.

The epilogue, then, explains all.  Only then it became apparent that this is a first and foremost, a love story.  A very beautiful and profound love story, for that matter.  Yet, I can not help but think that this is also this book’s weak point.  Had Gaarder been more flexible; maybe letting go to the momentum and taking on the metaphysical thriller theme to the end will pay more.  It almost feels like a hangover for me : riding so high in the buildup, but then take a sharp ( although admittedly sweet ) drop in the end.  It then dictates a necessary evaluation of the question :  Should a literary work’s end justify the means ?

Finally, this book again exhibits Gaarder’s ability as a storyteller.  Bearing that small complaint in mind, I’d still gladly recommend this one.  If  you don’t read this book with a critic’s spectacle, then it’s truly enjoyable to let yourself go, even swept by some of the finest dialogues I’ve ever read in modern fiction..!!