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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (Mariner Books, 2007)

Christmas break is truly amazing, and after I slept like a bear to make up for my nights of drunken debauchery, I cracked this lovely memoir and read a huge chunk of it while sitting in our driveway.

The “fun home” of Bechdel’s childhood is not a home filled with exciting sitcom shenanigans—her family lived in a funeral home. It was more of a museum for Bechdel, though, were everything is curated just so; maybe to provide her father Bruce a means of control over image. Alison suspects that her father is a homosexual, and this suspicion is confirmed as she goes through her own odyssey of self-discovery.

What I love about this memoir is that it goes beyond the mere act of remembering—how the house looked like, how her father would slave over the restoration of the family house, what books (basically, the queer canon) her father sent her when she was in college, what she wrote down in her diary as a child dealing with OCD. Artifacts from her childhood are inspected through the eyes of an adult who has lost her innocence and processed through the mind of someone who might have read too much.

I especially liked the comparisons of the significant situations—done years later, after her father had died—to the works of James Joyce, Homer, Colette, and J.D. Salinger. Alison, still grappling with her sexual discoveries while away at college, found a way to connect with her father. She read a lot for her classes and her father discussed the books through carefully typewritten letters.

During one of her holiday breaks from college (after she had written home about being a lesbian; Bruce took it surprisingly well and just talked about “options”), Alison and Bruce had their Stephen and Bloom (from Ulysses) moment. Bruce talks about his past lovers after Alison repeated her confession in person, and he takes her to a strip club/gay bar. They are denied entry (she was not 21, and the bouncer disregarded the fact that she had parental supervision), which seemed sort of funny, but I read it as a rather sad moment. At this point, even if they have had the courage to voice out what they knew to be true about themselves, what could have been a poignant, memorable moment was denied of them. I felt most sad for Bruce though, because Alison went on to embrace her identity fully, while her father was left in the shadows for the rest of his life.

The ending was lovely. Some introspection from Alison on Stephen and Bloom, talking about how paternity is more spiritual than consubstantial. The final frame: young Alison jumps off the diving board, wondering if she had been Icarus who fell to his watery grave. Bruce is waiting for the young Alison in the water, ready to catch his daughter.

My copy is from The Book Depository. I forgot how much I paid for it, but it was around $15.

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, 2005)

“This is a story about love, death, driving, narcissism, America, the ill-advised glamorization of recreational drug use, not having sex, eating breadsticks at Olive Garden, talking to strangers, feeling nostalgic for the extremely recent past, movies you’ve never seen, KISS, Radiohead, Rod Stewart, and–to a lesser extent–prehistoric elephants of the Midwestern plains.” — The author, in the introduction.


This copy of the book is from my neighborhood PowerBooks. Marked down to P219 from P619; qualified for a 10% discount with Power Card. Yay bargain!

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The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience by Ann Lauterbach (Viking Penguin, 2005)

I’ve had this book for more than a year, and I eagerly read it as soon as it was delivered to my doorstep. My bad, bad memory took over, and I found that I can’t remember a lot from this book. So I read it again. This book is all kinds of wonderful, I can’t even begin to form words to describe it. Writers who want to write should have this on their bookshelves. (Just practicing for a future career in generic blurb-writing.)

A quote that stuck out to me, in this lovely essay on experimentation (“Use This Word in a Sentence: “Experimental””)

“To risk failure one needs a sense of unfettered play, the play that would allow a failure to become useful for the next attempt, that would, in a sense, recycle the disaster.”

Writing down all the quotes and realizations in my handy-dandy notebook, so I won’t forget again.

This copy is from a second-hand bookstore I found online. The book itself is $0.99, but shipping is around $7-8, lol.

After a long hiatus, I am trying to get back to writing little snippets of my reading (and personal? professional?) life. Reading is still a very important of my daily life, but I find it harder and harder to squeeze in periods of intense reading because of all the things that I have to do for school. Teaching will always be a double-edged sword for me–I love being with my students and colleagues, but all the administrative and extra work is bogging me down.

I went to Hong Kong for my birthday week, because I wanted to get away and I feel like I haven’t taken a real break since 2010. And also because I booked tickets for a The xx concert there. I brought along Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (2002 Vintage Classics Edition) for the four-day trip.

1004878_10200433769272986_2041515543_nWhen I took out this book from my ~special shelf~ (where special editions, graphic novels, and books very close to my heart are kept), a slip of paper fell out (see above). It’s my handwriting, but I’m not quite sure what the context is and why I wrote this. The week before my birthday, the Universe answered one of my wishes and presented that answer in a beautiful Before Sunrise moment. Being the socially awkward turtle that I am, I fled. Without getting a last name, contact information, or a form of concrete anything that promised the possibility of something.

I was miserable in Hong Kong. I hated everything. I hated being surrounded by all these people hoarding expensive stuff, I hated being shouted at in Cantonese, I hated being lost (which I normally enjoy), and basically I just wanted to stay inside the hostel and mope while listening to Voxtrot. I hated being awkward and afraid all the time. I hated my screwed-up self, who always turn wonderful opportunities into bitter almosts. That slip of paper made me think about a lot of things I’ve been doing wrong in my life.

I found a bit of solace in Barthes, who my emotional companion during the long, long wait at the airport. Our flight back was delayed and I was feeling more and more miserable because I just wanted to get back home and mope some more. My copy of ALD is now heavily annotated (yes! I write on my books now–and in pen!) as I try to process my feelings of loneliness and deal with pining after that wanderer I met in a coffee shop. Currently, I’ve taken to just randomly quoting this book (not verbatim, but along sickeningly pseudo-romantic lines like “the lover will always try to hide his passions from the beloved, but wants to be noticed for the effort of hiding”) to anyone who would listen. Please imagine how unbearable I was during my two long weeks of pining. I was quoting Barthes, The xx, Voxtrot, Morrissey, and just about everyone whose work I tried to surround myself with when I was lonely and regretting being a socially awkward person.

So, yes. The wanderer and I met again, one gloomy Friday afternoon when I’ve given up all hope. The Universe has introduced a couple of plot twists to this story–which I honestly hoped was something sanitized and awesome and a situation where I’m Ethan Hawke (cynical, intelligent, and kind of sexy!)–but I promised myself I won’t cut my emotions off when things are going in a way that I have not expected or prepared for. I would enjoy the moment and just let things unfold. Thank you, Barthes.

(If we’re still on the Before Sunrise thing, I’m totally Julie Delpy. Not only because I’m the girl, but because I’m not as cynical as I thought.)

This copy of A Lover’s Discourse is from The Book Depository. Forgot the actual price, as I bought I two years ago, but dirt-cheap.

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Epileptic by David B. (Pantheon Books, 2005)

Epileptic has been rather elusive, so when my friend Star and I saw the last two copies being sold at the shiny renovated NBS Glorietta, we immediately grabbed them. This graphic memoir tackles the childhood of the author, when his whole family was shuttling to one macrobiotic commune to another. His brother was diagnosed with epilepsy and his parents believed that an alternative lifestyle was the best cure for the condition. Aside from the curious way that the author’s parents wanted their family to live, it was also interesting to read about David B.’s rich inner life as a child. I haven’t finished this weird little graphic memoir, since I keep forgetting it at my parents’ house but eventually I’ll get there, especially since summer vacation is just around the corner.

A colleague saw this book on my desk the day after I bought it, and she was immediately curious. She flipped through it and declared the book too thick to be interesting. She was so surprised that it was a “comic book,” although she thought the art was “too dark and morbid.” She asked me if this was a sort of local manga, but I didn’t have the heart (or the snooty predisposition) to tell her that it’s not, and that this book is more emotionally evocative than most of the things she had ever read in her life.

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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 deluxe pocket edition)

This lovely little volume of The Hobbit has been keeping me company at “my” coffee shop. I read it bit by bit after freelance work or after checking papers. It’s been a nice vacation (or adventure?) for my brain, but sometimes I want to slap Bilbo around for having full-sized histrionics in his halfling body.

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Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)

This one was an impulse buy from the nearby BookSale. I’ve been on the look-out for a good memoirist/essayist recently–I’ve lost most of my appetite for fiction anyway (except for the very good ones that can take me by surprise), and poetry I tend to  take in relatively small doses. “Top 10” lists on the Internet recommended Augusten Burroughs, and I honestly though this book was going to be compelling (well, I’m basing my judgment on the movie Running with Scissors and a couple of chapters of A Wolf at the Table). It was all right, I guess. Burroughs shows off his technical skills in this book, but it gets kind of boring. My thoughts, according to my notebook, were: “tedious yet showing unnecessary restraint. Boring.” There is an attempt to imitate Sedaris in this collection of essays–there might be a hint of bias here, but Sedaris never felt tedious, even when he’s talking about the most mundane of events.

I moved on to another book after a couple of essays, because I was so thisclose to pulling my eyebrows out in frustration. Maybe I’ll get back to this book when I’m less likely to be frustrated.

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Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby (McSweeney’s, 2008)

I like Nick Hornby’s little columns on reading in the Believer magazine. They’re witty and self-deprecating, and each show the reader that reading is a very integral part of the author’s life. The essays could be inspiring, especially for a reading polygamist for me. However, I have serious reservations about the blurb “utterly hysterical.” How about you let me decide for myself, you judging little blurb. (My decision so far: with his dry British humor and cleverness, he could be funny. But dear Jesus, “hysterical” is an overstatement, especially if you supersize it with “utterly.”)

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The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1999)

I’ve been roped into advising for and judging thesis proposals, and I’ve never felt so tired of reading prose. Glück is always a favorite, and I hope that she will give my eyes a much needed break from the research papers that will assault me this month.

Epileptic is from NBS Glorietta (P809), The Hobbit is from NBS Greenbelt 1 (P799), Possible Side Effects is from BookSale (P115), Shakespeare Wrote for Money is from Powerbooks Greenbelt 4 (P540), and The First Four Books of Poems is from The Book Depository ($15).

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Almost No Memory: Stories by Lydia Davis (Picador, 2001)

I picked up this slim volume of stories from my neighborhood BookSale and I was very pleased with the bargain. But despite its slimness, this book is packed with 51 wonderfully crafted stories. Davis’ technical prowess often leaves me breathless, but this very same characteristic makes me feel, well, almost nothing from her stories. She can work a sentence like nobody’s business, but I still find myself looking for a bit of emotional resonance.

Aside from the Davis, I have also been busy sleeping around with other books for the last two weeks. I finished the delightful The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem (Vintage, paperback edition 2012), which is a collection of memoir-ish and abstract essays. My favorite would be the eponymous essay, which talks about plagiarism, copyright, and the afterlife of texts (being used, in this case, to refer to not only the written word, but also films, characters, music, etc).

I also read a couple of essays from the hilarious The Braindead Megaphone: Essays by George Saunders (Riverhead Trade, 2007). I often hear my grad school classmates talk about him, mostly his fiction, though. I have yet to try his fiction (he’s coming out with a new book this year!), but given how much I enjoyed his essays, I’d probably be all over that new book in a couple of months.

I have always wanted to read Camille Paglia, but it was not until last Thursday that I had the opportunity. I bought a copy of Vamps & Tramps (Vintage, 1994) and settled for a quiet evening with “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” in which Paglia talks about her admiration and eventual disillusionment of the rock-star academic Susan Sontag. I love Sontag’s early work (“Against Interpretation,” “On Style,” and “Notes on Camp”), but there’s something off for me about her later essays. Paglia discusses why Sontag’s star has waned, and why Paglia herself is the successor to the throne. A bit defensive and at times self-indulgent, but I kind of like chismis, so “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” is entertaining for me. I’m looking forward to reading the other essays in this hefty volume, probably during my new-found “thing”–sit for a couple of hours in the nearest coffee shop, order brewed coffee, and smoke a couple of sticks while reading. It’s relaxing and takes my mind off my day job.

I was home and very sick for the weekend, and because I missed an important party that I was very excited for, I turned to a genre that never failed to lift my spirits up. I read A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (BBC Books, reprint edition 2011) while drowning myself in Aranciata Rossa.

The Davis is from BookSale, P145. The Lethem is from NBS Glorietta, P600+ (I can’t remember the actual price, but it was around half of the price of the hardback). The Saunders I got from Fully Booked BHS, for P529 because I have an Ayala Museum membership card. The Paglia was the best bargain of the lot–P75 (original price P745) from NBS Greenbelt 1. I didn’t have to pay for it in cash, because I had plenty of Laking National Card points, so basically it was free. The Sherlock Holmes was $10+ from The Book Depository.

I’m sorry that I have to bring the crass topic of money up, but I’m trying to monitor not only my reading, but also the money I spent on reading. So there. Indulge in my crassness.

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Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays by David Sedaris (Back Bay Books, 1994)

I’ve been reading Sedaris for so long that I know some of his essays by heart. I think it was the mixture of self-deprecating voice and incisive observations that made me read book after book, but it was Sedaris’ genuine curiosity and fascination about things and people that made him one of my most favorite authors ever.

Barrel Fever is a collection of Sedaris’ very early stories and essays–released during a time when he was still cleaning houses and doing NPR on the side. While I don’t want to make a direct comparison between his stories and essays, I found myself gravitating toward the stories more. I mean, other than Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and a couple of stories in the collection Holidays on Ice, most of his work are humorous essays.

Sedaris’ stories are subtly different from his essays–the stories and essays are usually written in the first-person POV, very funny, chronicles mundane (albeit disturbing) goings-on in modern America. However, while there is an undercurrent of curiosity and fascination~* in most of his essays, his stories have malevolence. This malevolence often comes in the guise of innocence and goodwill (asserted by the narrator)–the desire to do good unto others. When enacted upon, this desire often has disastrous consequences.

Through the 12 stories in this collection, Sedaris explores the blurred lines of intention; how the most well-meaning person can end up doing horrifying things to the people around him/her. A father performs DIY surgery (and amputation) on his teenage daughter, for example. What I love most about these twelve stories is that the characters seem unaware of the malevolence of their actions, and this, I think, is the strength of Sedaris’ fiction–his characters take you from page to page of seemingly mundane conversation, but the wickedness is bubbling right under the surface. I love how he makes his characters appear like something from Norman Rockwell paintings, only to reveal themselves as, well, one of those ugly things from Gremlins.

There is also an attempt at intertextual writing, in the form of newsletter articles (“Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2” and “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!”) and a speech at an awards event (“Don’s Story”)–these only seem to highlight Sedaris’ Twainian tendencies: he distracts the reader from what’s actually happening, but drops little subtle hints so that the twist doesn’t run you over like a drunk motorcyclist. And he uses the best distraction of all–seemingly guileless humor that only enhances the kick of wickedness waiting for the reader at the corner.

“Parade” has to be my favorite of all the stories in this collection–narrated by a gay man who has had intense affairs with some of the most famous men in the world, this reminded me so much of Our Lady of the Flowers, not because of any Sartrean flavor, but because it’s the sort of thing someone would write while in prison. It is clearly a work of wistful fantasy, but the scene at the end really got me. The narrator sits quietly as his lover (Mike Tyson!) kisses his knuckles one by one. There’s a quiet desperation in that scene that broke my heart and made me laugh at the same time.

While I love the stories so much (and they have cemented my belief that Sedaris needs to write more fiction), I wasn’t too thrilled with the essays. I read “SantaLand Diaries” before–it is the essay credited for Sedaris’ fame–and it is quite good (listening to it enhances the experience, though). I made a note on the margin to “compare with version in Holidays on Ice,” because I wanted to see if there would be differences in a later re-print. ANYWAY. The essays in this collection were relatively unimpressive when compared to the ones in Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames. They weren’t bad–craft-wise, they are recognizable as Sedaris essays, but there was something off in them. In the margins of my copy I wrote “Early Sedaris–very angry. Trademark fascination/easy-going humor missing.” 

I love this book for the stories, but I’m not going to re-read the essays. Let’s save the comfort-food version of reading for the better essay collections.

I bought my copy from PowerBooks Trinoma at P499.95.