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A YEAR OF BOOKS 

I am a little late in doing an Oprah, but better late than never. In one of the Oprah newsletters I receive regularly in my mailbox appeared Amy Shearn’s article titled “11 Things Every Woman Should Write Down Before the Year Ends”. Perusing her list, I settled on borrowing one of Shearn’s suggestions: the read it list.
Reading is a refuge, hobby, and passion. For 2017, the genres were varied. Two of the books are still unfinished: Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler” and “The Witches – Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff. Calvino’s novel presents a difficulty for me particularly one of the characters who is a loner and seem to unable to fit in. Oddly enough, I can stand the other characters whom I read with detached interest. I am more than half way done anyway. Meanwhile, I drown in the trial details in Schiff’s work which cross the borders of incredulity, but, as I quietly tell myself, it was how the trials were in those days. I find myself arguing silently with the presiding magistrates and commiserating with the accused. It is interesting, but the flow isn’t as smooth as Schiff’s book on Cleopatra’s life.

I read Paulo Coehlo’s “The Spy” within a day because the prose was easy. It stoked my interest further to learn more about the famed Matahari because although Coehlo based his new book on the released documents on Matahari he also recreated parts of the story. The structure reminded me so much of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, which wove brilliantly non-fiction and fiction. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys was an engaging ride with the twists and turns wrought upon the lives of Fat Charlie and his estranged brother “Spider”, sons of the West African trickster god, Anansi, after his sudden death in a karaoke bar while singing to a young woman.

Changing course, I jumped into juvenile literature by diving into a book lent to me by a former student. “The Merciless” by Danelle Vega proved engaging because it combined the macabre sense of Edgar Allan Poe sprinkled with a bit of the supernatural and a touch of the plot of the iconic “Mean Girls” film. It gave me an insight to the new generation of Western teenagers and their concerns. The other book was much lighter then Vega’s book. Rick Riordan’s third installment of the Magnus Chase and The Gods of Asgard – Ship of the Dead, was a welcome respite from the dark vibe of The Merciless with its characters’ funny quips, the sarcastic humor alluding to modern teenage life, and the reworking of traditional Norse mythology. The third juvenile fiction was Caraval by Stephanie Garber that presented a new take on fairy tale. It was a shade darker in terms of a damsel finding her prince with the right touch of suspense which I found refreshing.

Quitting juvenile fiction, I plunged into an author new to me, JG Ballard, and his work “High-Rise”.The impetus to read it was admittedly because of Tom Hiddleston who talked about it in one interview. But somehow life got in the way until I saw a reissue of it at Kinokuniya and the impetus kicked in again because gracing the cover was Tom Hiddleston who played Dr Robert Laing in the movie adaptation. Hiddleston aside, the opening paragraph on Dr Laing’s meal had me riveted – stunned but riveted. I had to be certain that what I read about the Alsatian was correct. From Ballard, I ventured into the complicated but riveting prose of Henry James in his “The Turn of the Screw” where I emerged gobsmacked with the steady development of the characters and the turn of events.

Then I went back to my favorite genre, mystery, and got reacquainted again with the former servant girl-turned-nurse who later transmogrified into a detective-psychologist Maisie Dobbs in Jacqueline Winspear’s “An Incomplete Revenge”. Maisie Dobbs brings the reader back to the traditional way of detective work much like Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Ms Marple where sleuthing methods relied on the “grey matter” and good old-fashioned gumshoe work.


Closing the read-it list for 2017 are “A Zoo in my Luggage” by George Durrell and “Bad Girl” by Mario Vargas Llosa. Durrell’s book chronicled his adventures and misadventures on his trip to the British Cameroons in West Africa to collect animals for the zoo he planned to open in England. The former British naturalist – zookeeper- conservationist, author, and TV presenter regaled the readers – including me – with his hilarious experiences in capturing animals and how he maintained order in his menagerie of wild creatures. I caught people from the corner of my eye staring when I chuckled. A gaping jaw was what people would have seen if they looked my way when I was reading Llosa’s novel which was a complete departure from his usual work steeped in South American politics. Nonetheless, like his other works, his love story was also heavy. It dissected the concept of love peddled by society. Love in Llosa’s hands gives the reader the no-Cinderella-ending reality in the expectations-reality dichotomy. The bottomline: there is nothing nice and sweet about loving someone.

2018 will still see me reading. In fact, the new year is waiting for me to flatten my one and half tsundoku in my flat, and waiting to be opened is Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mystery of Udolpho”, another recommendation by “Professor” Tom Hiddleston.

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INTERESTING FINDS 

Literary finds at National Book Store

My mission was to locate a copy of Agatha Christie’s short story “The Case of the Perfect Maid” which is to be found in an anthology “The Complete Short Stories of Agatha Christie”. National Book Store, the “national” book store of the Philippines, on Quezon Avenue, I was sure, was the best place to go to; its little branch at Robinson’s Magnolia was only good for school supplies. But I was aghast when a staff at the Quezon Avenue outlet politely informed me their store didn’t cary a single Agatha Christie book.

Being a bibliophile, I combed the rows of books and my disappointment quickly dissipated when I stumbled upon three interesting finds: “Beauty and the Beast – Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World” edited by Maria Tatar; “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories” by Ambrose Bierce; and “Practical Research 1 Qualitative” by Prieto, Naval, and Carey.

“Beauty and the Beast” was tucked at the bottom of a book shelf. I was immediately reminded of one of the Indonesian legends where a human character marries a dog as I looked through the contents table. I forget the title but it is a favorite piece of students who take part in story-telling competitions. Majority of the stories come from the Western and European literary canons, but, interestingly enough, a Philippine tale called “Chonguita”, of which I have never heard of, is part of the anthology. Another story that caught my eye was “The Frog Maiden” from Myanmar, a country mired in political turmoil that Burmese literary works, which are far and between, are absolute treasures when they come my way. The anthology will make a good reference when I get to tackle fictional narratives.


The second great find is the collection of short stories by Ambrose Bierce, a figure of interest for me since I read “The Gringo” by Carlos Fuente. Bierce is an enigmatic figure because, to this day, no one knows how and where he died. He became the main character, the gringo who vanished in the Mexican revolution, in the novel of Fuentes. The first story by Ambrose that I read is “A Watcher by the Dead”, a tale about three physicians in San Francisco who decide to test their theories on the nature of the fear of death, of whether it is hereditary or all based on superstitions. The macabre vibe of the written text was heightened by a reading of it by Welsh-Canadian stage, film, and TV actor- director Geraint Wyn Davies in the audio book “Great Classic Hauntings” of which I bought in a bookstore somewhere in Danville. Unknown to most, Bierce stands alongside literary giants Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft et al when it comes to tales of horror and the supernatural.


“Practical Research 1 Qualitative”, my last find, appealed to the teacher in me. Writing a scholarly paper is not an exercise to be engaged in lightly. Teaching it is equally difficult to do given the goldfish attention span and apathetic attitude of today’s students towards reading and writing. Skimming it, the “textbook” breaks down the steps of conducting a research, explains the importance of research, has exercises for immediate practice, and provides guidelines in writing a quality paper. It will be a good source when I restructure my lecture series on the research paper for my senior high students.


Still, the hunt for “The Case of the Perfect Maid” continues. When this bibliophile wants a book, her inexorable determination is hard to quell. It is time to visit other bookstores.

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TOM’S HIGH-RISE UNIT

The impetus to read J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise was admittedly because of Tom Hiddleston who talked about it in one interview as he was part of the movie cast. But somehow life got in the way and reading High-Rise took a backseat until I saw a reissue of it at Kinokuniya, Plaza Senayan. The impetus kicked in again because gracing the cover was Tom Hiddleston who played one of the primary characters in the book, Dr Robert Laing.

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Hiddleston aside, the opening paragraph on Dr Laing’s meal had me riveted – stunned but riveted. I had to be certain that what I read about the Alsatian was correct. The prose is straightforward in its description of what happens in the modern tower block and the tenant-characters’ physical attributes and emotions as chaos descended upon the expensive high-rise. Written in the mid ‘70s, I was struck by its verisimilitude with the current world situation of, among other things, society plummeting into the abyss of primal behavior, of the disintegration of order, and of the triviality of human lives. The chaos is almost palpable; it’s as if you’re watching it but through the novel.

Plot-wise, you push on to see how the narrative would come to an end. I personally like to read how a plot comes to its denouement if there is one. In High-rise, you read the breakdown in the high-tech 43-storey London skyscraper, a microcosm of society in general, which burst the bubble of tension long present in the socially-demarcated high-rise giving rise to mayhem. Tenants fight tooth and nail for survival and domination; most are caught up in their narcissistic visions of entitlement while some, like Laing, walk the thin line of sanity and insanity. Who wouldn’t be interested in finding out the resolution?

Character-wise, each comes alive with his/her idiosyncrasy, i.e. the truculent television producer Richard Wilder and his mousy wife, Helen; Anthony Royal, architect of the tower block, who seem to revel at the disintegration of order within his creation; and Laing who struggles between rationality and going off the deep end.

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Human behavior has always fascinated me and learning how each character turned out, how each dealt with the bedlam, kept me turning the page onto the next until the last page. There is something interesting about characters falling into the abyss of irrational behavior while trying to be less foolish in their actions.

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DURRELL’S WORLD

The name George Durrell first reached my ears when my sister’s ex-boyfriend talked about him. He – the ex – was into animals and was completely over the moon with Durrell’s works. I admired his zeal in regaling us about Durrell and his predilection for animals, but then he disappeared from our lives and so I completely forgot about him until I chanced upon a video of Tom Hiddleston reading a letter in Letters Live in London.  Tom Hiddleston was the guest reader and he was to read a love letter of Durrell to his second wife, Lee McGeorge, which was both comical and romantic. The comical part was when he said she shouldn’t make the letter public – too late for that – and the romantic part was when he described the fantastic experiences he had with nature and the animals, but which he would gladly exchange for a mere minute with his wife.

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Durrell’s poignant descriptions of the animals and their natural habitats were imprinted in my mind thus I never forgot his name. Fortuitously, I stumbled upon several books by Durrell selling for a mere US$0.99 apiece in a Salvation Army store in Santa Clarita, California. I chose “A Zoo in My Luggage”, which proved a good decision because it’s engaging (his witticisms never wane), entertaining (describing himself drenched in the urine of baby black-footed mongoose hidden in his shirt had me in stitches), and educational (his explanation of how egg-eating snakes swallowed eggs was lucid).

“A Zoo in My Luggage” chronicled Durrell’s journey to the Cameroons with his wife and staff to “hunt” for rare species (which he called “beef”) of animals. The result is his own private zoo. Durrell’s prose is smooth and engaging, each paragraph grabbing hold of the reader by the shoulders, and not letting go until the chapter has ended. Durrell’s great passion for the animals jumped out of the sentences as he expressed the gamut of feelings, ranging from admiration to frustration, going through him as he dealt with the animals on a very personal level. For a person who likes animals from a distance, “A Zoo in My Luggage” is a good way to start the journey into the animal world and, in the process, learn about good prose structure.

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ECLECTIC LIST

I always veered towards Latin American literature when I would look for a book either from the library or a bookstore years ago. I chalked it up to being a creature of habit aside from the fact that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and ilk are brilliant writers. I have re-read 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the time of Cholera, and his other works. Maria Vargas Llosa still never fails to leave my jaw hanging. The habit of reading has not disappeared, but concentrating on a particular type of literature has changed. My reading list has become a little more eclectic than usual, which I can only attribute it to me trying to be a little more flexible. These years I’ve shuttled between young adult literature and non-young adult literature, giving me a sweeping look at both worlds.

Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani was a birthday present some years back from my gal-pal from Singapore. Pisani wiped away the filters I was viewing Indonesia with and gave me a better understanding of the country through her narrative of her various dealings with people from all walks of life. The thought going through my mind as I turned page after page was “If Pisani can do this, so can I”.  This is an author who came to an understanding of a country that was completely different from hers and came out not judgmental or preaching tolerance. She indirectly taught me to look at the bigger picture with acceptance, understanding, and patience.

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Anthologies are a favorite too, but they were mostly compilations of detective stories by either Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Dashiell Hammett. Then I was handed the catalog of Oxford University Press and came across the Oxford Bookworms Collection. There are six anthologies to the collection: Crime Never Pays, A Window on the Universe, And All for Love, A Tangled Web, From the Cradle to the Grace, and The Eye of Childhood. The latest addition to my collection are the latter titles. Until A Window on the Universe, the only sci-fi stories I read before were the Star Wars novels (pre-Ken Rylo era). The collection introduced me to sci-fi giants such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, et al. Crime Never Pays reminded me of the TV show “Twilight Zone” because of the twists in the stories while And All for Love offered interesting perspectives on romantic relationships. A Tangled Web focused on stories dealing with “secrets and lies” and the idea that “deception can sometimes lead to quite unexpected complications. I discovered a new author, Maeve Binchy, and got reacquainted with Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, V.S Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Somerset Maugham, and Oscar Wilde. I am excited to plunge into the new anthologies because of the topics covered – the trials of life from youth to old age in From the Cradle to the Grave, and seeing the world through the eyes of a child in The Eye of Childhood.

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Book series also became a perennial staple of my reading diet. I read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series twice and was hooked on Derek Lundy’s Skulduggery Pleasant books for some time. Then there was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series (I have read four of the 13 books) – tracking down all the books is proving to be challenging.  The latest I’ve read are Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance series and Ransom Riggs’ Tales of the Peculiar.

I don’t normally watch the film adaptation first but I saw the movie Eragon first and read the books a few years later when one of my students lent them to me. Reading the series really entails having the determination to see the narrative through the very end because the four books are lengthy. Strained eyes aside, it wasn’t difficult staying married to the books because the storyline of Dragon Rider Eragon and his dragon Saphira was very engaging. The different worlds – i.e. elves, humans, dwarves – were described in detail that you could really picture the distinct settings. Character-wise, Saphira has spunk and a sense of humor; Arya, Eragon’s love-interest, is intriguing; and Brom, an annoyingly lovable Dragon Rider-in-hiding.

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I got wind of Riggs’ Tales of the Peculiar series from one of my former students who presented it for Show & Tell. She was intrigued by the books because there were vintage photos that played a huge part in the narrative structure which Riggs confessed to scavenging for in various places. These photos, dovetailed with the attention-grabbing characters and their special powers, reeled me in to finish the entire three books. However, I was, admittedly, disappointed with the film version because certain character identities and the plot of the story were changed.

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The eclecticism continues judging by the mini tsundoku in my room: an anthology of mystery stories, vol. 2 of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book by Camille Paglia, Arthurian Legends, Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking, J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise (Tom Hiddleston graces the cover of the edition I have), etc.

 

 

 

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READING ON THE GO


“We have plenty of time to get there. We are actually early, Miss,” said Pak Diyan, who was tasked to take me to the airport.
“No problem, Pak. I have my book,” I replied through the rearview mirror, waving one of the books I had packed in my rucksack.

Part of the marvels of traveling has always been the fact that I can read at the airport. There is a lot of waiting going on for, say, the check-in counter to open, for your turn to check-in, to board the plane, and the journey itself. I find myself reading more than making use of the entertainment system, if there is one.

This trip had me bringing an eclectic collection of books for the brief sojourn to Singapore. It was a preventive measure against buying another book at Periplus and another tsundoku. This Japanese word refers to that condition where you have a lot of reading materials piling up with the good intention of reading them but never get around to it. I am in the midst of clearing tsundoku pile one which started collecting in a little corner of my room last July.

Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” was a serendipitous find at – of all places – a corner bookstore near the entrance of Siloam hospital ( I went to see an eye specialist). It was a steal at Rp50,000 and was the only copy left. I did a little jig of joy eliciting this odd look from the cashier who probably thought I was on medication. My interest in the book began after I had seen that Michelle Pfeiffer movie where she played a divorced woman who falls in love again with the character of Daniel Day Lewis, but society then was unforgiving of such dalliances. I had to put down “Madame Bovary” every now and then, brought down by the author’s heavy writing style and Madame Bovary’s silliness and sufferings. My emotions vacillated between wanting to berate her for her shallowness and commiserating with her. The drama at times became too difficult to bear. However, I am determined to see how Madame Bovary fares. My plowing through the pages of Flaubert’s work led me to dive into Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. Like a breath of fresh air, there wasn’t the heaviness that shrouded me in “Madame Bovary”; Anna Karenina was feistier in temperament, less caught up in romantic fantasies, and eschewed frivolity.

Rick Riordan’s “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard” series is a break from the other heavy books (e.g. I am half-way through Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Way to Paradise” and hemming and hawing with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”). His reworking of the mythologies of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and now Norse have gotten my students reading, so I need to keep myself abreast with what is happening. In the Riordan style of demystifying the pantheon of gods and goddesses from each mythology, the second book, “The Hammer of Thor”, had me snickering or laughing at the untimely moments drawing stares from people around me. I especially liked the fact that he characterized Thor the Viking that he truly is – a undeniably strong lout with a voracious appetite. The inclusion of a Muslim as a Valkyrie, Samirah “Sam” al-Abbas, is a much applauded move: it deconstructed the misconception of veiled women as unable to do anything apart from pray and follow tradition.

Lastly, the name Italo Calvino is not a stranger to me. He is one of the authors my father reads to this day and our book hunts would always involved looking for his works. I found “The Path to the Nest of Spiders” in this pop-up book store in a mall, which my wonderful man bought for me, and the purchase brought a smile to the pop-up owner’s smile. He approved the purchase. I am moving through the Preface written by Calvino and I feel like I am back in one of literature classes in university, a place I am perfectly at home at. Finally, I have the opportunity to discover the wondrous author in his first novel.

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NESBIT’S WORLD OF HORROR

Edith Nesbit came much later in my literary life. My list of gothic writers were relegated to the males who dominated the scene, beginning with the master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe followed by his contemporary HP Lovecraft. Then a trip to Singapore and a visit to a bookstore resulted in this serendipitous find, “The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror”. It was the only copy left, so I quickly grabbed it from the bookshelf.

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Most popularly known as a writer of children’s tales, Nesbit’s ghost stories and tales of terror take you on a psychological supernatural journey. Upon reading the first few stories, I was suddenly reminded of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, which is scary, but minus the graphic bloodletting that other writers are known for. It’s your imagination that takes you to a world of horror that, surprisingly, commingle with, depending on the story, pity laced with understanding. You find yourself nodding at the plausibility of the existence of angered spirits, spirits in limbo, and ilk. This pseudo-epiphany comes from reading the preface which discussed the background of Nesbit and how her failed relationships unwittingly became the foundation of the supernatural beings that figure prominently in the stories. The preface, I found, offers the answers to questions plaguing the mind, such as “Where did she come up with such an idea?”, “Are they based on personal experience?”, “What was in her life that pushed her to write in this genre?” It’s reminiscent of one’s reading of Poe’s writings – his tumultuous life beset by personal and professional problems alike that became the impetus for his pioneering macabre stories.

Over a flute of champagne or cup of Asian Dolce latte, a foray in Nesbit’s world of horror can be enlightening. Against the oxymoronic backdrop, one gleams an insight to the workings of the mind and psyche of human beings who, with their fragile lives, are embroiled in one catastrophe after another.

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TRIPPING WITH ALLAN KARLSSON

The idea of going behind the scenes of history is as stupendous as building a time machine. Both are undeniably wishful thinking and completely impossible. Even scientists will tell you that time travel – to the past or to the future – won’t be possible anytime soon. Impossible or not, the dreaming hasn’t stopped for the two ideas to be virtually real at least in the field of literature. “The 100-year-old Man who climbed out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson is an attempt in, not in the construction of a time machine, but at an amusing reconstruction of history. The title is quite a mouthful but it is a tongue-in-cheek journey to world events together with the stoic Allan Karlsson once you get past it.

100 year old man by JonassonKarlsson’s escape from the Old Folks’ Home is reminiscent of the scene in “Last Vegas” where Morgan Freeman’s character escapes from his bedroom in his son’s house and lands on solid ground which would have been a simple leg over the sill if done by a younger man. Karlsson lands on a flower bed wearing his brown indoor slipper. From that point you get the hint that it’s going to be one whimsical read. Each chapter seemed to have been written for a movie sequence with the flashbacks inserted at the opportune moment. Readers who are partial to history will be chuckling at the episodes of Karlsson’s once-in-a-lifetime meetings with the likes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom he unwittingly offers a simple solution to his predicament, Mao Tse-tung, General Franco, Comrade Stain, US Vice-President Truman with whom he shared a nice meal, and Kim Jong Il whom he counsels, to mention a few.

“The 100-year-old Man who climbed out the Window and Disappeared” is long read, but not an arduously dull one. It’s actually one fun, psychedelic trip through history over a cuppa of green tea or cappuccino with cinnamon roll.

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HOT AND SMOULDERING

Ogling a monster was far from what I expected would happen. It was the furthest from my mind until I found myself suddenly bug-eyed. The classic Frankenstein I read in Mary Shelley’s novel inspired fear because of his hideousness of his physique, which is a collage of body parts culled from the cadavers. Frankenstein was not something – or someone? – to drool over until I sat through I, Frankenstein and ogled hottie Aaron Eckhart (a.k.a. Frankenstein). Given a makeover, the traditionally repulsive and almost obtuse Frankenstein was changed into a hunk named Adam with garter-busting six-pack abs, well-defined pectorals, jaw-dropping sculpted latissimus dorsi and tight cheeks from behind. Adding to the appeal was a brooding mien, manly swagger and a hint of gentlemanliness that cropped up at the opportune time. Even the scars on his face looked sexy! Cranking up the wow-factor was his martial arts skills, weaving the sacramental metal sticks (reminiscent of the Filipino martial arts arnis) with breath-taking dexterity.

I, Frankenstein shows a ripped an lethal creature.
I, Frankenstein shows a ripped and lethal creature.

Come to think of it, classical literary monsters of late have been receiving major make-over. It began with the drastic reworking of Bram Stoker’s blood-sucking creature. Given face by Gary Oldman in the 1992 Coppola-directed film Dracula, it was a creature that inspired no lusting for but a mixture of fear of his blood-sucking ways and fascination with his eternal love for his dead wife. Women were more taken by the young Keanu Reeves who played the lawyer-turned-Dracula’s adversary, Jonathan Harker. Then came Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and suddenly vampires were attending high school, wearing trendy clothes and sparkling when exposed to the sun. Vampires were now drop-dead gorgeous (including the younger members of the evil Vulturi) and sporting a sexy British accent. The classical vampire myth is further deconstructed with the introduction of the inter-specie relationship, a vampire and human in a relationship. It’s no longer a case of people – well, women particularly – avoiding the vampire; they were now throwing themselves at them and professing undying love.

The Cullens from Twilight - a new kind of relationship.[twilightsaga.wikia.com]
The Cullens from Twilight –  they have brought a new meaning to relationship.[twilightsaga.wikia.com]

It didn’t stop with Twilight. Vampire novels sprouted like mushrooms. Close at the heels of Meyers were the mother-daughter team of Kristin and PC Cast, authors of The House of Night series where vampires go to an exclusive school, have tattoos magically appearing on their bodies, and have magical powers. The series has yet to hit the silver screen, which I’m sure isn’t very far from happening. In the meantime, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series has hit the cinema.  Building her own myth, Mead’s vampires have distinct social classes – Moroi, Dhampir and Strigoi. Morois are mortal blue-blooded vampires scattered throughout the world who send their young to St. Vladimir’s Academy, a boarding school, in Oregon (hilariously referred to as Oregano by Princess Vasilisa Dragomir). They also cannot stand the sun and must feed on human blood on a regular basis. Dhampirs are half-human, half-vampires who dedicate their lives to protecting the Morois. Olaf would love them – they can go under the sun without disintegrating. They remind me of a squad of Gurkha, the deadly Nepalese soldiers. Meanwhile, the Strigoi is the group of bad – in every sense of the word – vampires that are reminiscent of Stoker’s blood-drinking Dracula.

Meet three distinct groups of vampire in  Vampire Academy.
Meet three distinct groups of vampire in Vampire Academy.

Like the Cullen vampires, the vampires at St. Vladimir are pretty boys sporting a British, American and, in this case, a Russian accent. Moroi Christian Ozera, played by model-musician-actor Dominic Sherwood, and Dmitri Belikov, the head of the Dhampir guardians, portrayed by Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky, are yet another addition to the roster of pretty boy-vampires.

Not to be missed in the re-working of the creatures are the werewolves of which there are a slew of them. Together with the new vampire emerged a new werewolf – think Jacob in Twilight in all his brawniness and the pack of robust wolves in the TV show Teen Wolf.

The hot and smouldering eye-candies are truly wonderful to gawk at but after the parade of pulchritudinous ends, I question whether the re-imaging has done more harm than good to the classic literary pieces. Where is the focus now – on the story or the super studs? Also, aren’t the works of authors oversimplified, if not trivialized?

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LOVE IN GREY

Sex and literature go together like hand and glove. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is replete with sexual innuendoes. DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover detailed the adulterous relationship of Lady Chatterley and game keeper Oliver Mellors and one of Colette’s works highlighted the young hedonistic Chéri. BDSM is also nothing new in literature too. The most popular novel on BDSM that comes to mind is The Story of O by French author Pauline Réage (pseudonym of Anne Desclos).

Christian Grey’s story in Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James seems to be the heir apparent. That he’s dislodged Harry Potter as the most sellable fiction character piqued my interest but I didn’t pick up the book.  I still resisted the book even after reading on the Net that it caused a man to throw the book at his girlfriend, berating her for reading a “pornographic novel.” I caved in when a student happily danced the book in front of me after I blurted out, “You’re reading that book?”

“It’s mummy porn,” she quipped, her eyes sparkling with glee.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a formulaic mix of wealth, S&M disguised as love and bridled desire, sweeping someone off her feet in the tale of Christian Grey who loves to dominate and inflict pleasurable pain in his little Red Room of Pain. The characters are stereotypical – the young, powerful, affluent, drop-dead gorgeous, fashionable, calm and collected but depraved Christian Grey and the wide-eyed innocent young university graduate Anastasia Steele, who despite her strong name, is putty in the hands of the CEO of Grey Holdings.

The storyline is trite – two different worlds colliding in one innocuous meeting. Anastasia had agreed to do the interview of Grey for her flu-stricken best friend. Her klutziness and sporadic candidness attract Grey right at the beginning, tripping on her way in and he – her grey knight in armour – catching her before she fell flat on her face. The contrived meeting easily elides the nitty-gritty of life: social class, outlook and personality. That Anastasia was an interesting catch for his sex games was a plausible storyline – his affluent upbringing had impressed upon him that anyone and everyone had a price tag.  But for a woman to justify and balance depravity pulled back the advancement of women in reality and in literature to the dark days of oppression. Strong women characters have surfaced in narratives through the years and the Anastasia’s ambivalent character is as unpalatable as tepid tea. She’d put up a fight against Grey’s domineering disposition only to cave in seconds later. Her naivety is a convenient excuse for her constant uncertainty thus making her a ready victim of Grey.

Sex is a weapon of power that Grey uses with impunity. He learnt this from his Dominant – now a good friend – who introduced him to the world of S&M when he was 15 years old and which he, in turn, uses on his bevy of submissive. It’s a cycle, as painted by EL James, which is justified in the narrative with the detachment of Grey from his feelings and his throng of submissive until he meets Anastasia, the deus ex machina completely turned on its head. She upsets the unsteady balance of main character, giving the reader the hint of a problem, conflict and intense climax of the narrative structure. Similar to Bella and Edward in Meyer’s Twilight, Grey is unable to read Anastasia who is drawn to him like moth to a flame. The impact of sex-in-your-face (reminiscent of the first several episodes of True Blood in Season 1) is completely elided. EL James has romanticized the dichotomy of dominance and submissive, making Grey and Anastasia victims of the cycle where salvation from depravity and descent to depravity lies in the fairy tale idea of “true love.”

Meyer’s puerile Twilight is reworked in Fifty Shades of Grey in a non-supernatural setting and adult storyline, but not exactly less eldritch. If Meyer frowned on explicit sex both in the book and in the movie, EL James happily regaled her readers with graphic full-on S&M episodes that weren’t few and far in between. The readers eventually lose sight of the tyrannical dominant and submissive relationship with the subplots of disguised courtly love transposed to modern times. The book, in fact, resembles a Wikipedia entry on S&M and the visual version is coming. A movie adaptation will be released soon, as the ingredients of a blockbuster movie that will keep the tills ringing are hard to ignore.