Book Review: ‘News Hardcore: Hukbong Sandatahan ng Kahaggardan’ by Manix Abrera

WARNING: This review will get personal.

Back in 2013, when I was new-ish at my previous (and first-ever) job at GMA News Online, I once spent an entire day reading Manix Abrera’s News Hardcore from the first strip to the latest. Concealing my laughter became a struggle.

News-H-cover
Image from Visprint.

News Hardcore at first followed the adventures of a newbie journo and then branched out into the experiences of her co-workers in the difficult but noble profession of news. The comic was only about 150+ strips at the time. Even if I couldn’t (yet) relate to a lot of what was going down in the comics–from the failure to hail a cab to going to work during outrageous typhoons–I told myself and my officemates that this would make a great book and I’d buy it if it was. Little did I know that one day, Manix would email me a strip every week, that I would have to upload these comics onto the GNO website myself, that we would meet in conventions here and there, that he would give me a copy of 14 to review.

Flash forward to 2015, two years and a few odd months later, to the November Komikon. Manix was at the head of a long line of people who wanted autographs on News Hardcore: Hukbong Sandatahan ng Kahaggardan. I was not the same girl who read 150+ comic strips in one afternoon during some downtime from work: no longer naive, no longer a journalist, and preparing to leave my second job to move into my third, I’d left my fulfilling but ultimately toxic media job behind. But I still wished to have a hard copy of News Hardcore because no matter what happened to me next, the fact remains that my time in journalism has become an indelible part of me. (Spoiler alert: I did not buy a copy. Manix gave me a review copy for free.)

The truth is that my last six months at GMA were fraught with anxiety, stress, office politics, and the beginnings of a year-long depression. There came a point when I cried during a car ride to work–my body’s way of telling me that I did not want to be there anymore. Remembering what was good and what I loved about the job became an unreachable dream. In the months after, I even stopped listening and reading to almost all kinds of news because I would remember some small thing that brought on so much boiling anger and resentment.

I read my physical copy of News Hardcore not in one sitting, as during that day in 2013, but in bursts between tasks at work, breaks, car rides, and an hour before going to bed. I noticed that I laughed more during this second reading than I ever did during the first. I could recognize myself and my former colleagues in beautifying yourself after coverage upon coverage; in gossiping about &#%$@^*@#% grammatical mistakes and other ridiculous writing sins committed by contributors; in trying to get HR to reimburse a hellish commute fee. I remember going to work the Saturday after Typhoon Yolanda struck, having to return gifts over P300 in price, pushing through a crowd just to get an assignment done. I remember having moments to myself on the rooftop or in the bathroom, not exactly questioning my life choices but taking stock of my life thus far anyway. I remember all the chats with my colleagues about what we really like to do beyond office hours (actor, writer, photographer, comic artist…there were many of us with other hobbies). I remembered all of it, laughing (and cringing a little).

It’s been a year since I left GMA. It’d be an understatement to say that coping with the fallout, the near-constant rush of triggering memories, the slow climb back to a place that isn’t dark and so far down from an exit, hasn’t been easy. But I have done it, and I just so happened to read News Hardcore in a better frame of mind and under better circumstances. This book helped remind me that there were some good times, great memories, moments I could be proud of. And that yes, there are things I miss about the job, moments when I wonder what would have happened if I had stayed and the situation had been better. This book also helped me realize that that chapter of my life really has ended and that I am done wallowing in pain. Thus, reading this book is a wonderful way to go full circle.

I don’t know if I can offer an objective review of the book and its contents (is there even such a thing as an objective review?). But this is what News Hardcore means to me, and I am so glad it played such a significant part of my life.

Now all that’s left to ask is, kailan kaya yung volume 2? 😀

Movie Review: ‘Aladdin’

Aladdin. Image from Amazon.
Image from Amazon.

Aladdin is special to me for being the very first Disney movie I ever watched, and perhaps the only one I–according to my parents–would cry at the end of, as I apparently wanted them to rewind the VHS tape and play it again. I couldn’t tell you what I saw in it over 20 years ago, of course.

Considering that I watched it for the first time as an adult recently, I can tell you what I think of it now: despite some plot holes and glaring problems in the geographical and cultural setting, Aladdin is a rollicking, hilarious, romantic, and progressive (for its time) cartoon.

Summary from IMDB:

When street rat Aladdin frees a genie from a lamp, he finds his wishes granted. However, he soon finds that the evil has other plans for the lamp–and for Princess Jasmine. But can Aladdin save Princess Jasmine and his love for her after she sees that he isn’t quite what he appears to be?

It was extremely difficult for me to summarize the plot of Aladdin without going into great detail as to what happened in the beginning. I think that this is because Aladdin’s turning point, that of meeting Genie and trying to win Jasmine’s hand as a prince, doesn’t occur until a good one-third into the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I enjoyed the somewhat tuneless preamble leading up to the second Cave of Wonders sequence.

You know what else I enjoyed? Aladdin and Jasmine, from start to finish. I feel like there is no other Disney movie where the chemistry between the hero and the heroine is this strong. Aladdin turns into a real goofball when it comes to Jasmine, so much so that I can feel a goofy smile growing on my face whenever they’re about to kiss or when the “A Whole New World” number came up. Even if the next two films and the animated TV series weren’t as good as Aladdin, I’m glad Aladdin and Jasmine got that much material and screen time to further develop their relationship; they are by no means perfect and they often have misunderstandings, but that’s just part of their charm.

Image from DisneyScreencaps.com
Image from DisneyScreencaps.com

Jasmine herself is a pretty admirable character, perhaps the first example of the naive-but-fiery-and-capable-princess trope. She can’t handle a bow like Merida or a sword like Mulan, but she’s every bit as willing to fight to protect what’s important to her like Nala, and even as willing to trick her way into achieving her aims like Megara and has all the sexuality of Esmeralda. I may have wanted to be her when I grew up.

The film–in glorious 2D that’s all but disappeared from mainstream US animation–has a rocking color palette that isn’t at all shy about going from warm to cool undertones from one scene to the next. Appropriate when you consider that the “A Whole New World” sequence is basically a preview of the settings of future Disney movies, like Hercules and Mulan. I also very much enjoyed how Carpet was animated–it takes a lot of skill to be able to draw a rug that can express its emotions without any voice acting. Plus, its pattern was beautiful.

Speaking of voice acting, Robin Williams in his turn as the Genie was especially stellar. Scott Weinger does a pretty good job as Aladdin, too.

I did have to wonder, however, about some plot points. Why Jafar didn’t just attempt to marry Jasmine in the first place if he wanted to take over Agrabah so much? He clearly had the resources–the snake staff–to do it, and if he’d done that in the first place, he’d have had access to enough resources to storm the Cave of Wonders, or else to discreetly detect Aladdin’s presence in the marketplace.

It also bothered me somewhat that you couldn’t tell at a glance if you were in India, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. (The palace and Jasmine’s attire has some Indian influences, the marketplace is more Arabian souk–and I’m probably getting too technical on this, but wasn’t the original Aladdin story set in China?)

I was also thinking the whole time I watched the Sultan, how did this happy-go-lucky guy who doesn’t take anything seriously get to lead a whole country? I mean, Jasmine was so upset when she thought that Jafar had had Aladdin beheaded, and he thinks that talking to both parties as mediator is going to appease either one? And yet, it’s that same quality of the Sultan’s that finally allows Jasmine to choose Aladdin as her husband, so I guess it’s all good…?

Maybe I wouldn’t have enjoyed Aladdin as much if I’d first come to it as an adult, but who cares? The bottom line is that it gave me so many feelings and I’m still singing out “Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa” at random times throughout the day.

Book Review: ‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

Image from NPR.org.
Image from NPR.org.

Readers can dive into a short story collection at any point in the book–unlike with novels, which are usually read from cover to cover.

Not so with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. You could read the 16 gems in this book in any order, but to get the full effect of her nesting doll-like structure, you must read them in the order they were presented. How else are you going to realize that some protagonists are descendants of others, or that they all cross paths at some point? Sourdough is not just a masterful collection–it’s a masterclass in how to curate stories for a collection.

Now, I have huge To Be Read piles (yes, piles) that aren’t getting any smaller despite my reading more books this year than the last two years put together, because:

  1. I am also a Book Hoarder, and
  2. Even though I profess my undying love and loyalty to print books, I have to admit that the next best thing to getting books that will not ship to my damn country are eBooks.

I was planning to read something else for my job, but I ended up taking a peek at Slatter’s September-released The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings in my Kindle. Slatter said in her intro that it’s a prequel of sorts to Sourdough and Other Stories, so logically, I exited from my copy and dove right into Sourdough.

I don’t know if my attention span’s grown shorter or there just aren’t enough really riveting books coming out lately or some other truer reason, but there have been so many times when I picked up a book and read maybe a paragraph or even a chapter of, and then put it down, not at all drawn to it again. That was not the case with Sourdough. If I put the book down, it’s because my real life intruded on my reading time; otherwise, it’s hard to leave when the paragraphs look like this from the titular story:

My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.

It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best. Mother baked very fine bread, black and brown for the poor and shining white for the affluent. We were by no means rich, but we had more than those around us, and there was enough money spare for occasional gifts: a book for George, a toy train for Artor, and a THIN silver ring for me, engraved with flowers and vines.

If that doesn’t grab you, then you have no imagination at all. You get a sense while reading Slatter’s collection that it’s like walking into a bakery–there’s 16 kinds of bread all laid out nice and crisp. But don’t think you’ll know what to get once you pick one up despite such labels like “Gallowberries” or “Dibblespin” or “Little Raddish.” Don’t think that they all taste alike either, oh no–though most of the stories end in a bittersweet way, they each have their own shape, their own distinct flavor.

The only time I felt unsatisfied after reading was after “Under the Mountain.” I got the sense that it and its prequel “Sister, Sister” would have been better next to each other as opposed to being interwoven between “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.” The reason I feel this way is because I feel that, while all the stories are connected, only three sets of paired stories are true sequels to each other, with the third pair being “The Story of Ink” and “Lost Things,” which were next to each other and a little earlier in the collection. “Under the Mountain” ends on such a terribly sour note while “Lavender and Lychgates” had an ending that was a little brighter than most that came before it.

I think Slatter’s stories trained me into thinking that there is hope for each character even beyond their stories, however grim–their appearances in later stories, which also happen to be later times, are proof enough–but “Under the Mountain” was different somehow. The doors of the troll kingdom closing on the protagonist Magdalene don’t just signify the close of the story, the collection; they’re a closing off of all possibilities for her redemption, for finding any love. Of course, a lot of other characters come to such an end elsewhere in Sourdough; I may have hoped that in the roulette of tales Slatter set up, the closing tale would be hopeful, too.

Ultimate favorites from the top of my head include “Gallowberries,” “A Porcelain Soul,” “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.”

I’m really excited to read The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. I feel like it’ll be a little bit like coming home.

Book Review: ‘How the World Became Quiet’ by Rachel Swirsky

Cover of How the World Became Quiet. Image via Amazon.com
Cover of How the World Became Quiet. Image via Amazon.com

Doesn’t that wonderful title just give you a sense of quiet devastation? But I’ll get back to that in a bit.

When reading an author’s work for the first time, I usually prefer getting my hands on a short story collection of theirs, if they have any. That way, I’ll have the option of looking at the rest of their work without having to leave for another webpage or something like that (and because I just really love print books). And if I perceive that their stories just aren’t my thing, well, there’s no loss or shame in having a book I didn’t like/finish. I know so many people whom the book might fit better with.

This book was my first foray into Rachel Swirsky’s writing, of which I’d heard so much about. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant because I couldn’t recall where I’d seen or heard her name before and no story of hers had come to mind.

I was still a little hesitant as I read through the first story in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, which was the Nebula-winning “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” In it, a murdered sorceress’s spirit is doomed to be summoned again and again over the centuries, until the ending of the world. It was gorgeous and detailed, but the scale of it completely surprised me and I couldn’t quite stop frowning at the text. But there was sharp insight in there and an entrancing melding of searing loneliness and hope beyond hope–I think that’s what kept me reading.

I wasn’t all too into “A Memory of Wind” either, although my guess is because I have reached my saturation point with Greek myths.

The story that finally made me feel glad about reading on was “Monstrous Embrace,” the third tale in this collection. Swirsky’s point of view character is–get this–the spirit of ugliness present in various aspects of a rather generic fairy tale prince’s life.

How the World Became Quiet is divided into four parts: Past, Present, Future, and The End. Most of the fantasy stories are in the Past and Present, the science fictional ones are squarely in the Future, and science fiction and fantasy are side by side in The End.

I usually lean toward fantasy in my reading, but I think I enjoyed Swirsky’s science fiction more. I think it helped–although it wasn’t that big of a reason–that Swirsky’s science fiction stories were shorter than the fantasy ones. I definitely breezed right through that section, whereas it took me the better part of August just getting through the Past and the Present. Those two sections have their fair share of novelettes, whereas the Future and the End have some very short ones less than a handful of pages long. The only story that I didn’t read in the whole collection was “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” mostly because the problem lay with me (I had trouble relating to rats, even ones with human feelings, and despite the initial comedic tone).

In her science fiction, she does not use jargon to a dizzying degree, nor does she spend too much time on exposition–and best of all, she doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of human (or post-human or sub-human, or even anthropomorphic animal and spirit) life in favor of a richer setting. Rather, the complexity I mentioned serves to enrich her settings. My favorite story has to be “Eros, Philia, Agape” which is about a human-looking android leaving his wife and adopted daughter in favor of figuring out what it means to possess and to love. I closed the book for a while and wallowed in the feelings that story gave me.

But that is not to say that the fantasy stories don’t have that kind of depth either. “Fields of Gold” was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, repulsive–and yet altogether illuminating. It examines the life and death of the protagonist Dennis, his marriage to antagonist Karen, his relationships with select family members, and what the afterlife might be like for each person (a sort of Five People You Meet in Heaven, although not exactly). It is interspersed with amusing bucket list items from Dennis’s life.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rachel Swirsky has incredible range of length, voice, character, and ideas. But more than that, she has the gifts of weaving insight into humanity into incredibly poignant moments, of pushing what is harsh and ugly and dark to the fore and humanizing it, of seeing the stories in the margins, to quote “Scenes from a Dystopia” (which is completely surprising in how metafictional it is). She loves writing about the breakdown of human relationships and yet–and yet–within each story, she always puts a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe not a hope of things getting better, but finding hope elsewhere.

I went through a stage in my own writing wherein I thought of crazy ways to tell a story and then dismissed them as silly later on. I feel like Swirsky went through this stage also, but embraced those ideas and turned each of them into a gem whose brilliance is enhanced by the very simplicity of the container. Her stories are quietly devastating–but also quietly uplifting. Read them when you want to have your heart broken.

Book Review: ‘Storyteller’ by Kate Wilhelm

wilhelm-storyteller-lg
Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm. Photo from socialistjazz.blogspot.com

I never thought I’d get to read Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Workshop for reasons other than a passive interest in how the Clarion Workshops came to be. But now that I actually stand a damn good fighting chance at going to Clarion San Diego, Storyteller immediately rose to the top of my to-read list.

What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said in much better ways? Nearly every Clarion graduate recommends it to incoming students, often with glowing reviews. I love Wilhelm’s use of clear, concise words to convey her points; her fond, mama-hen-like tones when talking about specific incidents–whether these are about water gun fights or specific workshop sessions. I love how the writing lessons she chooses to include are very nuts-and-bolts, and yet, not at all preachy or technical or jargon-filled. Plus, the index toward the end saved me from having to highlight passages I liked very much.

Best of all, you can apply these lessons in writing, etiquette, love, and life to just about any kind of story, not just Science Fiction or Fantasy.

I came to Storyteller looking for information about the workshop that I wanted to ask and didn’t even know I wanted to ask the coordinator in our email exchanges, that I was often unable to find even combing through this wonderful index of Clarion-related blogs curated by Liz Argall.  For sure, I did not get direct information, but by reading through the slow, turbulent history of the workshops from the 60s and 70s, I think I know a few things already, like which traditions they might have kept. I hope the cafeteria food isn’t as bad as so many people say.

It doesn’t tell you some things, like how to prepare for Clarion way before you arrive, or how to manage your time well, or how many stories you should churn out during your stay, or which events should you attend or skip. I am starting to realize that those are the things you either find out when you get there, or for yourself through trial and error.

I finished reading the book feeling as if I had my fill of the most satisfying appetizer. Can’t wait for the full course in June.

Movie Review: ’47 Ronin’

Image taken from BlackFilm.com
Image taken from BlackFilm.com

You see that poster? Do not let that poster fool you. In no way do that tattooed guy or the iron-clad samurai have the big parts the poster implies. This is the tale of the 47 ronin…or the 46 ronin and the half-Japanese demon played by Keanu Reeves, who seek revenge for their slain master.

The movie opens with a young Caucasian boy, Kai, running through a forest. He collapses in a little brook and is soon found by Lord Asano Naganori (Tanaka Min), daimyo (feudal lord) of the province of Ako, and his group of samurai, led by Oishi (Sanada Hiroyuki). Lord Asano takes Kai in despite Oishi’s attempt to kill the boy for his apparently demonic nature. Kai grows up an outcast in the long shadow of the palace of Ako and its samurai, loyal to Lord Asano and in love with his daughter, the Lady Mika (Shibasaki Kou).

Fast forward several years, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and rival daimyo Kira (Asano Tadanobu) come to visit Lord Asano. During a demonstration between the best samurai of the two lords, Kai is further cast out after impersonating a samurai. In the evening, through dark magic, Kira’s Witch (Pacific Rim‘s Kikuchi Rinko) tricks Asano into assaulting Kira, resulting in the Shogun ordering the former to commit seppuku (stabbing himself in the gut, an honorable death). The Shogun pronounces Asano’s samurai as ronin and orders them not to come after Kira on pain of death, then pronounces Mika engaged to Kira so that strife will not grow between her lands and his. After the Shogun leaves, Kira orders Oishi thrown into a pit.

One year later, the story really begins.

Normally, any dramatic adaptation of the 47 Ronin story will fall under a special body of work called Chushingura. But if I were Japanese and had any say in what goes on in Japanese culture, I wouldn’t include Carl Rinsch’s directorial debut in that body of work. Why?

It’s not just because the very presence of a white guy (I don’t care if they called him half-Japanese and half-English, his accent’s still American) skews the whole “To know the tale of the 47 ronin is to know all of Japan!” thing. Granted, as the movie progresses, Kai shares the screen with Oishi, even backs down a little at some parts (a feat for a Hollywood film). It’s that you can tell right off the bat which parts were probably insisted on by Hollywood film producers (who may have thought that American audiences need a white guy to relate to for a movie about another culture to be interesting) and which parts were true to the source story–and I’m willing to bet that you can tell which part dragged the story down.

Look, I love fantasy. The wonders of computer animation never cease to amaze me, and this movie delivers on that. The evil liveliness of the Witch’s silks, as well as every other manifestation of her powers–be they reptilian or insectile–is proof enough of this. Props also to Lady Mika’s out-of-this-world kimonos, as well as the tangle of galleons making up the haven of pirates (who don’t spend more than 10 minutes onscreen). In short, the movie is not lacking in spectacle department. But beyond spectacle, what has it going for itself except for well-choreographed fight scenes and a very strong source story that needed no embellishment?

47 Ronin would have been cool if it wasn’t trying to be too cool.

Book Review: ‘Ventriloquism’ by Catherynne M. Valente

The cover of the author's rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com
The cover of the author’s rare, out-of-print first collection of short stories. Image taken from SubterraneanPress.com via EvilHat.blogspot.com

Reading Catherynne M. Valente’s writing is both like taking in a slow breath and being unable to do so. Her words spiral upward, outward, then close in on you, and you will grow dizzy simply trying to keep up with the barrage of living, breathing, sensual ideas.

At least, that’s how her first-ever collection of short stories made me feel. The rare, out-of-print Ventriloquism encompasses six years’ worth of tales, six years’ worth of experimentation both failed and wildly triumphant. And I must say, whether you love or hate her work, this is one hefty, heady mix.

I didn’t read everything, however, having encountered many of the stories in The Melancholy of Mechagirl or in Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Maybe it’s just me (and it very likely is, as I often pick apart her writing even as I read a story–especially if it’s one of her form-heavy pieces), but I would have preferred it had the stories been arranged according to year published. Part of the joy of reading Ventriloquism was watching/reading someone whom many already consider pretty great improve again and again, even if the story just didn’t do it for me.  There is something about reading her poetic prose, which straddles opulence and unreadability simultaneously, and then recognizing how she scales it back for particular stories, especially toward the end.

I am thinking particularly of the last nine stories in this 35-story oeuvre: “How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps,” “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” (which is going to be a novel in 2015, yay!) “Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Radiant Moon!,” “Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Elegy),” “Secretario,” “The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World,” “How to Become a Mars Overlord,” “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica,” and “13 Ways of Looking at Space/Time.” Minus the last one (which I’d read in Melancholy) and throw in “A Delicate Architecture” and “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth,” and you have my favorite stories of this collection.

What do they have in common apart from all having been written by Catherynne M. Valente? I…don’t know. Figuring out what particularly attracts me about her stories is like throwing dice. Whether it’s a detective story of sorts (“Secretario”) or a science fictional elegy about wine and war (“Golubash”) or a retelling of a fairy tale/epic or a narrative encased strange forms (an auction guide, a segment of a collection of folktales, the transcript of a seminar), Valente does not fail to enthrall at best, to pique interest at least.

“Here an author throws her voice—and a family of strange dolls speaks, as if by magic,” reads the intro on the jacket flap. But it’s not just dolls. She can make cities and mirrors and video games and practically anything else she puts her mind to speak, sing, scream. And while she’s at it, she’ll give you incisive insight into human nature, into the nature of story. She’s really good at dissecting patterns then flipping them on their heads for her own purposes.

The only issue I have with a few of them is that a handful feel like novels-in-waiting–and indeed, some of them did turn out so (“A Dirge for Prester John” = The Habitation of the BlessedPalimpsest; and now “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” will be coming out in 2015 as Radiance). I’ve read in a lot of places that some people actually have novel ideas behind their short stories and that one must learn how to differentiate one from the other. Valente manages sometimes, and other times, she doesn’t. I am of the belief that her comfort length is that of the novella (have you read Silently and Very Fast? If you haven’t yet, you should).

And therein lies the problem whenever I review her work: I always end up talking about her range, assessing her breadth, unable to speak about her work on a micro level because I think to do that would take an entire thesis and a dissertation, and then some. The bottom line is, her fiction takes my heart in its lavishly decorated, well-manicured claws, rips it apart, then presents it again to me whole, but never quite the same.

And I cannot wait to read The Bread We Eat in Dreams.