One of the goals I have for 2010 is to read all the books that I bought through the years (I refrain from the word “resolution” because, like “diet”, it just calls for an epic failure). For the first time in a decade or so, I finished reading three books in a single month, and I unconsciously chose books about death as the theme for January. It may be because of the recent and sudden deaths of two close friends, my longtime (mild) fascination with anything morbid, or that death falls into what I call the five Ls of fiction: Life, Love, Lust, Lunacy and Loss.
Taking a look at my (newly organized) bookshelf, I realized that several of my unread books also have common themes; and if I continue reading according to theme and do little reviews on them, I can finish my reading backlog and use it as a medium-term writing exercise. I’ll hit two birds in one stone through 17 cycles. This being the first cycle, I definitely have a long way to go.
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- The Girl in the Picture: the Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War, Denise Chong
- A Dirty Job, Christopher Moore
- The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
A cruel mistake with cruel consequences
Back in October 2009, I spotted The Girl in the Picture: the Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War by Denise Chong in a cute and cozy secondhand bookstore in Langkawi, Malaysia. I have to admit that I was duped by it; I thought it was an authentic book and, in my excitement upon finding it amid classics and thrillers, didn’t even bother to inspect it more closely.
It was only after I got home and started reading it did I realize that the pages were mere photocopies (reminiscent of our thoroughly photocopied textbooks back in college) and that the cover was a reproduction. While the aesthetics were bad (nothing beats a professionally bound and printed book, and I think “pirating” it was an injustice), the same absolutely cannot be said about the content: it was highly personal, fast-paced, heartbreaking and well-written. This book had me reading up to as late as four in the morning.
Nick Ut’s most famous black-and-white photograph leads to a gripping story captured by Chong — from the time Kim Phuc‘s family started, grew and prospered in a South Vietnamese province to that fateful day, when a pilot’s mistake led to a warplane dropping napalm on Kim’s village, and on to Kim’s experience as a propaganda tool by the Vietnamese Communist government, her studies in Ho Chi Minh and Cuba, her marriage and subsequent defection to the West, her being brought out of hiding due to worldwide interest, and her work in the international arena as a promoter of peace. As I’ve said before, even war has unwritten rules, and a violation of a certain rule (avoid harming civilians, especially women and children) and that violation’s aftereffects take the spotlight here.
The book mixes Kim’s and her mother’s account of the events before and after the bombing with Vietnam’s rich and sad, bullet-ridden history. It also contains conversations with some of the people directly involved with the attack and Kim’s recuperation, treatment and welfare; and depictions of what Trang Bang, Frankfurt, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Cuba, Gander and Ajax were like when Kim was there.
In my opinion, The Girl in the Picture emphasizes death by telling of a woman’s struggle to find freedom and contentment given all the obstacles that life has dealt her. It’s not just about her very close brush with death that afternoon in Trang Bang; it is also about the death that a person can experience through physical, emotional, psychological and ideological hardship. The extensive scars she bears on her back can also stand for the adversities she had to endure, and also as a reminder of how death gave way to life. The heart, mind and soul can die long before the body does, and Kim Phuc’s life story shows how she has avoided becoming a mere statistic in many ways.
“Why me?” is a recurring question throughout this non-fiction work, and Kim finds the answer in due time. Death was both a threat and motivator for Kim to make her life into an admirable personal peace mission. Take note that she should not be seen as the ultimate heroine: like any human being, she also made mistakes, was prone to episodes of selfishness, and came to decisions that run against her family’s wishes (her change of religion from Cao Dai to Christianity comes to mind). This is where I think the book makes the most impact: what would another man or woman do if he/she were in her shoes.
The Beta Male becomes a Death Merchant
Ahhh, the Beta Male: the doormat (or perennial sidekick) of the more revered Alpha Male, and the type of man usually regarded by lusty females as a consolation prize. The most amusing thing is that unlike the Alpha Male, the Beta Male makes for a more complex study, especially if he turns out to be Charlie Asher, one of the Death Merchants living in San Francisco.
A Dirty Job is my second Christopher Moore book; I unfairly expected it to be like the first fiction work of his that I read (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal), and I was definitely not disappointed. It is as imaginative, entertaining and witty as I hoped, and with the same brand of humor that is unique to the author.
Charlie is a paranoid and unsure man whose wife (Rachel), a more dominant force, has just given birth to their lovely daughter, Sophie. After picking up a Sarah McLachlan CD from his car, he finds his wife dead in her hospital bed, with a freakishly tall man in a green suit — who goes by the funny name of Minty Fresh — standing beside her, and with the newborn Sophie as a witness to the entire thing.
The problem is that Minty (or Mr. Fresh) wasn’t supposed to be seen at all, either by Charlie or anyone else. Thus starts Charlie’s gradual transition from normal husband and father (albeit still afflicted by intense paranoia) into what Minty has labeled a Death Merchant: a person tasked with acquiring “soul vessels” from dying people, all the while unseen and unheard by those who are not meant to be Death Merchants themselves.
Besides Minty, a wide range of supporting characters help make Charlie’s life as chaotic, exciting and challenging as possible, contradicting the life path of a typical Beta Male:
- Sophie, his beloved but spoiled daughter who can kill anything and anyone just by pointing and saying “kitty”
- Jane, his tough-as-nails lesbian sister who loves to wear his signature suits and looks like a video vixen straight from the ’80s
- Lily, an employee at Charlie’s secondhand store who desires all things morbid
- Ray, the ex-cop with a taste for “desperate Filipinas” (I am a Filipina and I find that part highly offensive — not all Filipinas are desperate and/or transgender!)
- Charlie’s overly protective Chinese and Russian house help, serving as Sophie’s nannies and guardians
- the inspector who, in time, just accepts all the weird situations that Charlie gets himself into
- the Morrigan, ancient dealers of death and carnage that are intent on eradicating all Death Merchants
- Orcus, the self-proclaimed master of the Morrigan who fancies himself as the second coming of Death
- Audrey, the woman with a supernatural power given by monks and the first woman Charlie has loved since Rachel, and
- Alvin and Mohammed, the giant dogs from Hell sent to guard Sophie against various threats.
My understanding of Moore’s concept is that when a person dies, the soul needs to find a new body to possess and will rest within a vessel in the meantime. Humans can exist without a soul, moving through life as if doing a routine, and only when that person truly wants to live and learn is he or she made worthy of acquiring a proper soul through a Death Merchant; the soul moves from the vessel to the human being via touch. The Death Merchant recognizes a soul vessel through its appearance: if it glows a “dull red”, then it should be taken from the dying and stored until a new owner willingly comes to them. The trading of souls happens through the Death Merchants’ secondhand shops, and a Death Merchant will know if the soul is right for the person only through gut feel. According to the novel’s storyline, this entire process has gone on since the original Death ceased to be Death and passed his duties on to hundreds of Death Merchants. Over time, a Luminatus will rise, take over as the ruler of Hell, and preside over the Merchants.
In this book, Charlie experiences death over and over again, in both lighthearted and excruciatingly painful ways. He becomes a widower, then grapples with his new job as Death Merchant and sees the living and dying as a silent and invisible worker and, along the way, runs into forces that seek to rule both worlds. I was laughing most of the time, proof of the author’s immense talent: even something so grave (pun very much intended) as death can be the topic of comedic fiction given the right elements.
The live boy amid the ghosts on the hill
Specific audiences will fully understand topics that are presented in ways appropriate to them. For The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman’s target audiences are children and young adults; and this book about death tackles the touchy subject in a palatable manner — seriously, yet with the hope and spirit of adventure that most kids possess.
A reader of Gaiman’s work for years (way before he became a rock star in these parts), I had to adjust to the lightness and muted nuances of this novel. While targeting children, it still delivers the messages to adults in a familiar and comforting way.
Nobody “Bod” Owens is the protagonist of this novel, the sole survivor of a homicide one dark and foggy night in a small town. As his parents and sister are murdered by “the man named Jack”, Bod (as a baby who just learned how to walk) escapes the house and ventures into a nearby graveyard atop a hill, where ghosts from a number of eras agree to raise and protect him until he reaches adulthood.
Adopted by an elderly couple that was child-less in life and having a number of graveyard constants as his companions and playmates, Bod is also protected by his guardian, Silas (who is neither living nor dead) and a Hound of God (werewolf) named Miss Lupescu. The stern Miss Lupescu can be thought of as the symbolism for the strict but concerned teachers of younger years, while Silas is probably the most “solid” character in the novel, giving Bod life lessons and advice whenever he needs it and going to extreme lengths to protect him from the dangers that can be found below the hill. He is the sole steady influence in the life of a boy that was topsy-turvy from the start.
Bod straddles the line between the living and the dead in two ways: by being a living, breathing human being and by possessing the “Freedom of the Graveyard” due to his adoption by the Owenses. The former puts him in contact with personalities such as Scarlett (a childhood friend who moves back to the town with her mother) and typical school bullies like Mo and Nick, while the latter makes it possible for him to cross paths with the ghouls of Ghulheim, the Indigo Man and the Sleer, the night-ghouls and other ghosts such as Liza the Witch. The Jacks of All Trades collectively serve as the quintessential villain. All these characters give more color to Bod’s tale, enabling concepts such as young love and friendship, schoolyard battles, trust and mistrust, fright and benevolence to materialize.
At its root, the novel tells the a story of how a boy who grew up around death (and is unafraid of it) matures into a young man with an immense thirst for life, and the lengths to which one will go to discover the truth, fulfill a prophecy or protect a loved one. Adults relate to these factors quite well, and not much has to be said of the urge to shield any child from harm. In turn, for children, the thrill of having acceptance from peers and being able to traverse the two starkly different worlds — and not have to tell their parents about it — is a huge one; imagining themselves able to do things that other kids cannot do (minus not having any living parents or siblings, of course) will make young readers turn the book’s pages with bated breath and want to go past ghoul-gates, be held by a ghost, or meet a three-headed snake with purple markings. It seems that Gaiman has hit the ball out of the park once again.