Monday, November 3, 2014

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher


(In which it is frustrating.)

***

One way to know if a book is good is when one sees several blurbs in the first pages. If there were so many of them, then the reader is in luck. This blurb test is, of course, not a standard, but it's a start. And when I read the blurbs for Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why", I knew I was in luck.

Thirteen Reasons Why narrates the heartbreaking journey of Clay Jenkins around town as he listens to a set of thirteen cassette tapes (cassette tapes!) he received in the mail a few days back. After listening for the first several seconds, he knew right away that it was from Hannah Baker, his classmate who committed suicide. What’s chilling is the fact that twelve other people have received or have to receive the tapes and that they all are the reasons for Hannah’s death. Along with the tapes is a map where important places for Hannah are marked. These marked places are unforgettable to her, like the people who contribute to Hannah’s decision to take her own life.

I read the book thinking it was another take on the horror film “The Ring” and that there might be a curse on the cassette tapes since the tapes needed to be passed along to the next person on the list, otherwise, something terrible will happen. But, no. There was no avenging ghost. No curses. Or maybe a little. The curse is set on the conscience of those who listened. 

It was a quick read. And it was a haunting read. It’s the kind of haunting that does not scare you. At least Hannah didn’t sound eerie in the tapes. But it haunts you in the sense that it will let you – force you – to look back at all the years you’ve lived. It will force you to remember details about your interactions with others: your family, your teachers, your classmates, your friends, your enemies, even strangers. It will force you to recall kind deeds, kind words, rude deeds and rude words. It will force you to think back what evil you may have caused to the life of someone as you try to peacefully navigate your daily life. You will remember deaths. And you will remember the last time you talk to people before they died and wonder how you affected their lives.

It made me uneasy. But it didn’t stop me from reading. It made me sad. But, surprisingly, it didn’t make me cry.

I finished the book in 5 hours. And then I wondered at the solace it gave me. I should have wept and felt bad that a promising life was lost due to the frailty of today's youth's self-esteem and their constant need for social acceptance. I should have mourned for a seemingly innocent and pure love that never took place. If not for the dead girl, I should have been full of regret for the poor boy she left behind.

I felt sad for Hannah. But her decision is, apart from the terrible making of the terribly ill-advised children in her school, is a product of a series of terrible decisions. She needed help. But just like so unfortunate people. She tried to get help from the wrong people when all the while the only person who could save her has always been there and she sent him away. She is a victim, yes. But that doesn’t justify anything.

Instead of mourning for her death, I chose to celebrate life for those who took the tougher road and managed to stay alive despite the struggle to fit in this cruel world. I believe Hannah’s story is about these truly strong people as it is about her.


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Saturday, October 25, 2014

The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani



(In which fairy tale princesses are introduced to an extreme feminism awakening.)

***

I'll try my best not to include spoilers but I might fail. If you haven't read the first book yet, remember you've been warned.


When Sophie and Agatha escaped their fairy tale and returned to Gavaldon, they became instant celebrities. Autographs here, photo shoots there, seemingly endless interviews and book signings. Sophie just loves it and is convinced she could live a peaceful life in that unbearably boring town as long as she has Agatha. She was even willing to accept that her father is going to remarry a woman that is a total opposite of her goddess-like mother. As long as Agatha's there. 

But on the day of the wedding, Agatha wished for something that Sophie couldn't provide. And then the ghost of their fairy tale life came haunting them, along with knives and arrows and invisible assassins that are after Sophie for a huge bounty for her head. The two girls are left with no choice but to return to the dreaded school and try to set things right again.

Only the school isn't how they left it before.

Princes were banished. Fairy tales no longer end with a happily-ever-after-inspired themes and worse, female protagonists got rid of their princes and kings in most horrible ways possible, reign on their own and became celebrated heroes of women empowerment.

The schools were no longer divided into good and evil but into genders. Lessons were no longer taught on how to be better and worse versions of their characters but how to live without the other gender and, how to dispose them.

Sophie and Agatha saw their old schoolmates in one school and was flabbergasted to see a utmost lack of fashion and grooming sense practiced. No one is required to wear makeup, dresses, long hair and be uptight.

Agatha  couldn't imagine a functional world where the genders are at war with each other, especially when the other school is led by Tedros, who is after Sophie for ruining his fairytale ending with Agatha. Oh, the ego. 

But Sophie loved the lack of moral distinction. She wanted to stay. But Agatha, as always, wanted to do what's right for everyone. 

When they realized that they were brought back to school because of Agatha's wish, they discovered that in order to bring peace to the fairytale world, they need to find the Storian and end their story either with the "proper" one or with the two of them peacefully back in Gavaldon.

But things are more complicated than that, of course. Especially with the presence of new Dean.

In the second book of The School for Good and Evil, Soman Chainani again uses his interesting characters (although they are eyeroll-inducing at most times) as well as his simple narration embellished with twists that you'll find hard to guess until the last moment. This book was a quick read, making one wish that the last installment was already available. 

Waiting is such a bitter pill to swallow.

I wonder, though,  if the gender-bending act found in book one and two (which, I just have to say, was leveled up in book two) will still be found in book three. 

Well, since it was a staple in fairy tales and in this book, I wouldn't be surprised if it was.

Also, may I share with you it's very cinematic book trailer? You're welcome!


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Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton





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Sunday, October 5, 2014

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani



(In which bedtime stories are to blame.)


***

They say that parents reading to their children before bed positively reinforces children's interests in books. Well, I have never been read to by my parents (and I love books all the same). At one point I envied children who listen to their parents' narration of fairy tales with wide and excited eyes. And then they go to sleep either dreaming of a prince or a witch. 

And some even spend their lives either finding Prince Charming or being one.

Alright. I may have been overreacting. But surely this is not the first time anyone thinks fairy tales are stupid at best and sexist at worst. But unsurprisingly, everyone wants to live a fairy tale and live happily ever after. Besides, who doesn't?

Now that begs the question, what if there was a school to prepare one to live their fairy tale?

These are the secondary thoughts that ran in my head when I read the synopsis of Soman Chainani's YA novel.

Because really, the first thing I had in mind was how gorgeous the cover was! I thought it was a manga!

The cover features Sophie and Agatha (I don't know why but I sincerely believe Chainani should have thought of better names). Sophie, the beautiful, blonde-haired, emerald-eyed lass who tries to do good deeds just so she could get to study in the School for Good befriends the dark-haired and dark-clad cemetery-dwelling Agatha. They are obviously  the epitome of character foils, who end up being best friends against all odds and common sense.

They live in Gavaldon, a village taken straight out of a story book, with cottages, a town square, people living simply but happily and an endless forest surrounding them.

But Gavaldon is haunted by a mysterious phenomenon. Every year, two children vanish and are believed to have been sent to the School for Good and Evil. Over the years, the adults have unraveled some aspects of it. First, that the 'kidnapped' children were at least twelve years old. And second, one of them has to be Good and the other Evil.

This year, the pair is Sophie and Agatha. But just when it seemed to be very obvious who goes to which school, Agatha was dropped to the School for Good with princes and princesses and Sophie to the School for Evil with the witches.

Extremely convinced that there has to be a massive mistake, the girls tried switching schools so that Agatha could bring her Gothic fashion sense to the right place and Sophie could wear pink again. When they found out it was impossible, try their best to go back home.    But then they realized they couldn't go home without reaching the end of their fairy tale. So they decided that Sophie (the supposedly real princess) should just kiss her prince Tedros of Camelot (with whom she felt intensely infatuated at first sight) to get the stupidly cliche story over and done with. But their fairy tale seemed to have a mind of its own.

Totally gripping and unputdownable, The School for Good and Evil makes us even more grateful for fairy tale adaptations like Maleficent and Frozen. To begin with, these films teach us that happily ever after doesn't really have to depend on a man. Feminist, I know. But makes perfect sense. This is, I believe, an opinion shared by the novel.

It is a novel full of "illusion versus reality" and an overwhelming echo of Madam Lantin from Guy de Maupassant's "The False Gems" ("We cannot hide our true nature"). Hmmmm. So literary criticism.

But at some point, reading it feels like eating junk food - it's delicious and somehow liberating, but still empty calorie-laden and not guilt-free. There were many parts where I just roll my eyes and think "Oh, what a kid!" I just can't believe how Sophie could be so selfish and Agatha so selfless (well, they wouldn't be foils for nothing) and Tedros so weak. 

Oh, and the ending just simply took my breath away, not for the good reasons. It was so unprecedented and downright weird it would surely make Maleficent blush. I just can't get over it!

If you need more convincing, check this book trailer out!


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Friday, October 3, 2014

Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger



(In which The Devil is not done yet.)

***

When we say "F*#$ you" to anything and mean it, we'd seriously never want that person in our lives and us in theirs. Which I'm sure is what Andrea Sachs definitely wanted when she spat the deliciously vengeful words to Miranda Priestly, then walked out of Runway magazine like a true badass heroine. Unfortunately, life seemed to have said the same F word to her when digital karma strikes back. Alex, her boyfriend of six years broke up with her, her only friend Lily moved to another state and her parents got divorced. 

Fast forward to ten years and Andy, now a successful co-owner (alongside Emily, her previous arch-nemesis from Runway) of The Plunge, an elite wedding magazine. Much more, she's getting married to the handsome and almost impossibly gentleman Max Harrison of the Harrison Media Holdings, one of the leading companies in the US. And the best bit? They are madly in love with each other. She is practically living the life every girl would kill for. (It sounds familiar because it should be!)

Things are going on perfectly - the wedding preparations and The Plunge covering it, advertisers piling up for ads in the mag and a growing reputation of their business in the publiahing industry. Until she read the note written by her future mother-in-law hours before the wedding.

The note wasn't for her, of course. It was for Max. And his mother was begging him not to marry Andrea and marry Katherine instead (the ex he was pleased to see in his bachelor party). Suddenly, Andrea's fairy tale started to crumble. 

And then the Prada-and-Hermes clad Devil enters her life, ready to ruin it once again. Armed with a seemingly unforgotten grudge from ten years past, Miranda Priestly offers to buy Andrea's hard-earned life and career to the tune of millions of dollars. Slowly and excruciatingly, Andrea realizes she has to fight to maintain the sanity she thought she lost by working for Miranda as well as to protect the future she envisions for her family with Max. But such decisions don't come without price. 

In a sequel that is as gripping and downright hilarious as its prequel (The Devil Wears Prada), Lauren Weisberger once again shows off her fashion knowledge that I will never learn in a million years. Anyway, I still hate Emily and wonder how Andrea could withstand her condescending manners and evilness shrouded by a perfect figure and flawless fashion sense. I hope it's not because of her perfect figure and flawless fashion sense. 

With intelligent characters and crisp narration, Revenge Wears Prada proves to be a sequel worth the long wait (TEN years!!). Not only does it teach the value and nature of true love and friendship, as well as the ability of the past's ghost to haunt and torment, but it also insists on the unwavering persistence of destiny and the relief brought by correct (albeit painful) decisions. In other words, we could all learn a lot from this!



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The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani






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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Maze Runner Trilogy by James Dashner


(In which my suspicions are confirmed.)

***

This is another case of me choosing a book because it has a movie adaptation. I think this particular marketing strategy is working on me. I have just also added If I Stay by Gayle Forman in my TBR List, by the way.

The moment I saw the trailer I thought it's just a mixture of mystery and action. Quite frankly, all I got from the trailer was that they have to escape a maze. After reading the trilogy for three days, I realized that the novel was actually Divergent, 28 Days Later and Cube tossed in a salad bowl.

Let me (sort of) break it down.

The Maze Runner opens with Thomas waking up in a pitch dark box. It opens and he is greeted by a sea of strange boys speaking an equally strange slang. He knows nothing about his past, except his name. Confused, clueless and alone, he lives every hour in utter impatience and seeks answers for his seemingly endless questions as his new life unfolds by the minute. He finds out that he is in The Glade, a place inhabited by teenage boys. Despite still being clueless about the whole ordeal – why he was there and why he doesn’t remember anything, as well as who did that to all of them – he tries to follow their strict and weird rules. As he gain friends, he learns that every member of The Glade has a specific job to do to keep the place suitable for habitation and that they value order quite highly. He is introduced to their own form of justice, leadership and social hierarchy, all the while wondering at how boys actually started living in The Glade. Merely days after his arrival, he discovers that a certain group of boys, called the Runners, are tasked to solve the Maze and lead everyone to their freedom. Thomas suddenly, desperately wants to be a Runner. Just when things are starting to fall in place for Thomas, a new Glader is sent by the Box and everything changed.

The effect of these changes is tremendously felt in The Scorch Trials, where it was revealed to Thomas and his friends that they are infected by the virus called the Flare. The virus eats up the brain until the person becomes insane and devoid of humanity. WICKED, the company behind the Glade, promised them to be given the cure if they made it at the safe haven after two weeks. They meet allies along the way, lose Gladers at every turn, see the horrendous effects of the Flare virus to the infected and get ambushed by the warning that a close friend will betray them all. Thomas proves to be a badass hero all throughout. Until the betrayer is revealed and his life is put in grave danger.

In The Death Cure, the Gladers prove one more that everything is just a test for them. (Un)fortunately, not all of them will succumb to the Flare, as some are immune. Thomas and all the survivors of the Scorch are offered to be given back their memories so they would understand WICKED’s mission and vision. Eventually, Thomas and his friends escaped with the help of some newfound allies from the Scorch. Then they meet the Right Arm, an organization that rebels against WICKED. Caught between saving his friends and saving the world, Thomas does one sacrifice after another and in the end finds out the real cure.

For some reason I have refused to read anything that resembles the plotlime of a zombie apocalypse. But I read The Maze Runner totally oblivious to what it could offer besides the utterly obvious. The result - just like the realization about the plot - was mixed. It was a page-turner, but not entirely unforgettable. It is one of those unputdownable books, but it is not unpredictable either. The narration is patient, the characters well-painted. I am no longer surprised about the nature of characters in YA books. I have slowly learned to suspend disbelief and convinced myself that 15-year-olds in every dystopic novel can do wonders and eventually save the world. All in the glory of their selflessness. They always make me want to restore my faith in the capacity of all human beings to sacrifice (almost) everything not for a selfish pursuit but for the benefit of everyone. And then I had to remind muself that this is just a story and that Dashner might not had even thought about readers like me while he was writing this.

But the novel was not without surprises either. To begin with, at first I thought the minimalistic cast would make it boring. Instead, it justified the struggles Thomas endured especially in the parts where he desperately seek his identity. The first book is an unfolding wonder both for the reader and for the character, making them both - almost literally - at the same page. Gone are dramatic ironies. The reader knows only as much as the characters know. And though it seemed to exaggerate the use of foreshadowing (because you can just consider anything in the books a foreshadowing), it worked. By always reminding the readers that the Creators were always up to no good, makes 'WICKED is good' such an oxymoron of epic proportion. It's Dashner's cultivation of mistrust that kept me glued to the books. Partly to get it over with but mostly to prove myself right or wrong depending on my bet.

Another refreshing thing for me is seeing non-White characters hold so much significance in the story and somehow avoid themselves from being killed three quarters into the whole trilogy. This may sound racially controversial but this is really a new experience for me. 

And finally, I believe the books have the most number of chapters I've ever read, considering each novel only has up to almost 350 pages. And each chapter is also the shortest I've seen. Which somehow reminds me of the length of Filipino soap opera segments between commercial breaks. 

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Mortal Instruments: City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Claire


(In which human beings are proven once again to be suckers for happy endings.)


***

When I decided to read series, I thought it's a win-win situation. First, I get to read books that I don't usually read (because I haven't seen an art fiction series yet). Second, I save myself from deciding what book to read next. Finally, I get to read a lot of books. The only downside I realized at that time is the painful waiting for the next installment. I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin!

In retrospect, I found out that I completely forgot that some series tend to get old real fast. Worse, some are even predictable and cliché, albeit in different levels. And now I'm giving Cassandra Clare's Heavenly Fire my bloated stare.

To begin with, I do not hate the book (Although I have to admit that I can't get the 'Morganstern' typo out of my head). It's just that I thought the story deserves more than the and-of-course-Sebastian-has-to-die and all the rest lived happily ever after. I'm sorry, that's an exaggeration. And stop scowling because that is not a spoiler. What, did you not see his death coming?

Cassandra Clare warned her fans that six main characters will die at the last book. (By page 338 the fourth character dies. And the last two died at the boss battle stage.) While everyone was crying out for her to save Magnus, I was wondering if Clare would dare pull a Veronica Roth and kill Clary. But she didn't do that. The following is my own summary of Heavenly Fire.

After the battle at the Burren, where Clary, Jace, Alec, Isabelle and Simon found out about the Shadowhunters evilly transformed by the Infernal Cup, the whole race of Nephilim face a far greater and more threatening Sebastian than the one who bound Jace. He now leads the army of Dark Shadowhunters (now called Endarkened) and their number continues to rise as they attack Institutes and either Turn or murder Shadowhunters. The only hope to save Nephilim lies in the heavenly fire contained by Jace's body, which he doesn't know how to control yet. With the help of their unlikely band of supernaturals (again), Jace and Clary uncover betrayals and alliances, journey to a desolated realm of Hell and attempt to save the world... but not without sacrifices.

These sacrifices come in the form of their friends' corpses and memories. But just as it is impossible to regain lives, one character’s memories, on the other hand, could be retrieved in just a matter of, what, weeks? Say what you will. But I can't simply believe this could be done by sheer willpower. And the memory was sucked out of this character by a Demon Prince! This is the part where I threw up my hands in frustration. I am not totally in favor of letting major characters die but I think Clare's refusal to let it happen led to pushing things to the height of annoyance. I mean, if she doesn’t want any serious harm to come to Clary and friends, at least when she decided to sacrifice a major character’s memories in lieu of life, she should have just left it at that. But then everyone’s life would be incomplete and that would be a terrible ending for everyone, correct? I am not sure. Or maybe I just have issues with predictable, happy endings.

That’s for another blog post.

Now, even after realizing that I only have ten more pages towards the end of the series, I don’t feel a sense of finality. I was thinking, “Am I supposed to be shocked by a cliffhanger here?” Suddenly, I was finished reading. But then the book wasn’t finished with me yet – with me and with all the other readers of this seemingly never-ending saga of Shadowhunters. I knew because I was greeted with an introduction to a new series which will pick up from the ending of Heavenly Fire. Surprise!

But I am finished with it. This will be my last Shadowhunter-related reading experience. They get old real fast, indeed. But to those whose tolerance is impressively high, you are welcome to another Nephilim adventure with this:


You will have to zoom the image many times to read the Seelie Queen’s message to the Arthur Blackthorn of the Los Angeles Institute because, you know, the Fair Folk are quite secretive with their correspondence.


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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth



(In which I have to accept that literary teenagers are generally not literal.)


***


If there is one thing that I’d like my Literature students to acquire, (not learn, because I’m afraid I can never teach it. Or if I can, that it will not take them as far as I like it.) it is to be motivated to read. Their reading interest has also interested me and in the process frustrated me. I wish I can just transfer my own penchant for reading just to get it all over and done with already. But of course this world is not fictional so I just can’t. Maybe one day I’ll write a novel about this and consider it my greatest contribution to the teaching profession. Kidding.

As an on-again-off-again reader, my reading motivation varies depending on season and stress level, from interest (hello, art and historical fiction) to just plain curiosity and the urge not to stop reading (I’m looking at you, the rest of my books). But recently, my motivation lies embarrassingly (or maybe not) on movie adaptations of novels, as what happened to The Hobbit, The Mortal Instruments Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy and The Fault In Our Stars. Enter: The Divergent Trilogy.

I’ll admit that if not for the film adaptation being “One of the Most Anticipated Movie of the Year”, I would not have taken interest in this novel, primarily because I don’t quite enjoy dystopian YA novels. I still believe that sixteen to eighteen-year-olds have better things to do than… well… leading a revolution. But reading them once in a while enlightens me in a way that other subgenres can’t. So, anyway. . .

In Divergent, the first book, Beatrice Prior and her brother Caleb, get to choose their faction in the Choosing Ceremony. There are five factions to choose from, and the factions are identified by the dominant virtue of their members. There’s Abnegation, who value selflessness; Erudite, who value intelligence; Dauntless, who value courage; Candor, who value honesty; and Amity who value peace. Beatrice and Caleb are both born in Abnegation, but in the Choosing Ceremony, they will decide if they want to stay in their home faction or choose to leave it for another one; the latter being a bitter choice since that would mean abandoning their families too.

But they choose the latter. Beatrice chooses Dauntless and Caleb chooses Erudite. The next part after choosing is staying in their chosen faction. And the way to stay is to survive the initiation. Otherwise, they will be thrown out of the faction and will be outcast, known as factionless. 

Beatrice decides to be known as Tris and struggles to fit in Dauntless where she experiences humiliation after humiliation both because of her upbringing and her skills, or lack thereof. But these struggles are made surmountable thanks to Four, whom she meets and falls in love with. But their togetherness and her newfound life in Dauntless is threatened by her true identity, which will also be the cause of the loss of so many lives, including the ones she value the most.

In Insurgent, in her desire to usurp the faction government (led by the Abnegation because it makes perfect sense to have your leaders selfless) Jeanine Matthews led the Erudite to launch an attack simulation serum to control the minds of Dauntless and make them zombie soldiers. Tris and Tobias (aka Four), being Divergent, are immune to the serum and are able to stop the simulation attack. In the midst of a civil war, they seek refuge in the headquarters of other factions that may or may not prove to be a wise decision. As their already small world becomes even smaller, they start to rely on their friends from Dauntless and other factions to survive. Jeanine continues to hunt for the Divergent and one by one, she claims the lives of people closer to Tris and Tobias in her pursuit. Broken by guilt and haunted by fears, Tris allows her Divergence to save the people she loves most, and in the process realizes how fine the line is between being selfless and being reckless and downright stupid. And in the moment of absolute terror in her pursuit of truth amidst all the lies, she discovers what other forms love could take, how bitter betrayal really is and how much she craves life.

Allegiant opens with a metarevolution. Jeanine Matthews is dead and the factionless leader Evelyn Johnson now reigns in a fashion not-so-different from Jeanine’s. In response to Evelyn’s tyranny, a revolutionary group called Allegiant is formed by the most unlikely people and as part of their defiance to the current government, Tris and her friends march out of their city (not quite literally) and find themselves in the United States after the Puritan War. Here they find the government rebuilding whatever is left, the people who are responsible for their existence and the truth about the nature and purpose of their Divergence. Just when they thought they’ve found a new home, another uprising endangers them and in the continuous unraveling of lies and secrets, they find themselves armed with faith and guns again; the former leading them to their victory and the latter bringing the conclusion that makes AND breaks them.

Reading the trilogy is not an easy task, especially the first book. What with the names of the factions not being parallel (which always troubles me). Also, it’s easy to get carried away with the insubstantial information and lose focus. And it’s even harder to convince yourself that sometimes, you just have to know as much as the characters do. In the second book, things get exciting, even if it means a lot of flirting with death (and actual deaths) and an overflowing character analysis. It’s also good to get nearer the truth, albeit getting closer to losing whatever battle you’re fighting. 

And speaking of battles, it will indeed come to a point when you will just ask yourself how many more uprisings there will be to see the end of all this. But then again, I believe the novel isn’t about ineffective governments or even being special, like being Divergent. Just like most literary work (I hope I won’t be ostracized for almost calling this literature.), the Divergent Trilogy tackled the complexity of human nature and our inability to be contented, as well as the horrifying effects of both.

It also taught me to become patient. More than half of the third book drags me. It was almost agonizing. But just like any other long trip, the ending is all worth it. It may not be the ending we all want, but there is undeniable beauty in it. Apart from patience, it also highlights awareness of literary devices, I could have saved myself from suffering had I not ignore the purpose of the change in narrative style. But it’s too late. Most importantly, I believe, the novel made me experience, in a rare but enlightening occasion, that other purpose of tears that entirely defies scientific explanation.

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