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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kaleidoscopic - but maybe tries too hard
When the dead body of Filipino writer Crispin Salvador is found floating in the Hudson River, apparently having committed suicide, his student and fellow Filipino, Miguel is suspicious that darker forces may have been behind his death, particularly when there is no sign of Salvador's latest manuscript that threatens to dish the dirt on the sleaze and corruption of the...
Published on 25 May 2010 by Ripple

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A huge talent and a great voice, but no substance to convey
The first few chapters of Ilustrado promise so much. Syjuco writes with panache, verve, a wry sense of humour and brilliant skill. Not long into the book, I was starting to see parallels between Syjuco's writing and that of Salman Rushdie - an author who I regard as the best of his generation. However, I eventually struggled to complete the book, with the final hundred...
Published on 30 Jun 2010 by PB


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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A huge talent and a great voice, but no substance to convey, 30 Jun 2010
By 
PB (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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The first few chapters of Ilustrado promise so much. Syjuco writes with panache, verve, a wry sense of humour and brilliant skill. Not long into the book, I was starting to see parallels between Syjuco's writing and that of Salman Rushdie - an author who I regard as the best of his generation. However, I eventually struggled to complete the book, with the final hundred or so pages requiring a strength of will I should not have had to extend.

However, the positives first: Ilustrado is a book about the power of literature. Syjuco is a man of words; he understands their importance. He draws lines between inspiring literature and inspired actions. The book is at its heart, a love for language and the written word in particular. I sympathise with that. And all of my issues with the book aside, Syjuco is a hugely talented writer with great mastery of prose construction.

And now the negatives: the framework for Ilustrado is the personal mission of a young writer to uncover a final, unpublished masterpiece by his recently deceased mentor. The plot revolves around the protagonist's search for this manuscript and his return to the land of his birth, the Philippines.

Syjuco writes about the political history of the Philippines and I admit that I knew very little about this nation other than the horribly corrupt Marcos regime and my personal experience of meeting Filipinos - some of the nicest, happiest people around. If only Syjuco wrote about the Philippines with the same love he shows for literature. The author betrays little respect towards his people and the main protagonist is no more than a Poor Little Rich Boy. Such a character is hard to like, even in the classic Catcher in the Rye. Here, the main protagonist's journey of self-discovery is a walk through the painfully obvious - even for other Poor Little Rich Boys. It is impossible to care much for the main character, and even less the minor characters who appear in the book. Syjuco's protagonist knows what he doesn't like, but other than "lit-er-a-chor" cannot point to anything he does like; he has the opportunity to be influential through his family's political connections, but chooses to spend his life in a selfish, drug-induced miasma and doomed relationships with Daddy's Little Princesses who are equally morally vacuous.

Rather more irritating are some of the literary devices Syjuco uses extensively through his book. Long, fictional quotations from the works of the protagonist's mentor, excerpts from fictional interviews and blogs and worst of all, the relaying of the protagonist's dreams. One particular device, the translation of Tagalog jokes into English, becomes not only grating, but also gratuitously vulgar and always with a look down one's nose at the Filipino people. Syjuco's writing is often excellent, but these devices strike me as cheap and overdone. Syjuco is better than this, and although the asides do come together in the conclusion of the book, I was left feeling that the journey was not worth it. Moreover, the final reveal was quite predictable as there were enough clues in the book to alert the reader that this is a story about literature, not about the Philippines or self-discovery. I got the impression that Syjuco was impressing us with his range of writing styles and while he certainly convinced me that he can write superbly, he didn't convince me that he could write ABOUT anything.

In comparison, Rushdie shines a very critical light upon the Indian subcontinent and the West, yet his love and respect for both shines through in his work. One can be critical without being cynical. Syjuco doesn't pull this off. Instead, Syjuco comes across as a writer trying too hard to live up to his ideal of an urbane, well educated émigré New Yorker; his displeasure and desperate divorce from his own background is a type of rebellion one hopes a writer of his talent would have outgrown in his teens. In the book's acknowledgments, Syjuco gives thanks to a friend without whom he says he would "not see this world for how wonderful it can be." This insight into the wonder of the World is completely lacking in the book. The protagonist is very "Generation X" - he wants for nothing and can find no happiness or purpose in his life. We get it, but this isn't new or particularly interesting. Far less so when juxtaposed with the everyman suffering of the people of the Philippines.

Despite bemoaning the political situation of the Philippines, the general ignorance of the people and the high-handed snobbery of the elite, the protagonist does almost nothing about any of these things. Even when faced with the chance to be a part of something revolutionary, he sits on his hands pontificating. Syjuco's character is a spectator with a poor view - and unfortunately by extension, so is Syjuco. I am not one to think that all books are autobiographical, nor that one should think he knows anything about an author because of the characters he writes, but in this case, Syjuco invites the comparison. Moreover, reading interviews with Syjuco, one is left with little doubt that his protagonist is not far removed from the author. Where authors like Paul Auster can play with genre, roles and rules of engagement within the novel structure, Syjuco presents a muddled mash of high-brow nonsense.

I have not yet mentioned the lack of a plot. If one were to extract the actual story of the book from all the asides, many of which stopped being entertaining by the half way point, Ilustrado would barely be a novella. Syjuco even makes a self-aware reference to this in the book. Being aware of it does not compensate for the fact that it was not addressed by the author, editor or publisher.

What started off as an incredibly promising book ended up as a self-satisfied, smug failure. I do believe that Syjuco has the talent to write brilliantly. Truly brilliantly. But future works will need to have more humanity and less navel gazing. Ultimately, this book left me feeling disappointed. I guess herein lies the danger of awarding a prestigious award to a draft. The book did not end as well as it started, and the verve of the writing faded mid-way. I would guess that this was because Syjuco had to deliver a final draft for publication to capitalize on the buzz an award win creates.

The frustration and irony with this book is that although Syjuco has immense writing talent and deep appreciation for the power of literature, he has no story to tell. They say "write what you know". He knows much about the craft of writing, but seemingly little about life.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unenlightening, 19 Oct 2010
By 
Donald Thompson "waldo357" (Belfast N Ireland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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This is a book which generated some lengthy internet debates and discussions. Having read it, I am wondering why, the story rambles, and style changes are abrupt and unsettling. Ostensibly the attempt of an ex-patriot Fillipno to make sense of the life of the countries greatest living writer it takes on a rambling ride from New York to Manilla and the surrounding countryside. The characters we meet along the way are, almost without relief, thoroughly unpleasant, or unbelieveable. In the end what we thought we were reading is not what it seemed at all. Another confusing level which will only alienate and annoy the casual reader.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable scale and insights - but not as gripping as suggested, 6 May 2012
By 
Mark Meynell "quaesitor" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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This is a book on a huge scale - about people in a part of the world that I knew precious little about. To that extent it is a fascinating. Delving into the lives of several generations of Filipinos, focused on the life and family of a famed writer Crispin Salvador found dead in New York's Hudson River.

It is however frustrating to read at times - an episodic, scrapbook approach to novel-writing - and while the genre has an appropriateness to the subject matter (and protagonist's quest), it doesn't necessarily relate to a satisfying read. So it is perhaps not going to appeal to the casual reader, but will provide remarkable insight for those seeking to understand the culture and history of a world on the other side of the world.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling, but with nothing really to say, 27 July 2011
By 
C. Moorby - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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Anyone that picks up this book will be unable to deny that the writer is clearly exceptionally talented. The literary aspects of the book are stunning; the devices the author uses and the language selected are extremely mature, but not suitable for anyone wanting a bit of light reading! The story combines all forms of literature to tell the story of a deceased writer and his enigmatic final manuscript, all told from the perspective of the writer's young student.

In terms of readability, the book is like wading through treacle. It is almost like someone has opened a thesaurus and is picking words at random. It takes an immense amount of willpower to continue reading and not put the book down immediately, and the more you progress through the book, the more you realise it doesn't really have much substance to it and appears to be more concerned with showing off how many big and clever-sounding words the author knows!

The academic style of the writing, combined with the ramshackle plot, makes it difficult to read and keep up with, and the impressive parts of the book do not make up for the lack of coherence overall.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kaleidoscopic - but maybe tries too hard, 25 May 2010
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
When the dead body of Filipino writer Crispin Salvador is found floating in the Hudson River, apparently having committed suicide, his student and fellow Filipino, Miguel is suspicious that darker forces may have been behind his death, particularly when there is no sign of Salvador's latest manuscript that threatens to dish the dirt on the sleaze and corruption of the rich and powerful in his native Philippines. In order to investigate further, Miguel decides to write a biography of his teacher and mentor. That's the premise of this book, but it tells you almost nothing about the experience of reading it. This is no straightforward narrative of a regular crime fiction. It's a kaleidoscope of sometimes apparently disjointed writing that gradually comes together to create a story that only starts to come into focus about half way through, but it's not until the final pages where the true picture is brilliantly revealed.

This is not a book to dip into casually before you drop off to sleep at night. Quite simply, if you try to, you won't have the foggiest idea what's going on. The story is told in a wide variety of short `voices'. There is the narrator's story, extracts from his biography of Salvador, extracts of Salvador's writings, blogs by a Filipino literary critic, a series of Filipino jokes, extracts from an interview with Salvador and, most confusing of all, meta-narrative that comments on the narrator's actions. For this reason, it's not the easiest of books to get into and some commitment is demanded of the reader. Persistence is rewarded later on though and it starts to make a lot more sense.

In trying to understand Salvador and the forces that shaped his writing and actions, Miguel explores the complex, myriad of factors that make up the Filipino psyche, and in turn, this of course reveals to Miguel something about himself. There are clashes of big business, post colonial independence (several times), religion, communism, and general political corruption and inequalities. Oh, and a lot or rain. But it's a book about ideas rather than about character or place.

Ilusrado was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 which rewards young Asian writers. In a wonderful piece of irony that you couldn't make up, the prize was awarded before it was even published, and the fictitious Salvador also won a major literary prize for a book before it was published. You can certainly see why Ilustrado was thus rewarded. Not only is it a book about writers, which the literary prizes often appear to favour, but it also pushes the envelope of the novel (presumably in this case, that would be a Manila envelope).

It's a book that would stand a number of readings, even after you know how it ends. There are countless allusions and allegories in the inserted extracts from Salvador's works. Particularly early on, I'm sure I missed most of them and would be fascinated to go back and re-read this at a later stage. As the story progresses they become more overt, or perhaps I just got used to the style and found them easier to pick up on.

The book is unashamedly literary in style and while sometimes the writing is an absolute joy, at others you wonder if Syjuco has swallowed a Thesaurus or is just showing off a little. Also at times, it feels as if he is trying to force too many ideas into the book at the expense of simply getting his point over. This is Syjuco's first novel, and he certainly wouldn't be the first to try to cram too many ideas into his first book. Particularly early on, I couldn't help feeling that if he didn't try quite so hard to be literary, there might be an even more brilliant voice to come in the future. But if you have patience and time to devote to this jigsaw of a novel, you will be greatly rewarded.

The book has much in common with Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna and there are hints of Roberto Bolano, and even David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but mostly it's a unique style, and it will be interesting to see what comes next from this author. If you are a fan of Barbara Kingsolver or David Mitchell, I would imagine you would enjoy this book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book I will read again, 6 Jun 2010
By 
I Readalot (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
Much has already been said about this plot of this debut novel. All I can really add is that if you don't enjoy the books of Roberto Bolano, Haruki Murakamil, David Mitchell or the South American novels of Louis de Bernieres then I suggest you give this one a miss. However, if like me you are a fan of the above mentioned then this should be right up your street.

There were times I had to remind myself that this was fiction. Due to the narrative structure used by Sjugo it reads more like a memoir.

In part, the story explores the difficulties that Asian writers, and Filippino's in particular, have in getting published. The story behind the novel is a case in point, if Ilustrado had not won the Man Asian Prize then it is very unlikely that it would have ever been published, which for me would have been a tragedy.

An interesting fact that I was unaware of is the close link between Filippino writers and the magical realist movement of South America. I hope that Syjugo continues to write and that his success makes it slightly easier for his countrymen to get published.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Literary exhibitionism, 26 May 2010
By 
Keris Nine - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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From an outline description, there's a story here - the murder or suicide of a once famous Philippine writer, Crispin Salvador, found dead, floating in the Hudson River, murdered or perhaps a suicide. His final novel, one that he has been working on for twenty years, an exposé that is going to blow apart the whole corrupt system in his home country in literary and critical circles as much as political ones, has disappeared. His closest friend, the author Miguel Syjuco, is given access to his notes and documents of this fictional writer, attempts to build up a picture of the brilliant and controversial writer but in the process of interviewing friends and colleagues for a biography of Salvador, Miguel discovers that he never really knew him.

That's the premise in outline anyway. What else there is of this book is somewhat random and smothered in words and irrelevancies. Short biographical incidents are related of the fictional author's life, illustrated but not illuminated, by seemingly random paragraphs from his fictional works, imaginary interviews, stories related to his brilliance, his notoriety and his exile. Between this and the author's singularly uninteresting reminiscences on his own bourgeois US émigré background, his journey back to the Philippines, dropping in the odd blog posting and running joke along the way, there is of course an attempt to consider in a very post-modern way modern notions of the role of the author, of fiction, of nationality, one's background and the influences of place of birth and family that make a writer singular and potentially a revolutionary.

All of this is all so very literate and clever, and all of it so much deeply tedious rambling. That's not to say that there aren't moments of brilliance and clever observations on the nature of writing and revolution - albeit from a pampered middle-class émigré literary background rather than from a genuine Filipino perspective - but most of them are lost in a morass of references and narrative trickery designed to impress the literati ('Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize'!). For anyone looking for the next Roberto Bolaño, this could be for you. For anyone who thinks one is quite enough then you would do well give Ilustrado a miss.
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4.0 out of 5 stars wierd good!, 28 April 2013
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Kindle Edition)
it took abit of getting into but persist and its really an interesting book I ended up not wanting it to finish!
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2.0 out of 5 stars Quite disappointing, 2 Oct 2012
By 
emma who reads a lot (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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Judge by this: I find it extremely difficult sitting here now to explain what exactly this book is about. A writer has died; his last book in manuscript has disappeared. But beyond that, explaining Illustrado is pretty hard. I was looking forward to a novel reminiscent of Midnights Children and Pale Fire, led by the newspaper reviews. In particular I was attracted by comparisons to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which is an AMAZING book and worth seeking out...

However this book didn't reach any of the heights I'd been hoping for. It is clear that the author is ambitious to create something extraordinary, that he is familiar with current literary theory and practice and that he has a wonderful sense of the Philippines (where he is from). However, the result is a sort of juddering patchwork of literary effects and techniques with none of the sense of amazement you might get from other postmodern hybrid texts. I found it very, very difficult to read and to keep interested in. I felt disappointed because I could see that the ideas and aims were of high quality: the results for me just completely didn't work.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Just too clever for its own good..., 25 Jun 2011
This review is from: Ilustrado (Hardcover)
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My reaction to this book is very personal, but its the only one I can give!

It is easy to love the writing and be seduced by it - intelligent, fast, witty, etc. It covers a great deal of ground: literature, history, politics, families, youth culture, immigration, power... (from a Philippine perspective); and in a number of styles: extracts from stories (family history to crime fiction), interviews, dreams, reportage, blogs, etc.

But after a few pages I always found it to be a bit much. It never quite delivered what it promised. The whole effort seemed to be a vehicle for the author to exhibit his neuroses, which was far from resolved. Or maybe the intention was to reveal the chaos in the mind of a smart young man - in which case I can only declare the book a success!

It is hard to deny the writer has an extraordinary talent, but this book is pretty much an exhibition piece and I can only hope he can harness his ability into something more readable.
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