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hungry for another book

Reading in Transit.

Reading in Transit.

Perched on the back of a motorcycle, battling the inevitability of camera shakes and the possibility of falling off, I shot three frames of this curious scene. The woman reads off a novel, engulfed in another world, far from this riotous one even as she sits on the edge of a bike figuring in stories others like me will want to tell.

As the motorists prepared to take off, this woman remained still and composed. Her focus was incredible. It reminded me of something  my boss had mentioned a few weeks back at the office after I had asked about working in a quieter space: You can’t go away, the noise won’t either. Just drown it out. Work with it.

As 2013 starts anew, I have little resolve to make promises but I intend to try a little of this concentration on making time to read and write. As always, adventures in displacement–travel and everything else–can be found here while in this space, the reading continues however rough the roads may be.

This year begins with Alice Steinbach’s Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman. no use hiding my obvious love for travel literature—and if we can’t hop on planes to be elsewhere, aren’t books the next best thing?

Happy New Year! What are you folks reading?

 

 

Interim Report: Necessary Update.

I haven’t disappeared completely. Just been scuttling from one home to another, stretching my wings. Moving out has taken a huge toll on book blogging because even book reading (of the TBR shelves) has been put on hold.

These days I read more about Philippine history and presidents. The knowledge goes into this Tumblr page and is locked in some vault somewhere in the hope that in the future they might constitute essays.

In the meantime, my mother has taken her library science skills and applied them to my shelves alphabetizing titles and classifying books by genre. She has gotten to know me better through this–though she refuses to admit it. My book buying habit hasn’t ceased. Just these past two days I’ve purchased Auden, more Barzun, Bloom, Yagoda, Augustine and Levithan.

I have also acquired a taste for having ambient music playing whilst I read. So, I found an old record player, some wonderful tube amps and some classical records from the 70′s.

There shall be more posts–more books read and spoken of. Let the hiatus be put to a halt!

Wrong About Japan, Wrong About This Book.

As in travel, there can also be missed opportunities in reading. One such recent flop is Peter Carey’s, Wrong About Japan. The title was what reeled me in at first followed by the bright cover and the illustrated pages that showed some images from the handful of  manga that I have grown to know and love. Incidentally, the blurb also promised to take me to Japan via its backdoor to travel with a father and son who were trying to go off the beaten path in search of “real Japan.” There was promise of adventure, powerful emotions and the heightened thrill of travel through roads which I felt deserved to be explored more in the literature. It also seemed doubly exciting because all of this would happen in roughly 100++ pages. I was ecstatic and even the librarian sensed it.

So the reading commenced and I gradually learned that Peter Carey read extensively on Japan. he’s one of those people I would have loved to walk the Japanese streets with if only because he appears to have done his homework and read up extensively on Japan. He also came with an awareness of the Mushroom Cloud which was loomed heavily on my mind after finishing Audeguy’s Theory of Clouds. But that will follow in a different post. For now, there was this guy, the father, and his son who had just reached an age of semi-independence and was choosing to read manga while vowing to live in Japan in the future. My expectation was that the book would cover their actual relationship but then it seems to have been a ploy for the best-seller ranks. We find out that the trip was really purposely made so that a book might be written and while that doesn’t really affect the turnout of the book, certain events really made me gasp and wonder why I had taken this book out of the library to begin with. Let me illustrate by way of several quotes:

It is the nature of tourism that one returns not only with trinkets and postcards but also with memories of misunderstandings, hurts ignorantly inflicted across border lines of language and custom. (p. 92)

True. I found this particularly moving because part reason why travel widens our perspectives and opens our minds has to do with the fact that we traverse emotional borders along with actual ones found on a map. We can’t please everyone (either the persons we travel with or even our own selves as we like to imagine we might be when taken away from the ordinary). It’s all very moving in both the literal and the figurative and yet, Carey is correct to point out that misunderstandings are bound to happen. At this point, father and son have met Takeshi. Carey describes him ans a teenage Japanese “visualist” who is quite obsessed with Gundam and so he dresses accordingly. Carey Jr. makes his acquaintance online and so upon arriving in Japan and just after meeting their first funky toilet, father and son meet Takeshi.

This is normally the point in any non-fiction essay about travel when I get really excited because characters mean changes in itinerary and basically, everything fun about travel happens here! The people you meet are the portal to another culture and if you’re lucky they come along quite frequently though Carey’s experience proves to me that it’s not luck but risk that sets interesting travelers apart from the usual. When in the presence of the portal, you must jump in or else you lose an opportunity…and that loss of opportunity could not have been more apparent than in the father’s reaction to this boy. They were to meet the creator of Gundam and the son had invited his friend (who at this point already lent him a cell phone and offered his services as a local tour guide through their “real Japan”) to the utter surprise of the father who didn’t even hide his feelings. Translation: the father’s a prick. Takeshi doesn’t join them. Instead, he is made to wait outside while the interview being conducted lasts more than two hours.

Next, the pair are scheduled to visit Studio Ghibli in order to understand better the works of Miyazaki. The relationship between them and Takeshi have already gone sour and to the Careys this is merely because the Japanese youngster is a fan of Gundam whom they are letting down on account of their visit to Mr. Miyazaki. They don’t see Takeshi for a while until…

…more likely he doesn’t want us to see him here. He can’t be proud of working here. It’s like McDonald’s. (p. 143)

In a redeeming moment, father and son decide that they’ve had enough of “real Japan” with all its culture and foreign-ness and opt for something a little closer to home. They walk into Mister Donut and are surprised to see Takeshi behind the counter greeting them nonchalantly and getting their orders. The quote above is Carey’s explanation to his son who clearly sees that Takeshi’s been hurt. By now I am already throwing my fist against the wall and thinking about everything wrong with this person who’s writing the book:

  1. You’re being an asshole…to a kid.
  2. You’re demeaning his work by saying he shouldn’t be proud of actually having a job that’s honest and straightforward…sure he’s in the service industry but since Carey is from the “first world” this might be his understanding of a decent job: one that doesn’t put you on the service-end of the industry…
  3. You’re kinda selfish. The trip’s really been about the dad all along. His son has barely any dialogue and shows little interest in what’s going on precisely because again, refer to first sentence of #3.
  4. You’re in another country and being all pushy about your beliefs…in most of the places we visit with the Careys, the interviews have mostly been led astray by the writer who, despite all attempts by everyone he meets, still thinks that his view is what is ultimately reigning in this world of unfathomable otakus, visualists and manga aficionados. He meets everyone important in the industry and concludes that language is a barrier and even if it weren’t, he would never really understand Japan because the people wouldn’t make room for him to understand it because he’s a foreigner. Erm, okay. Whatever. I don’t want to travel with you, ever. EVER!

Then, out of nowhere, he really put the icing on the cake when he had this to say:

[Miyazaki's world is]…more sophisticated that the flat, cute world of Disney. …it was drawn from life.

Holy guacamole! My six-year-old self was ready to throw the Betamax at him even at the risk of not being able to play my precious Little Mermaid again. He made me so furious at this point that I nearly gave up on reading altogether…I was ready to settle for some tv and do something else. The book completely killed my expectations and not in a good way either. I was of the opinion that he poorly represented the manga-loving Japanese (who for all their strangeness and mystery are quite like us and are also unique so as to deserve more than just a diminutive assessment from a callous traveler).

Then, three days later, his comment on Disney was still stewing in my head but this time the fury had subsided enough for me to look back at the ending and really discover whether this book had any redeeming quality besides the pretty printing and wonderful premise. I imagined a conversation I’d share with Carey…an actual one wherein I wasn’t shouting anymore and berating him for all those other sins I believed he had committed. We’d be sitting on lounge stools at some bar in Japan. I’d sip my rhum coke while he’d fiddle with his sake teacup and I’d tell him, “You know, I like Disney not just because I grew up with him but because he was all about imagination. He [Walt Disney] wanted to hone its power and make something out of it. He also wanted everyone to try to see things for what they could be even as he represented them for what they were.” Then, after a pause and a wayward look directed at Japan and its brightly lit surface, Carey would look at me and say, “I’m a writer. Imagination is also my field, my business…but here in this book, I’m a dad too.” I’d leave the rest of the rhum coke untouched, stand up, shake Carey’s hand and make real eye contact as if to say, “Yeah, exactly. Thanks for writing the book.”

I would have walked away from all of this hating the entire experience of being taken along on a trip I didn’t intend to engage in to begin with. I’d have complained more lengthily about expectations and false advertising and the terrible fate of tourists who live on another side of the world…but then, just thinking about all that makes me shift in my seat because deep down, I know that these are the exact same qualities I hate in this guy’s character in the book.

Long ago, i read a travel anthology called Bad Trips. It was about every journey that could possibly go wrong and in hindsight, all the most memorable trips are the ones that turn out good because they’re just so bad. So, whereas others might pick up Carey’s Wrong About Japan thinking after reading it that it was a waste of time, a missed opportunity–I think I’ll settle for the blurb and believe that I wasn’t being lied to at all.

This is a powerful story of a father who comes undone mostly as a parent and not so much as a writer (because the prose and the allusions kept me turning pages and looking for my copy of Andy Kerr’s Lost Japan!) He’s perpetually clueless when dealing with his son’s whims to the point that even when they lived in a section of Japan that used to house some of the more famous brothels, he decided he wasn’t going to utter a word about this to his 12-year-old who had access to a wealth of information and probably already knew this. He had difficulty understanding manga because in his head it was something that someone had to understand rather than just enjoy as young people would. Heck, he even asked his Japanese friend to watch Grave of the Fireflies with them just so they could pause the movie every now and then, and he in turn could ask his questions about culture and whatever else you don’t really need to ask when watching great cartoons.

This book is worth reading because it is a journey for the reader…to be brought to the lands of annoyance, to have conversations with the writer and faux debates in one’s head–this is what books ought to do. And it’s also about imagination: both what we imagine to be the kinds of worlds we belong to as well as what we have to imagine to keep our lives from falling apart completely. The book ends shortly after the meeting with Miyazaki. The lady who had arranged it, a certain Mrs. Miyagi, had this to say to the seemingly confused and obviously downtrodden father who had just realized that perhaps he had reached a dead-end in this entire project:

[On Miyazaki's creative life and because Mrs. Miyagi feared that the writer might have been lost in translation, her fax reads:] He [Miyazaki] said that he thinks one of the most important of man’s abilities is the imagination, so the purpose of his creative activities is to develop the imagination of the children, the coming generations. Imagination can create a totally different world, depending on its use. It can give birth to virtue or destructive weapons which threaten the world. He mentioned being afraid of the potential risk. (p. 152)

  Wow, then the thoughts really come rushing in…what of this manga that alludes often to the atomic bomb? What of Japan’s actual history and the kinds of tensions that brings to the reader’s imagination? What of Feynman who was so excited to be a part of this project to end all wars? What of people like him who believed then that eliminating the enemy might bring peace? And what of all the sleeping atrocities we wish would never wake up? What of nuclear power and the nations that wield it? Everyone is both parent and child…yet, trite as it may seem, even in this generation, Lennon still has quite a captive audience who sing along quite well to his, Imagine.

Incredible what thoughts pour out after reading just one book.

Tea Thursdays: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations.

A fitting title for both the book and the appearance of this post. Last week I managed to read a few more things I’ve yet to write about but as it is Tea Thursday, I’ll start with Feynman. When I was younger I really envisioned a career in the sciences. Nature and the interconnectedness of everything really convinced me that it was worthwhile to study the goings on of the world. I was also deeply moved by the idea that stars and other astronomical phenomena could be studied and partially understood despite their mystery.

But alas, the relationship between me and mathematics took my future elsewhere (though I’m currently convinced that all of it can be learned if I just put in the effort.) Still, the fascination with science, and physics most especially, burns brightly and so, I try to keep an eye out for interesting reads in the field. Richard Feynman has long been an idol. I’ve felt a kinship with him ever since I read half-way through his lecture series. He’s a teacher par excellence and as a student, you feel so excited to learn because he makes it easy enough to grasp but challenging enough so as to keep you constantly working and striving to do better.

In these letters, Feynman writes to a lot of people…his mother, his first wife, his colleagues, the State Department, fans. Initially, you’d think that physicists have the personalities of snails but as you read these intimacies, you’ll really wonder why you didn’t become a physicist yourself!

I’m half-way through this tome and I’m having it with a Myanmar Royal Tea Mix. This mysteriously found its way to my desk last week and it seems fitting to sip this while basking in Feynman’s correspondences because it isn’t a straight-up tea mix–like the man himself who once wrote back angrily to a colleague who had advised him to stop playing the drums! Imagine a physicist drumming some djembes and taking you dancing on the weekend? Perfect!

Getting old and not lovin’ it.

It’s hard to believe that Nora Ephron ever gets old. If, like me, you met her first on screen through the countless replays of When Harry Met Sally then, like me, you’ll gape after reading the first few sentences of the last essay in her hilarious book, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. But here I am getting ahead of myself.

The book is a humorous account of growing old which is told in 15 essays that don’t all concern her neck. The essay upon which the book is called was the first one on the list and while initially turned off by the fact that Ephron really sees nothing redeeming about old she in relation to the evolution of wattles, I kept reading anyway. So not everyone wants to grow old and grey. Count me in, why don’t you!

Continued reading proved that we shared more in common than I was first willing to admit. She would never spans wads of money on a purse because, like me, hers is always messy and full of stuff from days (sometimes months) past. She also believes in telephone directories that used to list everyone which no longer exists today. When talking about getting blind as a bat, aha champions reading and sums up one of my greatest fears:

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Imagine having to lose your eyesight when you only have one of them working to begin with? Tsk tsk…but back to Ephron, she seems to have also amassed a number of husbands of which she writes lovingly (about the experience of course). My favorite line comes from a short passage on how she felt toward divorce:

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This, according to her is one of the saddest things about divorce and I think it applies to separation in general, doesn’t it?

The next essay dubbed On Rapture was also a favorite. She extended earlier thoughts on reading to include reasons why she reads and what effect this has on her. Though not “new” on the sense that she says things we don’t know yet as avid readers, her wit and style as a writer really compelled you to keep at it. My two favorites though have to do with her beloved apartment and the last essay on growing old period (wherein she reveals that she’s 60 and my mouth drops until my jaw hurts!)

The post on the apartment has thoughts reminiscent of this poem I once read in an anthology called Staying Alive. I cannot recall the author or the title at present but I do remember placing a dog-ear on the page…I’ll post it as soon as I find the book and extend this line of thought.

The last essay though was most striking because the twilight years begin at 60 and reading about her fears and joys makes me think about my own parents and what they must feel as they come closer to this age. She talks about friends dying and conversations she has about what kinds of cocktails she needs for maintenance. This my parents do this a lot as well…but they rarely talk about death which Ephron in turn does.

This year my mother turns 60 and I’m about to announce that I plan to move out. Something about this last essay is making me doubt my plan if only because time is the one currency I’m always trying to earn. But, maybe this is part of it as well, who knows? From here on out, I’m taking Ephron’s advice and considering the alternative: I’m off to bed to read another book.

Antigua with Jamaica Kincaid

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I purchased A Small Place from an equally small bookshop in Baguio called, Mt. Cloud which some friends had put up a few years ago. In a hidden shelf somewhere near the cashier I saw Ms. Kincaid’s book and could not believe my luck…it was hard bound and cost only 150 pesos. Still, I was not convinced and made wary by the author whom I knew figured mostly in post-colonial anthologies. Why I fear these things is a mystery to me especially considering how much I’ve read and enjoyed in this department. I suppose it’s the knowledge that this author means business that makes me slightly put off (most especially on days when I just feel like a lazy read). Eventually though, a more practical side of me decided to purchase it for two reasons: one, it’s cheap–a great bargain in my book and two, one of my new year’s resolutions is to allow surprises. So, Kincaid found a home in my shelf.

Here she writes about Antigua which is a small island nation that was once ruled by the British. All 80 pages of the book are a testament to a place she once knew and a people who, because of being tirelessly enslaved, have forgotten who they are. In this sense, Kincaid’s book was truly a revelation of a certain relatedness. I read her thoughts and let nodding while thinking to myself that these must apply to my people too. It is certainly the kind of book that incites a person from the Eastern part of the planet to recall the days of our nation’s youth. A few pages into it, I felt that this might not be for white people solely because it will really make them squirm in their seats. This was also revelatory of why people from Goodreads tended to give less stars to this book. Kincaid calls you out on everything but it is easy to see why. Below is an excerpt from the book:

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Apologies for my laziness. I’m using a small device as a compromise with my father who needs to use the desktop…but domestic squabbles aside, those lines of hers about language and her contempt for the English because of love for her own country make me feel like crying. That’s the real result of colonialism, right? Displaced people who carry with them the pain of rootlessness and the burden of empty memory save for the ones they have under which none of them were free.

I kept these thoughts in mind for a bit without resorting to writing about thus immediately. I suppose the difficulty lay in the analysis which directly contradicted with my own identity. My grandfather on my dad’s side is Belgian which makes me a fourth of that as well. Though it’s easy to renounce that part of the family and claim that since I was born and raised here, I choose not to be Belgian for the sake of this book, it doesn’t seem right. I love that part of my family equally and yet, that doesn’t absolve the small nation from its colonial pursuits of which people like Conrad have written about in such books as The Heart of Darkness.

If there’s anything I’ve understood, though, it’s that any action made not just by nation’s but individuals, do have lasting effects on people. Growing up in post-colonial Antigua is something Kincaid longs for daily as she sees what her country has become. She desires a shift to the past, regardless of how soiled it is with the blood of the enslaved. And she can say this precisely because her own people have betrayed her in the present. When Antigua gained independence, it’s leaders proceeded to extend the suffering wrought by the colonizers but this time their methods were more discreet: from using government money to buy condominium units in New York to keeping ill-gotten wealth in Swiss bank accounts…to allowing drug dealers to own significant parts of the country because they paid big shares to various Antiguan ministers…all this while their people slaved to work hard and provide for their families.

You don’t need to be on either side of the colonial fence to know what injustice feels like. You simply have to live in the world, love what you love and perhaps even die fighting for it. Either way, I recommend Kincaid to all people who can look past her hurtful words with a compassionate heart. There’s a lot of wisdom in her small book for everyone to come away with.

Tea Thursday

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It’s Tea Thursday and to celebrate I brought out my favorite blend of Earl Grey tea. Just this afternoon I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say about the one beverage that’s been helping me tide away these lonely, sick days of coughing and wheezing way into the morning. Then, I saw Iris post her usual tea Thursday post and thought, “hmm, must be spam.” But just now mom reminded me that it’s already Thursday! Can you believe what some cough medications do to one’s memory?

Anyway, I’ve loved tea since I was little. My parents grew concerned when I would ask for tea when people would come over from elsewhere. I always had it plain with a dash of sugar and after growing out of my fruit tea phase, I gradually fell in love with Earl Grey. It’s the smell and the taste of Bergamot mixed with the story of how this particular tea was invented which makes me think that among all other blends, this is best for readerly exploits. Bigelow and Twinings are few of favorite carriers of the blend but if anyone can suggest another brand, I would love a recommendation. What I can say right off the bat is that Bigelow has a fuller Bergamot flavor (which makes it more perfect for adding milk) while Twinings is mild.

The book that accompanies our great earl is Stephane Audeguy’s The Theory of Clouds. I am halfway through it and already so mesmerized. My new goal is to find the original French version of the book and read it.

For now, happy Tea Thursday everyone!

Burma via George Orwell & Emma Larkin.

What strikes me as I write this is the thought that both people mentioned above are fictitious (in that these names are just nom de plumes) and yet they claim to tell the truth about Burma. This leads to a further curiosity: does one need to lie in order to make truth surface? Or, from a more literary perspective, can fiction do what its sibling, non-fiction, does too? I’d spend hours just plucking through the wordplay and sorting out the tedious philosophical debris that these questions leave in their wake but then what?

Cover of

Cover of Finding George Orwell in Burma

Emma Larkin’s 2004 book, Finding George Orwell in Burma was purchased on a warm summer day at a bookstore that no longer exists today. It was one of the first expensive books I bought and admittedly, I only bought it for two reasons: the cover (which is a photo showing a man’s silhouette as he paddles his boat–at a distance, there are mountains and the rest of the page is a misty blue) and the country: Burma.The pages are now slightly yellowing from their stay in my shelves. I’m guessing I got this in 2005 which would make it a tenant going on a decade in these tired shelves of mine. I’ve attempted to read it thrice but on all three counts I’ve failed owing to the one aspect of the book I never considered upon purchasing it: content.

Tonight, I lay restless after having been kept up until the wee hours on a quest to read Metamaus. I was engrossed until the 100th page after which I could no longer open my eyes.  I pried the book open again today to find that the few hours of sleep and dream time had gathered together images of the Holocaust and Maus to a point where I needed to read something else.  (This, of course, I’ll explain in greater detail when I manage to sort out my thought’s on Spiegelman’s Metamaus.) The next logical step, as it is January, would be to  stay true to resolutions and among them, i did recall promising to finish the unfinished. So, Larkin and I made haste once more, skipping introductions and long afternoons in the tea shops of Mandalay.

What I can conclude is that I love this book more than I can speak of for fear that someone might catch a wind of what I write and never allow me into this beautiful country. It heightens the beauty and the sadness once hinted at by Kon Ichikawa in his compelling masterpiece, The Burmese Harp. The scenes in that film coupled with the stories Larkin has gathered in this book have made me hope for a reason to visit if only to sit in front of a pagoda and ponder the many ways life twists and turns.

I must admit though that after reading Larkin, the effects of literature on people cannot be easily reduced to sentimentality that sparks action. Avid readers and lovers of the written word will find that sometimes books are not enough to liberate but they do keep people company throughout what may be such long, lonely lives lived in isolation and fear of their government. Most of those Larkin speaks with in her book are learned people who have read more than most of us will have read in our own “free” societies and yet, Burma is the way it is. While it goes without saying that I am deeply against a state where people must endure in these conditions, I’m keeping an open mind…the country has long baffled me because in this age its rare to find such a secluded place that’s so shrouded in mystery and portrayed solely as helpless by foreign press. Incidentally, this book is about tracing the path of another foreigner who, Larkin posits, prophetically wrote novels that could aptly describe the country’s history since it was colonized by the British. My tendency is not to trust everything a foreigner says about a place and its people precisely because situations like this one of Burma are wrought with time and put in place by conditions greater than just our intelligent assumptions. Still, its amazing to read about this one woman’s quest to see Orwell’s Burma and understand the parallelisms that exist in the way we perceive the country today.

Also, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to walk the streets of Rangoon which she describes as quiet and peaceful. It seems uncanny and reminds me of a Filipino way of describing certain individuals: nasa loob ang kulo–this roughly translates to having the chaos within so as to describe those who look placid on the outside but contain their maelstroms within. Is Burma really like this and are people on the edge of breaking? Or are they as calm and content as their scenic landscapes portray? I would like to know one day but I suppose I’m too young and naive, wasting my youth on romanticized images of golden pagodas and the promise of one day meeting a white elephant. The scholar in me knows that it’s all a construct, a fiction we are meant to believe to be true so that things might remain exotic in our eyes–this figment of our imagination that keeps us in search of dream places but separates us entirely from reality. My Burma is still the yearned for land of mysticism that promises great adventure and self-reckoning. This, I suppose, is the tragedy of my youth and the one reason why its taken me so long to read and listen to what Larkin has to say.

Now if only I could grow up just a little bit and rid myself of the romance and the adventure, I might see things clearly and know which path to take…but I’m afraid that time might never come and if it does, I fear for what little optimism and hope I’ll have left for my beautiful, beloved Burma.