Reading, Fast and Slow (or the Top 6 books I’ve read in 2015)

(Apologies to Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, the inspiration for the title of this blog entry. The same book is also mentioned below.) 

Some books grab you by the balls and never let go unless you’re finished with them (or, for that matter, finished with you). Other books are far less dramatic, allowing you to dip into several pages on occasion, while in between meals, naps, or commutes. 

This, more or less, illustrates my life as a reader in 2015. Continue reading

UNFINISHED BUSINESS | 8 books I left unread in 2013 for reasons lame and otherwise

My Granta magazines, arguably the largest such collection in the Philippines.

#SHELFIE. My Granta magazines, arguably the largest such collection in the Philippines. But literate frenemies have disputed my claim, which I’m unwilling to give up.

It’s the start of 2014.
It’s time for some people—myself included—to look back and take stock of the books they read the past year.
Except that that’s so last year.
For 2014, I’m doing something different.
Continue reading

Fischer on the trouble with Nietzsche’s dictum

IMG-20130419-00502

Cover of The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer (First Scribner Paperback Fiction edition 1997)

As my hands were cuffed behind my back, and I had a zet at the footwear of my arresting officers, I couldn’t help hailing Nietzsche’s dictum, what does not kill me makes me stronger. One could add that what doesn’t kill you can be extremely uncomfortable and can give you a very nasty cold. I sneezed with no hands and discharged some nose marrow across the short distance between my nostrils and the gleaming footwear of the detective in charge of the operation, where it spread-eagled and made itself at home.
The trouble with Nietzche—who in any case never prescribed instructions regarding conduct while being hand-cuffed on chilly floors in undignified circumstances—is that you can never be sure when he’s doing some levity or not.
The Metropolitan Police had the same problem with me. They were hugely unconvinced by my responses to their questioning.

— from The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, named by Granta Magazine as one of the best British novelists under 40 in 1994

My top five books for 2010

From top to bottom: Solnit's The Field Guide to Getting Lost, Amis' Money, Polotan's The True and the Plain, and Lewis' Panic. Why only four when list says five? Who says I was good at math?

Of the 28 books I’ve read so far this year, eight have stood out.
But eight is not a good, solid number so I decided to whittle the list down to five.* (Neither is 28, come to think of it. Which is why I’m hurrying up to read two more books before New Year’s Eve.)
This list may change of course because I’m currently in the thick of Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market, a copy of which has been loaded on to my Kindle 3 from manybooks.net, one of the best free eBook websites. [See: Walter Bagehot, Lombard Street, Manybooks]
For something that was written nearly 150 years ago, Lombard Street remains fresh and has supposedly been read again by experts — for guidance, among other things — in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown. (Juicy detail: Bagehot, who became the editor in chief of the Economist, wrote Lombard Street as a partial reaction to the collapse of Overend, Gurney, and Co., supposedly the last British bank to collapse until Northern Rock, another UK lender, also went under in 2007, more than a century later.) [See: Overend, Gurney, and Co., Economist, Northern Rock]
In any case, Bagehot’s work may still make it to this list.
But that means I either have to change the title of this entry to “My top six books for 2010,” or leave one out of the list and write another review for Lombard Street.
Except that’s too much work, even for the partially employed. (Or partially unemployed, depending on  whether the glass is half-full or whether those contact lenses need cleaning.)
So, friends and frenemies, followers and freaks, felons and freeloaders, here is my top five books for 2010. None of them were published this year but they are ranked in the order of which they were read.

1) Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Edited by Michael Lewis
[See: Panic, Michael Lewis]

This anthology is proof that you can never get enough of Michael Lewis.
But that still doesn’t explain why he included several of his previously-published works as part of the book.
While that oversight may be considered editorial indulgence for some, it can easily be dismissed.
After all, Lewis writes well.
He also wrote the anthology’s introduction and other pieces to introduce various book chapters, all without the gobbledygook that comes free with every statement issued by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
The anthology even features a glossary, explaining what a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) — the financial instrument blamed for the 2008 meltdown — is all about. The explanation was so simple I even posted it in the Marginalia section. It was written by Chris Benz, an intern at McSweeney’s, that outfit established by Dave Eggers [See: Benz on CDOs, McSweeney’s]
One setback though.
While the book explains the October 1987 crash (one cause: automated share sell-offs**) and the 2008 meltdown (cause: CDOs), it failed to cite reasons for the 1998 Asian crisis.***
Nevertheless, the book remains an easy and engaging read, with pieces written by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and — surprise! — Dave Barry, among others.

2) Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need
[See: Dave Barry’s Travel Guide, Dave Barry]

Of the more than five Dave Barry books I have ever read, this one by far is the funniest.
The volume is thin but packed with so many jokes that you will either laugh and/or chuckle at every page. Which is exactly what happened to me while I was reading it in April. (Already forgot the jokes though.)
Too bad the fun and laughter had to end because the book had to be returned to Alan Robles, who bothers to feed me from time to time. [See: Alan Robles]
And no unreturned book is worth risking that privilege for.
Unless of course if the book is a signed, hardbound, first-edition copy.
It wasn’t.
So free lunch FTW.

3) A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit [See: Field Guide, Rebecca Solnit]

Nope, it’s not about Lost, the hit TV series.
It’s about getting lost, literally and figuratively.
Only when you’re lost will you be able to find yourself, she says.
Solnit’s prose is haunting and her sense of the world — natural and otherwise — is deep.
“Getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing,” she says in the book, citing, among others, Henry David Thoreau, the good, old contrarian of Concord, Massachusetts. [See: Thoreau]
In the book, she even wrote a thorough and extended discussion regarding the work of artist Yves Klein, who introduced a shade of blue called the IKB — International Klein Blue.
The same color would be a predominant theme of the book and several chapters would be entitled “The Blue of Distance.” [See: Yves Klein]
Solnit recently wrote an article for Tom Dispatch which mentioned the dinner she had with a good friend, Red Constantino. [See: Tom Dispatch, Red Constantino]

This picture was brought to you by the urge to break the monotony of reading through mind-numbing text. Thank you.

4) The True and the Plain: A Collection of Personal Essays by Kerima Polotan.

Already wrote a blog entry about this book. It would be redundant if I wrote about it again. [See: Polotan]
Nevertheless, her turns of phrase remain the envy of those, including myself, who have decided to pursue the literary arts.

“It was the essence of life’s absurdity that the airy language of fashion should crowd out the spare idiom of human tragedy.”

“…the courage and the strength that can love the imperfect and that maimed.”

“…no one should travel who is not prepared to leave his provincialism at home.”

5) Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

Always thought that Amis was an uptight Englishman especially since the first Amis book that I read was an anthology of essays — Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions — which as far as I can remember has underwhelmed me. [See: Money, Martin Amis]
Money has proven me wrong.
Unfortunately, it took me more than ten years to try him again. And this time in the long form.
If ever you’ve decided to plunge into a novel — especially in this day and age when attention spans are growing shorter — you can never go wrong with Money.
Amis’ prose, humor, and capacity for invention are unparalleled.

Prose: (of the heat in New York)

“I’ve taken up handjobs again. You should see me. I’m back with the rest of you — I’m doing it too. Hello again. Well, here we all are, lying flat on our backs like bent Picasso guitars. This is ridiculous — but what can I do? You know how it is with the street women in hot cities, in concrete jungles. It’s not that the weather brings them out. It’s just that the weather takes most of their clothes off. In the snarling insanity of high-summer Manhattan, in the staggered ranks of the streets, women move in their extra being of womanliness, all this extra breast and haunch, and emanations, sweet transparencies, intoxicating deposits. Men creep palely through the fever. Even Fielding shows the strain. ‘It’s a bitch,’ he says. ‘Slick, we can’t beat it. So let’s join it.’ He keeps suggesting outlandish benders, Venusian brothel-crawls, home-delivery women, dialler women, takeout women. There’s this chick, that fox, these birds, those diamond dogs. There are dancers, strippers, loopers, hookers.”

(of the Fiasco, the car of John Self, the protagonist)

“Now my Fiasco, it’s a beautiful machine, a vintage-style coupe with oodles of dash and heft and twang. The Fiasco, it’s my pride and joy. Acting like a pal, I lend the motor to Alec Llewellyn while I’m in New York. And what do I return to? An igloo of parking-tickets and birdcrap, with a ripped spare, a bad new grinding noise, and every single gauge resignedly flashing. What’s the guy been doing to my great, my incomparable Fiasco? It feels as though he’s been living in it, subletting it. Some people, they’ve got no class. You should see the way the boys at the garage simply cover their faces with envy and admiration when the Fiasco is driven — or pushed or towed or, on one occasion, practically coptered — into their trash-strewn mews. It is temperamental, my Fiasco, like all the best racehorses, poets and chefs. You can’t expect it to behave like any old Mistral or Alibi. I bought it last year for an enormous amount of money. There are some — Alec is among them, probably — who believe that the Fiasco errs on the side of ostentation, that the Fiasco is in questionable taste. But what do they know.”

Humor (of an actor who changed his name):

Who, for a start, was Garfield? The guy’s name is Gary. Barry isn’t short for Barfield, is it.

(of “guilt welfare”)

People get on just fine with their money, but when someone genuinely needy shows up, with a big knife, they get all these new ideas about the distribution of wealth.

(of knowing people)

My theory is — we don’t really go that far into other people, even when we think we do. We hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and quickly ask if anybody’s there.

(of foreigners)

“The foreigners around here. I know they don’t speak English — okay, but do they even speak Earthling? They speak stereo, radio crackle, interference. They speak sonar, bat-chirrup, pterodactylese, fish-purr.”

(of the adjustment to living with a woman)

“And with a chick on the premises you just cannot live the old life. You just cannot live it. I know: I checked. The hungover handjob athwart the unmade bed — you can’t do it. Blowing your nose into a coffee filter — there isn’t the opportunity. Peeing in the basin — they just won’t stand for it. No woman worth the name would let it happen.”

And finally, Amis’ capacity for invention:

Names of the fictional cars in the novel include the following:

Autocrat
Tomahawk
Mañana
Iago
Jefferson
Acapulco
Alibi
Tigerfish

And: A laundromat outlet is called a Whirlomat while a “flash-friable pork-and-egg bap or roll or hero” is called a Hamlette.

*From the Honorable Mention Dept. The three others that were left behind include Jose Y. Dalisay Jr.’s Soledad’s Sister, Robert X. Cringely’s Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date (also lent by Alan Robles), and Martin Amis’ Night Train. [See: Jose Dalisay, Robert Cringely]

From the My Understanding is (so don’t bet on it) Dept.

**Supposedly, large funds which bought and sold shares in the US stock market programmed their computers to buy and sell shares, given certain trends. In October 1987, when these programs detected trends to sell, they did so, spurring other programs operated by other funds — and other investors — to do the same. As a result, what is considered as program trading triggered a sell-off, causing a plunge in share prices.

***The Asian crisis — or at least according to my understanding of Arnold Tenorio’s explanation — unfolded when Thailand relied too much on dollar earnings from its exports. Too many dollars coming in encouraged bankers and businesses to lend and borrow in the US currency. Guess what happened when Thailand’s export markets ran dry? The dollar rose and the baht fell, causing Thai asset prices — including real estate and Thai stocks — to devalue. Always risk-averse, foreign funds left Thailand and later Asia as a whole and took their dollars with them. With a dwindling dollar supply, regional currencies — including the peso — plummeted to record lows.

(Arnold, who used to be my boss and remains, fortunately and unfortunately, my friend, has an MBA degree. He has so far been the only contributor to this blog, who reminds me often enough that that’s not an impressive distinction altogether. I agree. After all, I don’t have an MBA.) [See: Arnold Tenorio’s contribution]

Five reasons why I am addicted to Granta

The very first Granta I ever owned and read (Tinzeen.com)

(WARNING: This piece is roughly 1,800 words long and reading it may interrupt your Facebook status updates. It is recommended that you read this at the office while pretending to work since doing so at home may reduce time for casual surfing.)

Granta doesn’t call itself the Magazine of New Writing for nothing.
Through the years, it has published many young writers, introducing the world to the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Jeanette Winterson, among others, through its Best of Young British Novelists issue, released every decade since 1983.
However, a few volumes have been underwhelming. Or at least to me they were.
Take Granta 45 which carried the theme Gazza Agonistes.
Half of it is devoted to football player Paul Gascoigne, which I’m sure would be a hit among fans but not to this reader, who knows next to nothing about sports. I tried to read it twice — promise! — but I was unable to finish it. (Sorry, Ian Hamilton) [See: Paul Gascoigne]
Another such issue is Granta 106: New Fiction Special.
More than half of the stories in the issue failed to impress me, a person who reads for entertainment more than anything else.
But then again, that’s another story.
Nine times out of ten — probably even more — the contributors, editors, artists, and staff at Granta produce a volume of writing so refreshing that readers are prompted to store and collect them as “books,” not as magazines, which are likely to be disposed of as soon as the new issue arrives.
This explains why I have more than 40 volumes of Granta “magazines” on my shelf, which have been bought from Booksale, a used bookstore in Paris, and
through a subscription in the US.
The collection includes volumes published as books, such as The Granta Book of Reportage, the Granta Book of the Family, and Joan Didion’s Miami.
To this day, I have yet to personally meet someone who has a larger Granta collection than I do.
And so, as an indulgent tribute to my collection, I have come up with five reasons why I remain grateful to and for Granta Magazine.

1) Granta publishes good writing. Period.

A chunk of readers still distinguishes fiction and journalism, as if one was a diametric opposite of the other. Granta makes no such distinction, offering to publish good writing. To this end, it has published pieces of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who also wrote a non-fiction book, News of a Kidnapping) and Salman Rushdie, Ryszard Kapucinski, who went to Ethiopia in 1974 after the downfall of Haile Selassie, and James Fenton, who covered the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. (Another Granta contributor, James Hamilton Paterson, who shuttles between Italy and the Philippines, has written a Granta-published book about the Marcos family entitled America’s Boy). [See: America’s Boy]

The special Granta issue featuring james Fenton's coverage of the EDSA I revolution

In his introduction to the Granta Book of Reportage, Ian Jack refers to the so-called demarcation between literature and journalism:

“Are they to be described as ‘writing’ in the sense of literature, or as ‘journalism’? I have never quite known where one begins and the other ends and…the question is neither interesting nor meaningful — literature not being an ‘objectively ascertainable category to which certain works naturally belong’ but more or less what ‘culture-controlling groups’ decide it is.”

2) Granta offers both history and geography lessons.

The magazine is decidely British but its outlook is global.
Its latest issue is about Pakistan, which was recently reviewed by the New York Times. [See: Blown Away by Pakistan: A guide to scoring beer and avoiding suicide bombers in the Land of the Pure]
The Magazine’s Pakistan-themed Autumn 2010 issue is “a good place to start…if cross-cultural interaction can play a part in minimizing anomosities and encouraging amity,” its reviewer Isaac Chotiner says. [See: New York Times Review of Granta’s Pakistan issue]
Based on its previous issues, the magazine will continue to cover other countries below the radar of privately-owned international news companies.
In its Travel issue (Granta 26), Jeremy Harding wrote about the Polisario (Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia El Hamra y Rio de Oro), a movement that sought to liberate two Western Saharan provinces — Saguia El Hamra and Rio de Oro — from Spanish colonization.
But in 1975, when Western Sahara was decolonized — coinciding with the end of Francisco Franco’s term — Morocco and Mauritania claimed the territory.
Polisario’s guerillas were later able to debilitate Mauritania, prompting the country to give up its claim, Harding writes in the issue.
But not so with Morocco.
With US support, Morocco was able to build a wall — known as the Berm of the Western Sahara — that not only protected its territory but encroached on the claim of Polisario and its independent state, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. [See: Western Sahara Wall]
In his piece entitled Polisario, Harding continues to say that:

“[t]he great success of the wall, it struck me, was to assert its presence to such an extent that you seldom felt unseen or unaccounted for. It had imposed its own order on the desert by turning vast, homogeneous tracts of rubble into an arcane grid of concourses and pathways, some brightly lit and therefore dangerous, the others dark and apparently safe.”

3) Granta rarely repeats its themes.

And when it does, it’s an improvement over the original.
Take its Travel issue, which came out in Spring 1989, with four contributions from travel writer Bruce Chatwin. (If you haven’t read him, he’s the guy that Moleskine uses to advertise its notebooks. Chatwin loved them so much that when its store was about to be shuttered, he bought nearly all their supplies. Or so Moleskine claims.)
The Travel issue was so successful it was repeated nearly two decades later with Granta 94: On the Road Again: Where Travel Writing Went Next, released in Summer 2006.
I preferred the sequel because the original had one Chatwin piece too many and the former featured one of the best short stories I have ever read in Granta entitled How to Fly, by John Burnside, which begins thus:

“I flew for the first time when I was nine years old. Nobody saw it happen, but that didn’t bother me: the Wright Brothers’ earliest ascent had also been conducted in the strictest secrecy and, until public pressure forced them out of hiding, any number of successful flights had gone unwitnessed. Of course, Orville and Wilbur hadn’t attempted to do what I was doing: like Bleriot and Santos-Dumont, they were changing the known world, but they weren’t committed to flying in the purest sense. They were mechanics, not angels; and what I wanted was something that they had never even considered and, though I knew I was destined to fail, I wasn’t prepared to settle for anything as mundane as a flying machine.”

And speaking of Granta themes, I have a couple of favorites, including but not limited to Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater and Murder.

The former wasn’t actually a theme — it was a mishmash of stories and pieces, including one about the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi, who was an apprentice of Max Vargas, the father of Alberto Vargas, who would become famous for stylized drawings of pin-up girls, also known as Varga girls. [See: Alberto Vargas]

Alberto Vargas' pin-up girls were the Anime of the 1950s. (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com)

Meanwhile, the second theme featured the Murderee, a novella by Martin Amis that later became the novel London Fields. In 1989, it was delisted from the Booker Prize because judges disliked the way women were portrayed.
I have yet to get myself a copy of the novel because the story’s structure and the language is highly original, as indicated in its first few chapters published by Granta:

“Nicola knew two strange things. The second strange thing was that she must never tell anyone about the first strange thing. The first strange thing was this: she always knew what was going to happen next.”

“…the shrieking gossip of the yard — with a cluck-cluck here and a whoof-whoof there, here a cheep, there a moo, everywhere an oink-oink.”

4) Granta helps with playing Trivial Pursuit.

Yes, it’s true.
Some four years ago, when friends regularly played the 20th edition of Trivial Pursuit during weekends, I was asked to identify a South American country whose leader was named Stroessner. (I forgot how the question was phrased exactly and I’ve searched far and wide on Google for it to no avail.)
I was able to answer the question immediately, to my rivals’ disbelief.
“Paraguay,” I said.
“How could you know that?” I remember the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Alcuin Papa asking me, right palm on his forehead.
“Simple,” I told him and his teammates who couldn’t believe their bad luck. “I just finished reading Granta, which did a feature on Paraguay.”
Granta 31, published in Spring 1990, was entitled The General, referring to Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator of Paraguay, who ruled for 35 years from 1954 to 1989. [See: Alfredo Stroessner]
In an 82-page piece written by Isabel Hilton, she says:

“When he fell, thirty-five years later, he held a number of records. He was the longest-serving dictator in the western hemisphere and the second-longest in the world.: only Kim Il-Sung outlasted him. The world had lived through thirty-five years of history, but three-quarters of the population of Paraguay had known no other leader, and there was not an institution or political party in the country that had not been shaped by his presence…Television began and ended with his heavy features and a march named after him. There was a Stroessner Polka, for more light-hearted occasions. The airport was named after him. The free-port on the Brazilian frontier was called Puerto Stroessner. There were Stroessner statues, avenues, and roads, and official portraits of him hung in every office and school.” [See: Isabel Hilton]

5) Granta has yet to gain a following among Filipinos.

Many Filipinos hooked on Western publications read New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire, and the usual glossies (i.e., Time, Fortune).
Once, more than fifteen years ago, I walked into an upscale magazine store in Makati and asked for the latest copy of Harper’s Magazine.
“We have Harper’s Bazaar,” the salesperson said, dismissive. “And sir, there’s no such thing as Harper’s Magazine.”
I let it go, despite the fact that I knew all along about the magazine that Lewis Lapham edited and that years before, my grandparents bought me a year’s subscription of the magazine, which, surprisingly, was delivered to my doorstep a month ahead of the issue’s date.
Ignorance is bliss and I wasn’t about to get in the way of her Nirvana.
So what’s my point?
Some people — even those who read New Yorker — may not know about Granta.
As far as I know, it’s not even available in Solidaridad Bookstore, owned by writer F. Sionil Jose, which is frequented by the likes of Supreme Court Justice Adolf Azcuna. [See: F. Sionil Jose, Adolf Azcuna]
Which is a good thing.
It means less demand for Granta in the Philippines, and more chances for me to buy it, whether on Booksale or Fully-Booked.
Granta may not like that but hey, that’s the way it is.

Twice blessed

Book cover design (nice!)

It’s also the title of a Ninotchka Rosca novel.

Except that I haven’t read it yet.

But these two words can also describe what my life is like right now, despite the pressures of meeting rent payments while keeping at least six bottles of beer in the fridge. (Not an easy balancing act, I can tell you that.)

A few years back, for no apparent reason, journalist and writer Frank Cimatu — whom I still have to meet in person — asked me to submit one of my short stories as part of Mondo Marcos, an anthology of short fiction and essays about the experience of a generation to which I am ashamed to belong (and only because it reveals my age): Martial law babies.

And now, that volume, to be published by Anvil, will be launched this year. Or so Frank has told its contributors on Facebook.

If it does get produced, the book will be the second anthology featuring my work.

Another short story of mine — The Man Who Came Home — was included in Nine Supernatural Stories, which was published by the University of the Philippines.

And for these achievements however minor, I deserve an ice-cold beer.

The question now is: how many short stories should I chalk up to entitle myself to a deep and meaningful relationship with a really hot chick?

Just thinking out loud of course.