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

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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

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.

Gellhorn on writing

Martha Gellhorn with her third husband, Ernest Hemingway during their honeymoon in Hawaii in 1940 (New York Times)

“A writer publishes to be read; then hopes the readers are affected by the words, hopes that their opinions are changed or strengthened or enlarged, or that readers are pushed to notice something that had not stopped to notice before. All my reporting life, I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort.”

— From Introduction to The Granta Book of Reportage written by Ian Jack, quoting Martha Gellhorn, novelist, travel writer, and journalist who has a journalism award named after her

Rushdie on the power of the novel

Rushdie at 2008 dinner honoring writer Amos Oz (David Shankbone/Wikipedia)

“There are other reasons, too, for proposing the novel as the crucial art form of what I can no longer avoid calling the post-modern age. For one thing, literature is the art least subject to external control, because it is made in private. The act of making it requires only one person, one pen, one room, some paper. (Even the room is not absolutely essential). Literature is the most low-technology of the art forms. It requires neither a stage nor a screen. It calls for no interpreters, no actors, producers, camera crews, costumiers, musicians. It does not even require the traditional apparatus of publishing, as the long running success of samizdat literature demonstrates. The [Michel] Foucault essay [What is an author?] suggests that literature is as much at risk from the enveloping, smothering forces of the market economy, which reduces books to mere products. The danger is real, and I do not want to seem to be minimizing it. But the truth is that of all the forms, literature can still be the most free. The more money a piece of work costs, the easier it is to control. Film, the most expensive of art forms, is also the least subversive. This is why, although Carlos Fuentes cites the work of film-makers like [Luis] Buñuel, [Ingmar] Bergman, and [Federico] Fellini as instances of successful secular revolts into the territory of the sacred, I continue to believe in the greater possibilities of the novel. Its singularity is its best protection.”

— From “Is Nothing Sacred?” written by Salman Rushdie and delivered by Harold Pinter as part of the Herbert Read Memorial Lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in February 1990 and published by Granta both as a pamphlet that carried the same title and in its 31st issue.