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]

Good books and groceries

books

GOOD books and groceries—like beer and tequila, socialites and squakings—rarely go well together. (I should know—I’ve sworn off tequila more than ten years ago—after having barfed bits of my brain out on a Bacolod to Manila flight minutes prior to touchdown, thanks to copious Cuervo Gold shots chased by beer the night before. Meanwhile, to this day, I remain confused which social category best deserves my working-class rage: uppity Makati coño kids with trust funds or unsophisticated squakings in Quezon City who can’t even ride the train right. But enough of this self-indulgent commentary lest it deteriorate into pure drivel, if it hasn’t already).
As I was saying, good books and groceries don’t go well together.
No one visits a bookstore to get a discount on Kobe beef nor does anyone make a trip to the grocery to try and stumble upon Adrian Cristobal’s Occasional Prose, which remains sadly out of print.
But stranger things have happened.
For more than two years, my wife and I have frequented this grocery, the name and location of which will not be disclosed for reasons that will become self-evident later.
Just last year, the establishment suddenly decided to put up two stalls filed with used, cheap books, many of which I would have been proud to call my own.
Acting on this impulse, I have, in various trips to the said grocery store, I have amassed a number of excellent titles.
Take my recent trip last week.
While my wife was busy figuring out what needed to be restocked in our household—not exactly rocket science for a two-member, one feline family—I trooped to the used-book stands and immediately scanned titles for possible finds. It was, by far, the best decision I have ever made regarding anything faintly related to groceries.
Besides acquiring the 29th issue of Granta, a UK-based literary quarterly, I also got myself a copy of the Granta Book on the Family, a special anthology featuring memoirs of American short story writer Raymond Carver, among others. The last, but not the least, of my literary haul was Best Music Writing of 2004, published by Da Capo press, which I am reading right now.
All three books—expensive-looking trade paperback editions in good condition—set me back by approximately P300, far cheaper than the latest issue of Granta, occassionally sold at Fully Booked for P700 or so.
On another occasion, I have bought Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety by Atlantic Monthly columnist Wendy Kaminer, Bad Elements by journalist Ian Buruma, The Tale of the Scale: An Odyssey of an Invention by Solly Angel, a housing expert.
Which now explains why I will not disclose the name and location of the said grocery store for fear that readers of this blog, however few, may stake out the establishment, hiking competition for good but cheap books.
But since I believe in a level playing field, I will nevertheless give one clue regarding the whereabouts of the said grocery: it’s in Metro Manila. Hardy har har. Why would I take the fun out of grocery shopping?

———————

From the Six Degrees of Separation Dept.
Raymond Carver’s best friend is Chuck Kinder. Besides being a writer himself, Kinder, who also teaches fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, is supposedly the basis of one of the characters in Michael Chabon’s novel, Wonder Boys, which was later turned into a movie. When we were in the US, my wife and I occasionally joined the movie nights that he hosted at his house. I remember seeing the original Carrie movie and Short Cuts, a movie on which a number of Carver’s short stories are based. Short Cuts features, among others, jazz singer Annie Ross who plays, not surprisingly, a jazz singer. Ross is famous for being one-third of what I believe is the greatest jazz vocalist group of the twentieth century, LHR, also known as Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. LHR has influenced similar groups such as The Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices.
Picture shows covers of Wendy Kaminer’s Sleeping with Extra Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety and Best Music Writing 2004.

Book Review: Poverty of Memory by Renato Redentor Constantino

HOWEVER cleverly written, newspaper columns have never been given a decent break.  Treated as the poor cousin of the essay, opinion columns and other similarly-configured pieces of writing have been disallowed membership into the literary club.  Which perhaps explains why in the early nineties, Adrian Cristobal decided against asking fellow columnist and current Makati representative Teodoro M. Locsin Jr. from writing the foreword of Pasquinades, a collection of Cristobal’s pieces printed in the weekend supplement of the defunct Daily Globe, of which Locsin was publisher.  “…I believe that a collection of newspaper columns in book form is sheer vanity: what is perishable—and newspaper pieces are perishable—should be allowed to perish without benefit of clergy,” Cristobal said in his book’s introduction. “[B]eing a ruthlessly honest writer, [TeddyBoy] might go at it too well for my comfort, and I happen to perversely value his friendship more than his honesty.”  Although Locsin was able to defend himself in a speech he delivered at the book’s launch which was later published in the Philippines’ Free Press, their witty exchange emphasized the amorphous position occupied by well-written, non-straightforward news pieces published in dailies, weeklies, and some glossies.  Are such pieces simply just passing fancies, perishable goods to be consumed today and discarded tomorrow? Is there a clear demarcation between the non-fiction piece written under a tight deadline as opposed to the one that was produced leisurely?  An easy enough answer is provided by American critic Cristina Nehring in a May 2003 Harper’s Magazine essay.  “[T]here is only good writing and bad writing, strong thinking and weak thinking,” she said, in a piece entitled, Our Essays, Ourselves: In Defense of the Big Idea.  Going by the Nehring protocol, the collections and anthologies of a number of Filipino writers are not going to lose their luster anytime soon. Besides the work of Cristobal and others, among these anthologies include Renato Redentor Constantino’s The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire.  With four sections discussing an impressive array of topics—an American anti-imperialist group protesting US annexation of the Philippines to a profile of Iran’s pro-poor prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh—Constantino’s collection is more than just a samples of good writing and in-depth research. It is proof that combining talent, tenacity, and noble intentions can do more than just beat deadlines: it can stimulate ideas, widen perspectives, and help propose alternatives to the current local millieu, which has only helped to deepen oppression, encourage mediocrity, and tolerate ignorance.  In “The vitamins of Erma Geolamin,” Constantino relates the life and times of a domestic helper who has spent 14 years in Hong Kong only to find out later that the money she sent home was squandered by her husband who has been living with another woman.  “Another familiar story…It’s like the relationship between overseas Filipino workers and the Philippine government,” Constantino says, referring to the larger, menacing yet often-overlooked form of squandering: the Philippine government’s automatic provision of using precious dollars earned by the likes of Geolamin to pay for fraudulent, graft-tainted debt, exemplified by the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). These automatic debt payments, Constantino adds, is “a monumental barbarity that re-exports the dollars remitted by overseas Filipino workers.”  While also celebrating the achievements of these unsung Filipinos, Constantino nevertheless offers a few rules for those intending to secure a brighter future for everyone.  “Rescuing tomorrow from those who wish to appropriate it carries some requisites,” he says in the introduction. “History must penetrate memory. Memory must permeate history. Act deliberately but with dispatch. Understand. Listen. Reach out. Act with others. Rescue tomorrow together. Hope abounds. “The future’s already here,” said the writer William Gibson. “It’s just not widely distributed yet.” Thankfully, in less than 300 pages, Poverty of Memory succeeds in its attempt to enrich and enliven Filipinos’ collective consciousness.

———————

This shortened version of a longer unpublished review will finally see print in the March 2 issue of Personal Fortune, the monthly magazine of Business Mirror, a Philippine broadsheet

Book Review: The Magic of Market Design

Book cover

FOR many economists and executives, free enterprise is an article of faith. Dismantle trade barriers, demolish monopolies, privatize public utilities, and the resulting system will be nothing short of heaven on earth, thanks to Adam Smith’s proverbial invisible hand. Unfortunately, whenever trouble arises in this paradigmatic paradise, free marketeers are quick to judge and pin the blame on the usual suspects: big government and its supposed malicious intent to intervene in the hallowed marketplace.

This, all too often, is the knee-jerk reaction of free-marketeers the world over, especially when their faith is put to the test. While it is not easy to dispute their unswerving faith in the free enterprise, especially after another religion—that of the centrally-planned economy—has been debunked, it is nevertheless difficult for them to recognize that unfettered markets do not automatically transform Third World economies into lands of milk and honey.

Fortunately, John McMillan in Reinventing The Bazaar: A Natural History Of Markets, explains this point thoroughly. Through studies, stories, and anecdotes, he recognizes that the market, left alone and unchecked, is not exactly the perfect solution to the grinding poverty and the ever-increasing income gap between the rich and the poor in countries around the world.

“The collapse of central planning is sometimes held up as proof that the government should stay right out of the economy,” McMillan writes. “This is a non sequitur. Observing that something is not black, we are not impelled to infer that it must be white. That governments often fail does not prove the ideal state is the minimal state. To frame the choice as planning versus completely free markets is oversimple. Public goods, offering widespread benefits, must be produced by the state or at least funded by it.” To prove this thesis, McMillan examines markets around the world and throughout history—the Makola marketplace in Ghana, California’s electricity market, prisoner-of-war camp markets during World War II, the highly-complex auction of spectrum rights in the American telecommunications industry—and asserts that well-built markets which work smoothly can only be the result of good market design, something that governments can do and do well.

He adds that for any market system to work well, it has to possess five prerequisites: trust in trading partners, secure property rights, free flow of information, reduction of side-effects of economic transactions for third-parties, and the existence of competition; exactly the very things decent government can provide and enforce. At the same time, McMillan distinguishes between similar market systems and analyzes why one succeeded and the other did not. This is best exemplified by Russia, which went through “shock therapy” in its transition to capitalism, and
China, which undertook the more gradual approach.

The difference, he says, lies in the manner by which government performed its role. In Russia, immediately after privatization, the state continued to bail out and subsidize its industries, many of which were monopolies. Thus, industries were not forced to improve their operations because there was no competition at all.

But in China, the communist party agreed to allow its factories to produce extra output to sell in markets at market-determined prices, on top of their state-required output which are sold at state-fixed prices. According to McMillan, this dual-pricing “avoided the chain-reaction disruption that shock therapy generated.”

“Permitting the state-owned firms to sell extra outputs and to buy extra inputs in markets allowed new interfirm relationships to grow around the stable platform of the existing ways of doing business,” he says. Moreover, unlike traditional free-marketeers who insist on absolute global enforcement of intellectual property rights, McMillan, true to form, swings both ways.

“Unconditional assertions about intellectual property are rarely valid. The trick is to find the right balance,” he says. As an example, he points out that in 2000, during the height of Napster.com, an online service which allowed users to download and exchange music, sales of CDs were higher than ever. This dispelled the widely yet falsely held contention among record companies that online music exchanges would kill their industry.

The same can be said for Microsoft’s global dominance of computer operating system software. Because of software copying, it became widely distributed among PC users and owners, making it the predominant operating system. Later on, since users were already accustomed to the platform, they began to buy legitimate copies. Which explains why Microsoft became the software giant it is now. (It can even be argued that Microsoft Windows 95—produced by a company which strongly disallowed illegal duplication and distribution—was virtually a copy of the pre-OSX Macintosh operating system. However, a lawsuit filed by Apple, which made Macintosh computers, did not prosper.) “Bill Gates owes his fortune to us,” said Dan Sokol, member of Homebrew club, a group of San Francisco Bay Area computer buffs who exchanged ideas about computers and programming in computing’s early days. “If we hadn’t copied the tape, there would never have been an explosion of people using his software.”

But while many may not agree with McMillan’s controversial positions on many issues, his heart, no doubt, lies with the market. “The market system is…the worst form of economy, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time,” he says. “It succeeds precisely because…it admits variety and permits criticism. We should cheer it because it solves some all-but-intractable problems, which have been tackled by none of the alternative forms of economic organization. It generates wealth. It alleviates poverty. But it has its limits. There are things it cannot do. It does not necessarily do even what it is supposed to; it works well only if it is well-designed.”

Originally published, although partially, in the Manila Times