My top five books for 2011

TWO thousand eleven is the same as 2010 and the year before that.

That’s as far as the number of books I’ve read is concerned.

For the past three years, I’ve read 28 books annually, failing to meet my goal of finishing 30 books a year. My record year still is 2008, when I read 30++ books, including comics, short novels, and a New Yorker issue cover to cover.

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Four minor issues with the Kindle 3

Woman: "Sorry but I dig guys with Kindles."

Calm down, Kindle 3 freaks.
This will not delve into the great big Apple iPad-Amazon Kindle dialectic.
Both have their upsides and their setbacks, not to mention their respective users who swear that their gadgets can establish world peace, make a cocktail, and hunt down Osama Bin Laden while fixing Grandpa’s diapers.
But one thing is as certain as President Noynoy Aquino’s alopecia.
The Kindle is far superior to the iPad as far as reading eBooks is concerned. The secret is in its eInk technology, eliminating eye strain that usually accompanies extended reading on color monitors. (Of course, reading comic books and graphic novels is another matter altogether.)
Despite this upside, the Kindle — and the digital environment that accompanies it — does have features that could be improved, and possibly even integrated into the Kindle 4 (or whatever Jeff Bezos or his marketing guys may wish to call it).
So if you haven’t got a Kindle yet, quit reading this and go get yourself one. That way you know what all this quibbling is about. [See: Five reasons why Filipinos should get a K3Five more things to like about the K3]

1) Limited screensaver pictures

Enough said.

The K3 enables a screensaver every time you turn it off.
Except that a couple of the pictures may not appeal to certain segments of the reading population.
Take myself.
After a hard day at “work” — quotes supplied — I usually look forward to reading anything that’s been loaded onto my K3 (a volume of Calvin and Hobbes, a novel by Martin Amis, a book by Michael Lewis, a text file of the latest piece by Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly).
However, a screensaver pic, including but not limited to, Harriet Beecher Stowe — with all due apologies to her, her friends, fans and relatives — just doesn’t do it for me.
I would much prefer a picture of Joan Holloway and the two Mrs. Donald Drapers, the former and the current.
Which is to say that Amazon should allow users to change and/or customize their Kindle screensavers for enhanced user interaction.
But then again, that’s just me and the products of what arguably is my superficial mind.

2) The Zebra Effect

Now this is what I call a cool screensaver. Christina Hendricks as Mad Men's Joan Holloway

Or at least that’s what I call it.
It’s the bug that occasionally occurs when the text being highlighted continues onto the other page.
As the cursor — and the highlighting process — moves to the other page, the line under the first word in the next page disappears, thereby temporarily confusing users.
Fortunately, this doesn’t affect the file entitled “My Note,” a file where all highlighted text in the K3 is automatically saved. The same file can be copied once the K3 is plugged into a computer.
Now why did I call it the Zebra effect? It sounds cool for one thing.

3) Limited text status updates

January Jones as Betty Draper, ex-wife of Donald Draper, Mad Men's protagonist

Once a block of text is highlighted, it can be posted on a user’s Facebook and Twitter accounts using the K3 on a WiFi connection.
But if the text is two paragraphs long or more, then you can forget it.
Amazon will parse the text, thereby sometimes making it less understandable to Facebook friends and Twitter followers who bothered to read it.
This happened to me more than once while quoting Michael Lewis, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Louis Mencken, among others.
It definitely took the fun out of tweeting and Facebook status updating. Tsk.

4) The keyboard

Jessica Paré as Megan Calvet who becomes Donald Draper's fiance in Mad Men

Could a keyboard be any less ergonomic than the one fitted in the K3? Yes, it can be found in old typewriters made way before anyone thought of the word ergonomic.
But seriously, the K3’s keyboard could use some adjustments such as better spacing between letters.
Whenever I use it to post tweets, I have pressed the “N” instead of “M” and vice-versa for as long as I can remember.
A keyboard redesign may be called for, Jeff B.
But then again, that’s just me and the products of what arguably is my superficial mind.

Five more things to like about the Kindle 3

It's a nice view, anywhere you look at it. (From

No question about it: The Kindle 3 is perfect for reading eBooks, thanks to its much-vaunted, proprietary electronic ink technology.
The letters are crisp, clear, and sharp.
It precludes glare, strain, and other forms of visual torture associated with poring over a digital screen that doesn’t feature Angel Locsin’s Folded and Hung ads. [See: Angel Locsin’s Folded and Hung ads]
But that’s not the only thing the K3 offers.
While the add-ons may not be spectacular, these nevertheless increase the value to owning and using what may well be the world’s most famous eBook reader.
Which, I guess, is my way of saying: I love my Kindle 3 and I hope you love yours too. And if you haven’t gotten a Kindle 3 yet, go get one while the peso’s strong and the dollar’s weak and so I can shut the hell up about it already.

(The usual disclaimers apply. No arrangement, financial or otherwise, has been made between, its owners,  affiliates, and this self-styled, self-confessed Kindle 3 cheerleader. The check is still in the mail. Or so Jeff Bezos keeps on telling me. Right.)

1) It’s best for reading in the bathroom.

Here’s something that Jeff Bezos missed.
Owing to its weight, size, and form factor, the Kindle 3 is good for reading in the bathroom, especially while occupying the best seat in the house.
The K3 has dispensed with carrying a thick volume on the way to the can as well as the need for extra space in the toilet on which to place books, crucial when reaching for a roll of tissues.
Whether hunched like Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker or stretched out as if flying business class on someone else’s tab, the K3 is the best bathroom companion as the posterior comes home to roost.
Just make sure you turn on the lights.
(In case of a power outage or absence of reading lamps — common in certain cheap accommodations — you can always get the Mighty Bright book light.) [See: Mighty Bright booklight]
In the meantime, for the rich and ambitious, you can also use the K3 while in the tub. But remember: the K3 wasn’t designed for underwater use.

2) It’s an emergency music player.

iPod suddenly — and mysteriously — out of juice?
No sweat.
That is, if you’ve bought the K3 along.
Bigger but thinner than the Walkman, the K3 plays mp3 files stored in its music folder on its speakers or through a regular-sized audio jack for earphones. (You do need to drag and drop files beforehand using a PC or a Mac).
The feature is purely experimental though.
This explains why it lacks a shuffle, repeat, and loop mode and other related features found even in digital audio players made ten years ago.
But the K3 will keep on playing music even after the unit is turned off. Or once it runs out of power (which will take awhile.)*
(There are two ways to play music. For the first, go to Home, press the Menu button, choose Experimental, and scroll down to the play music command. For the second, press Alt and the space button. To skip to the next song, press Alt and the F key. To stop playing, press Alt and the space key. To make coffee, get off your butt.)

3) It’s a rudimentary web browser.

Let’s say you have a crummy phone (like some people I know).
As a result, you may be unable to access the internet even with the availability of a robust WiFi connection.
What to do?
Pull out the K3 and access the internet through its proprietary browser.
While the device will find it easy to detect and connect using the network, it will have difficulty recognizing certain graphic files and pictures on webpages.
Despite this setback, it’s still good enough for instant searches on Wikipedia and other sites.

4) Two words: Twitter and Facebook.

(Which is three words actually. But who’s counting? The Comelec?)
Struck by a witty aphorism, a moving account, a well-written passage you’ve read on the K3?
You can share them on your Twitter and Facebook accounts without changing screens, thanks to the K3’s social network features.
Of course, users need to manage their settings on the K3 first after they register their units on
Don’t get too excited about sharing though.
If the passage is longer than two or so paragraphs, is going to cut it.
But don’t fret.
You can still share longer passages the hard way.
Just copy the “My Clippings” text file stored in the documents folder of the Kindle hard drive and take it from there.
In the meantime, if you want to overshare — if you know what I mean — there’s always torrents.

5) Yes, you can read comics and graphic novels.

Since the K3 can read PDF files, it can read comic books and graphic novels stored in that format.
Or at least theoretically.
But don’t bet the house on it.
After all, the K3 may find it difficult to load and render comics in color as opposed to graphic files drawn in black and white.
So it’s still touch and go.
And if you do succeed in installing and loading a comic book into the K3, consider it a small victory for yourself and the inexpensive eBook reader that — arguably — revolutionized the way humans read books.
*From the Go Get A Room Dept. It took my K3 18 days before it required recharging. Eighteen days — a lifetime for a device that I use everyday for tasks including but not limited to reading. Even my low-tech Treo 650 phone doesn’t last that long on a single, full charge. Meanwhile, charging the K3 took just about an hour or so.

Five reasons why Filipino readers should get a Kindle 3

Fan reading on a WiFi-enabled Kindle 3.

(Disclaimer: No arrangement, financial or otherwise, has been made between, which produces the Kindle 3, and this blogger. But then again, if Jeff Bezos insists, I’d probably be willing to reconsider. After all, what’s a few hundred shares of between friends?)

Nope, it’s not the Apple iPad.
The Kindle 3 offers no sharp color images, no touch-sensitive screen, no huge digital storage.
However, what it does — which is to be an eBook reader — it does exceedingly well.
Once you turn it on and dive headlong into an eBook, the world disappears — just about the same kind of magic you get from reading a book with magnificent prose and effortless storytelling.
Of course, there’s more to the Kindle than just replicating and enhancing the reading experience on a digital screen.
Unfortunately, that’s where its features fall short. Sure, it can play podcasts and mp3 files.
Except you can’t see a fancy colorful icon representing the music being played unlike in other devices. (And the tinny set of speakers can barely hold its own against say, the hubbub of a regular household.)
The Kindle 3 can also connect to a wireless network even though typing on its keyboard is more tedious than texting on a touchscreen.
But then again, all this is beside the point.
Nobody intends to buy a Kindle just to use it for wireless surfing anyway.
You get a Kindle because you’re a voracious reader and, for one reason or another, you’d like to try your hand at eBooks.
Here are my five reasons why you should get a Kindle now.

1) It’s sexier than its predecessors.

Let’s face it.
Many people who use gadgets judge them by how they look and not just about what they do. This partly explains the popularity of Apple products.
Besides being easy to use, iPods, iPhones, iMacs, iPads, and MacBook Air laptops all look like the gadget equivalents of FHM cover models.
The same goes for the Kindle 3.
I never gave the first two Kindle iterations a second look. But that was then.
When reduced the Kindle’s size, replaced its sharp edges with smooth contours, changed its color to graphite from white, and introduced what is now called the Kindle 3, I was awed.
Jeff Bezos’s favorite company finally got it right the third time.

2) It’s cheaper.

The very first Kindle was launched in November 2007 and sold for $399. The second was released in February 2009, sold for $359, a price that was later cut to $259.
Kindle 3 was launched in August this year and was priced at $139, less than half of the launch prices of the first two.
At current exchange rates (roughly P43 to 1), the Kindle 3 is cheaper than the many cellphones used by most, if not all, salaried Filipinos.
If you can afford to buy a web-enabled mobile phone, you can easily get the K3. (That is of course if you read, like, you know, books. If you don’t, go get yourself a new textmate or something.)
Here’s another explanation: the dollar is currently weak.
As a result, dollar-based imports — including the Kindle 3 — are cheaper. Which also explains why fuel prices should be lower as well.
But that’s another story.

3) Tons of free eBooks.

And I’m talking about the classics whose copyrights have expired and are now in the public domain — Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, and any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books in his Sherlock Holmes series.
History geeks will also be glad to find out that the six volumes of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon is also freely available in various eBook formats.
So are the Doctrina Christiana (the first book published in the Philippines), Ibong Adarna, and the Kartilyang Makabayan by Hermenegildo Cruz.
These and many more — including a Dutch translation of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere — can be downloaded for free from [See: Noli Me Tangere, Project Gutenberg]

4) It’s a handy, accessible library.

The K3 is slightly smaller and thinner than a regular trade paperback.
But it can store as much as 3,500 books.
Or at least that’s what says.
And I’m not about to verify that claim.
As far as I’m concerned, the 38 fiction, non-fiction, reference, and do-it-yourself eBooks I’ve downloaded have yet to make a dent on my K3’s storage capacity.
I still have three gigabytes worth of storage and I’m not about to complain.
Access to these many books can’t hurt especially if you’re in line that seems to go on forever inside a bank whose staff moves at a glacial pace. [See: Bank of the Philippine Islands]

5) It’s a professional tool.

Besides reading science-fiction and fantasy books on his Kindle, the friend who convinced me to get one uses his to store notes.
Useful, he says, in meetings where laptops are overkill because no one is really expected to deliver a PowerPoint presentation.
Yes, you can store and access notes and PDF files on the Kindle.
Notes can be converted to either mobi or azn — Amazon’s proprietary format — using freely available apps.
Meanwhile, PDF files can be read by the K3 in two ways.
They can copied and later viewed as native PDF files or they can be converted and viewed as azn files on the Kindle.
PDF files can also be converted to the azn format for free once you register your Kindle with [See: Free PDF Kindle conversion]
The K3’s ability to store notes is so useful that I’ve begun to look forward to meetings.
After all, it’s just another opportunity to show off Juanita del Pablo.* (Yes, that’s the name of my K3).

*From the Trivial Pursuits Dept. JDP is a name of an actress in the adult entertainment industry mentioned in Martin Amis’ novel, Money. She is referred to by John Self, the protagonist, but she has no lines in the book, just like Diana Proletaria, an industry colleague.

Five reasons why I am addicted to Granta

The very first Granta I ever owned and read (

(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. (

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.