Book trip

Travel allows for the best education the world can provide.
Or so say those who can afford it.
Fortunately, a cheaper alternative is always available.
And it’s not necessarily made in China.
It’s called reading, an activity, usually solitary, that may not be as exciting as visiting foreign shores, flying business class, or flirting with flight attendants.
Once undertaken, especially with a good writer as a guide, reading allows anyone to take a trip anywhere — including the planet Tralfamadore* — without having to clear immigration and undergo intensive cavity searches.
While travel transmits knowledge firsthand — how to get the best seats in economy class**, how to request alcoholic beverages in an Islamic country***, and how to avoid looking like a promdi in Manhattan**** — reading does the same but through filters, the writer’s inclinations and idiosyncrasies.
Whichever of these two activities is considered the best teacher in this school we call life remains arguable.

Author's Choice

The cover of the third and latest edition of Author's Choice by Kerima Polotan, one of the best English-language books written by a Filipino. (Pic by

For those indifferent to the pleasures brought forth by the well-crafted sentence, the quick, cutting remark, or the penetrating insight, reading may never be able to hold a candle to any other activity, including the lure of travel.
But that’s just one school of thought.
Others prefer to read and stay at home.
Given a choice between reading a well-written essay by American gonzo journalist P. J. O’Rourke and a trip to any one of the world’s hellholes (i.e., Pasay), certain individuals, including myself, may prefer the former.
Who can blame me?
Nobody, save perhaps for certain irate Pasay residents and the mayor himself.
After all, they can always cite the city’s historical and cultural landmarks which help make this country and the world at large a better place.
Although Pasay may offer attractions even to overstimulated, cynical urbanites, the experience of touring the city may be matched by the vicarious thrill of reading any good book.
Hundreds of them abound.
These include Author’s Choice by Kerima Polotan (who by the way gives a picture of the Pasay of yore), Occasional Prose by Adrian Cristobal (which remains sadly out of print), and yes, any of the books written by P. J. O’Rourke (All the Trouble in the World and Holidays in Hell are my personal favorites).
For the past year or two, I have been so consumed by reading a number of books that they have convinced me to temporarily ignore all other activities regarding my life, such as it is.
The Granta Book of Reportage had exactly this effect on me. From the moment I read Ian Jack’s introduction until Wendell Steavenson’s Osama’s War some 400 pages later, I was held in thrall, recognizing I was being transported to places that, like Pasay, isn’t exactly on my list of places to visit.
Despite the desperation, the violence, the iniquities that occur in these places, writers in the Granta anthology — which include James Fenton who wrote about Edsa I in a separate Granta issue — show further proof that reading occasionally does trump travel, didactically speaking.


*The fictional planet in the earlier works of Kurt Vonnegut. It featured prominently in what I consider as his best work, The Sirens of Titan, one of the very few books I’ve read three times.

**Always ask to be seated in the bulkhead seat, which offers larger legroom. Besides being a heaven-sent convenience during long haul flights, the attendant will recognize you as a seasoned traveler even if it’s your first trip abroad.

***Show your passport upon checking into a hotel and order before nine in the evening (or at least that’s what I did when I took an all expenses paid trip to Pakistan, courtesy of the Pakistan government).

****You can never go wrong wearing black in Manhattan, especially during the cold months. Wear some other color and you stand out like an idiot. What can I say? Been there, done that.

Good books and groceries


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.