27 December 2013

Some great books of the year


A Time for Everything
The Discovery of Global Warming
Work on the Mountain
The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems
Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other Writings
The Woman Who Had Two Navels
Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting

Rise's favorite books »

The obligatory end-of-the-year list does not feel obligatory at all when one is reminded of why one reads.

1. Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar

The imagined leap from the promiscuity of procreation to the promiscuity of creativity is one way of looking at art as perpetual giving birth to and bringing forth of artworks, the progeny of the imagination. Sexual reproduction as the mode of literary production: the prolific outputs of the protagonist Gaudencio are direct products of his sexual proclivity. "His muse was the instant of passion", that instant when he "experienced his body's familiar transubstantiation of carnal lust to sublime vocabularies, and he would mentally partition texts as they were composed in his mind". Dean Francis Alfar seems to be hinting that, in the continuing process of national imagining and becoming, the liberal attitudes toward sexuality is the liberating force that makes us aware of the mystery of love and existence. (review

2. A Time for Everything by Karl O. Knausgaard, translated by James Anderson

A systematics of the angelic orders was what the Norwegian novelist Karl O. Knausgaard attempted in A Time for Everything. The literary imagination, along with its unlimited sympathy and generosity, was a robust stage in which to construct, from available materials, the conditions and assumptions on the angels as the direct link between the human and the divine. The manifold riches of the modern novel, unshackled by dogma, could approximate the variety of life experiences and their daily miracles. Its prose and form could hold up large vistas of physical and spiritual landscapes. The religious order of readers was constantly inducted into the novel's power to mesmerize, to quicken the senses and open up selves to radical ideas and identities. (review)

3. The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart

The book presents a lively narrative of bickering scientists. It is full of momentous scientific incidents and discovery and wide historical analyses and perspectives. It sustains an enthusiasm in a subject that is gaining more and more import as new researches and global computer models give uncomfortable predictions about the future of humankind. Even as the book discusses complex concepts from seemingly disparate but actually well connected scientific disciplines, it successfully lays down the historical basis for climate change and makes convincing arguments for the present peoples to act urgently on the issue at hand. (review)

4. Work on the Mountain by N.V.M. Gonzalez

The generosity and intelligence of the writer are evident in this collection of literary criticism. N.V.M. locates his writing within the margins of civilization – "on the mountain" – as differentiated from the city and the plains. There are some wise commentaries about writers and their craft of writing, full of experiential reflection and meditation on the power of words to reshape thought.

5. Makbet by William Shakespeare, translated by Rolando S. Tinio

"A translation is a different book", said Thomas Bernhard. "It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it." In his colloquial translation of Shakespeare's drama, Rolando S. Tinio probably came close to approximating the "original spirit" of the Bard's language. He owned the tragedy of Macbeth as well as other canonical plays. (His bibliography is breathtaking.) His attempt to transpose tricky metaphors and word plays was not mere hat-trick but a grand slam. The premise that "languages, like men, are equal" may be valid. (interview)

6. The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems by Edith L. Tiempo

If her novels are imperfect, her short poems can be masterful.

What Distance Gives

When you reach for me in that obscure
World where like ashes of the air
Your eyes and hands and voice batter
With a stark and ghostly urgency
The transparent doors of my closed lids,
I struggle to confine the precarious grace,
The force, the impulse of this fantasy:
Yes, I grieve. But in its sure
Wise way it is this grief that bids
The ghost to go.
This is the reality we stand to lose:
That the push of muscle-strength
Is also a dear enfolding brute embrace
Of reason shocking all our length.
The loss is gain for the will to choose
The distance-given right to know.

7. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby

One of the undisputed ABC – with Arlt and Cortázar – of Argentine letters. The terrain of JLB's imagination is philosophical science fiction dictated by a dreamer after waking up (twice) from a dream within a dream. It is encoded in one of the books in one of the shelves in one of the hexagonal rooms in a particular library, which is only one of the libraries in a network of libraries in one of the planets of one of the planetary systems in a network of universes contained in an egg yolk surrounded by the egg white enclosed by the shell of a quail egg. Which is swallowed by a rat which a snake swooped down on. Then a hawk fell and flew off with the snake, was shot by an arrow, and landed on a book. The book is real because it exists in indefinite reality. I heard it was mentioned (twice) in an article about a fictional alphabet. (article, in Spanish)

8. Daluyong (Gathering Storm) by Lázaro Francisco

This 1960s novel, together with its precursor Maganda pa ang Daigdig, is about the peasant struggle against the cacique or landed class in agricultural plantation economy in post-war Philippines. It is written in dense and rich Tagalog that only a few probably speak any more, and yet what the characters speak and do are just as truthful as the certainty that the powerful will always take advantage of the powerless and the certitude that the powerless will rebel against them and prevail. Lázaro Francisco's committed writing was a clear instance of the flowering of vernacular prose. His novel is punctuated with political satire against colonial mentality, some comic moments, but the ending is dramatic and devastating.

 9. The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín

Connie Escobar, the woman who thought she had two navels, fled to Hong Kong. She ran away from Manila, presumably to escape from her husband and to seek out Doctor Pepe Monson. She wanted to undergo an operation, "something surgical", that would remove one of the two orifices that peered from her belly like eyes. Her complaint clearly had something metaphorical about it. In his first novel, as with his only other one (Cave and Shadows), Nick Joaquín abstracted his ideas on memory and identity and played the devil's advocate on the subject of nationalism. He was ever the sly novelist and consummate prose writer. (review

10. Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting by Ramon L. Muzones, translated by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava

The novel was set in early colonial times when Christianity reached the northern and central shores of the Philippines. Margosatubig was the name of the Muslim sultanate kingdom of Magindanaw and Sulu whose leadership was highly contested. Salagunting was the rightful heir to the sultan's throne which he was seeking to regain. His father Datu Ibyn Parang was expelled from the kingdom through the machinations of Sultan Mohamed who planned to take over the sultanate. Datu Ibyn Parang was censured for marrying a Christian woman and bearing a child (Salagunting) with her. After his ouster and his defeat in battle, the old sultan, Salagunting's grandfather, was poisoned by Sultan Mohamed. The latter was able to seize power and rule over Magindanaw and Sulu. Margosatubig positively fulfills Borges's dream of the epic's return: "As the future holds many things—as the future, perhaps, holds all things—I think that the epic will come back to us". (review)


16 December 2013

71 scars

In which the blogger lists the books he browsed, lingered over, snorted at, reread, rolled eyes over, cursed at, chortled over, was crazy like at, puzzled over, popped eyes at, was torn about, was disgusted about, was indifferent to, was smitten by, or stared with glazed eyes at in 2013.

Translated fiction

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira, trans. Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay
How I Became a Nun by César Aira, trans. Chris Andrews
Don Juan: His Own Version by Peter Handke, trans. Krishna Winston
Margosatubig: The Story of Salagunting by Ramon L. Muzones, trans. Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava
Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, eds. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby
Evil and the Mask by Nakamura Fuminori, trans. Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, trans. Michael Hulse
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, trans. David McLintock
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, trans. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís
A Time for Everything by Karl O. Knausgaard, trans. James Anderson
Botchan by Natsume Sōseki, trans. Glenn Anderson
The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, trans. George Szirtes
The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira, trans. Katherine Silver

Fiction in English

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker
Gitarista by Reev Robledo
One, Tilting Leaves by Edith L. Tiempo
The Secret by Lin Acacio-Flores, illus. Dick Crame
State of Fear by Michael Crichton
Adventures of a Child of War by Lin Acacio-Flores
Manila Noir, ed. Jessica Hagedorn
Beacon Hill Boys by Ken Mochizuki
Ermita by F. Sionil José
Brightest by Johann de Venecia, Joanne Crisner, and Josephine Litonjua
The Builder by Edith L. Tiempo
The Kite of Stars and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar
Mass by F. Sionil José
Salamanca by Dean Francis Alfar
The Mission Song by John le Carré
The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquín
The Pretenders by F. Sionil José
My Brother, My Executioner by F. Sionil José

Fiction in Filipino

Lipad ng Uwak (Crow's Flight) by Mark Angeles
BAKA NG INA MO!: O bakit hindi palaging mother knows best ... by Ronaldo Vivo Jr., Erwin Dayrit, Danell Arquero, Earl Palma, Ronnel Vivo, and Christian De Jesus
100 Kislap (100 Flashes) by Abdon M. Balde Jr.
Daluyong (Gathering Storm) by Lázaro Francisco
Ang Hukuman ni Sinukuan (The Court of Sinukuan [bilingual]) by Virgilio S. Almario, illus. Mitzi Villavecer
Timawa (Wretched) by A.C. Fabian
Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog (Eight Muses of the Fall) by Edgar Calabia Samar
Mga Agos sa Disyerto: Ikaapat na Edisyon (Streams in the Desert, 4th ed.) by Efren R. Abueg, Dominador B. Mirasol, Rogelio L. Ordoñez, Edgardo M. Reyes, and Rogelio R. Sikat

Graphic Novels

Trese: Stories From the Diabolical, Volume 1 by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo
Skyworld: Volume Two by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria
Skyworld: Volume One by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria
Kikomachine Komix Blg. 5 by Manix Abrera


Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Makbet by William Shakespeare, trans. Rolando S. Tinio
Ikalabindalawang Gabi (Twelfth Night) by William Shakespeare, trans. Rolando S. Tinio


100 Poems: Old and New by Rudyard Kipling, ed. Thomas Pinney
The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight, drawings by Terrence Tasker
Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry, eds. Khavn De La Cruz and Joel M. Toledo
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney
Electric Light by Seamus Heaney
Buwan, Buwang Bulawan (Moon, Gilded Moon) by Rio Alma, illus. Abi Goy
The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems by Edith L. Tiempo
After Nature by W. G. Sebald, trans. Michael Hamburger
To the Evening Star by Simeon Dumdum Jr.
Marginal Annotations and Other Poems by Edith L. Tiempo
Baha-Bahagdang Karupukan (Layers of Weaknesses) by Jim Pascual Agustin
Himno ng Apoy sa Gubat ng Dilim (Music of Fire in the Forest of Darkness) by Arlan Camba, Pia Montalban, and MJ Rafal


Work on the Mountain by N.V.M. Gonzalez
Looking Back 6: Prehistoric Philippines by Ambeth R. Ocampo
Bones of Contention: The Andres Bonifacio Lectures by Ambeth R. Ocampo 
The Opposing Thumb: Decoding Literature of the Marcos Regime by Leonard Casper
Looking Back 4: Chulalongkorn's Elephants by Ambeth R. Ocampo
Looking Back by Ambeth R. Ocampo
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler 
Personal: Mga Sanaysay sa Lupalop ng Gunita (Personal: Essays in the Territory of Memory) by Rene O. Villanueva
Caring for the Last Frontier by David A. Ponce de Leon
Halos Isang Buhay (Almost a Life) by Edgar Calabia Samar
Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Maslin
The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart 
From Darna to Zsazsa Zaturnnah: Desire and Fantasy: Essays on Literature and Popular Culture by Soledad S. Reyes

15 December 2013

The Antigone Poems

The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight, drawings by Terrence Tasker (Altaire Production & Publication, 2013)

Many feelings are evoked in this short book and in so few words. The short, clipped untitled poems are so confident in their lack of volubility they almost contain an entire biography of a truncated life in their tiny membranes. There is a Greek and tragic sense of violence ("Let blood pour fountains.") in the atmosphere of its pages, a violence spoken posthumously and no less graphic for the intervening time. The lines appear to describe the existential pains of an unspecified mid-life, domestic crisis. But one might as well be reading about a king's sobering behest and a subject's principled opposition to it. The brutal images announce the book's elliptical concerns. They range from the search for the closure of personal sorrows, coping with unimaginable frustration and grief, and erotic experiences. Like wrought iron, there is flexibility in the metaphors: "Your anguish sought this blackened veil. / Your anger wrought this iron hell." The statements might as well be a response to the iniquity of absolute power embodied by Creon's edict: Leave him unburied, leave his corpse disgraced, / a dinner for the birds and for the dogs.

Despite the inner darkness, there is the overriding figure of the sun that starkly burns with passion and abandon at the center of the poem. The blinding fires of "sunlove" purge and purify the deathly serious tone of the work ("All is aflame with life desirous / And death submits / To the laughing wilds."). And for champions of printed matter, The Antigone Poems is an objet d'art. Six charcoal drawings on French folds created from 1974-79 are interspersed between poems written in 1972-81. In space and time, the images are fittingly enclosed by poetry. Shadowy, textured sketches of faces and masks, brooding or menacing or with the countenance of indifferent death masks, the drawings reinforce the power of words to express, to startle, and to silence.

I received an advance review copy of the book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

10 December 2013

Tragedy of tragedies

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by João Cerqueira, translated by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay (River Grove Books, 2012)

What if Fidel Castro is still alive? I mean the Fidel Castro born in 1926, Cuban communist leader, fiery orator, amply bearded, cigar-blowing military dictator, architect of prole dreams. That Fidel Castro, the fictive one, the figure mediated by television and consciousness. What if Fidel confidently walks the pages of a historical novel as if to prove the point that our greatest tragedy is to laugh when tickled and to cry when pinched?

What if, moreover, JFK is dead? We know he's not so we'll let the idea slide. And what of the cultural impacts of embargo? The ecological benefits of isolationism? The second coming-like arrival of the missile crisis?

As one novelist is fond of saying, with a smirk: Everything that begins as comedy ends in a prayer. Or a holy mass. Mass demonstration, demonstration rally, rallying cry, crybaby, babe in the manger, angry mob. There's a horde of comic associations putting many witty, lyrical realist (true) novels in the pale.

Once the official version (said to be true) had been launched, other versions (said to be false) multiplied; but as the first was false and those that opposed it were closer to the truth, truth and falsehood changed places, with each in the domain of the other. This might have seemed confusing, but in reality, no one had any doubts as to which was which.

Instead of static literary sameness coming from the tried and tested, true novel (the "official version"), the plot of this satire takes the romp to a new level of kinetic energy: "free of rules, logical sequence, or common thread". The threads stitching this satirical novel are showing, but they nevertheless leave the reader in stitches. Unraveling which was which was the co(s)mic challenge that puts the slap in slapstick and the black in black comedy.

This risqué novel by the Portuguese writer João Cerqueira is an exercise of sustained, dynamic comedy. From one ridiculous situation to another, Fidel is entangled in the fabric of fiction where he finds himself hostage to an imagination gone berserk. Restraint is gone, or has gone haywire.

Nearby, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman (who was, in fact, Fidel Castro in disguise) was shaking herself frenetically, spreading the aroma of expensive perfume ... sensually swaying her voluptuous body ... [an] unexpected carnal vision....

... Suddenly, there erupted the rumble of a salsa mixed with electronic rhythms, provoking a collective frenzy, as the dance floor was taken over by eager dancers. Consisting of felines and pachyderms in roughly equal measure, they squealed with delight, becoming entwined in complex dances in which the concatenation of two opposing forces transformed the four-legged tangle into a sensual writhe.

If there is a unifying thread in Fidel and JFK's revolutionary entanglement, it is perhaps the ideological absurdity of caricatured communism, especially as it closely resembles religious dogmatism. Hence, the proliferation of jokes at the expense of religion and biblical stories. Our Fidel, for example, upon hearing the story of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba, could not contain his ideological fulmination even when he was struck by short term amnesia:

When the abbot finished his tale, words escape from Fidel's mouth. "This fictitious story is a good example of the abuse of the elite on the working classes, of the use of religion to legitimize the excesses of the powerful, and of the systematic punishment of women in imperfect societies that have yet to reach the superior level of scientific socialism. David is a despotic monarch whose wealth lies in the exploitation of an oppressed people deprived of access to education. He resorts to the brute force of the army and to the legitimating arguments of priests so that he can remain in power. His deprivation leads him to seduce a married woman of lower social standing. He then conjures up a strategy that will see him freed of her husband.

And he goes full steam from there, explaining the circumstances and motivations of Bathsheba and Uriah under the watch of "bloodthirsty" Capitalism.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is a succession of overboard, overwhelming comic set pieces. It overwhelms because the scenes change in light speed. Like its eponymous ruler, the satire overthrows a lot of things historical, among them the tragic seriousness of (fictional) realism. Like Fidel in his prime, the novel never loses steam, it goes on and on, for prolonged distances, for hours and hours on end, bouncing a lot of provocative ideas. And like a fictional Fidel, it has to come to an end. Unfortunately, that is the tragedy of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro.

"Are you aware that it is you who will destroy your work? That you'll end up resembling those that you overthrew?"

"This is the price I have to pay. My tragedy."

The tragedy of tragedies.The stubborn cycle of history. The numbing repetition.

The reader's shrug.

In TTOFC, João Cerqueira produced a "miracle cure", an infidel, complete with a visit from Christ and accompanied by rumors of a total solar eclipse. Its politico-religious skewering is an often diverting comedy insulating readers from the legendary halls of holiness and banality. Readers, have faith.

I received a review copy of the book from the author. Also check out the post from Caravana de recuerdos.

08 December 2013

The poet's burden

100 Poems: Old and New by Rudyard Kipling, selected and edited by Thomas Pinney (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Old favorites and new gems are bound together in the latest selection of poems by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). From a round figure of 100, a fourth are old poems and the rest appears for the first time in book form. It is a modest cut from the three-volume The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, published earlier this year and with the same editor, Thomas Pinney. The new are harvested from the more than 550 pieces found in obscure newspapers and magazines and unpublished manuscripts. It is not clear why Kipling left them uncollected. Perhaps they are not what he considered his best.

But the labels old and new might as well be arbitrary. The poems are not actually marked as such in the text, and the distinction is only given in the index of sources at the end of the book. One can assume the titles using the first lines of the poems and enclosed in brackets are the "old" poems. In any case, readers unfamiliar or uninitiated with the poet's work might as well be in for the shock of the new. The poems span more than half a century (1882-1935) of the poet's career. Collectively, they reveal a voice of quiet forcefulness and political controversy. They leave some impressions of an imperialist age, fruits of both wisdom and failing.

The sample also manages to showcase a mix of Kipling's registers and styles: tender, lyric, playful, political. His engagement with the historical developments in his own time is apparent from signature works like "The White Man's Burden". The poem's subject is spelled out below the title: "1899 / (The United States and the Philippine Islands)".

Take up the White Man's burden –
   In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
   And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
   An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit,
   And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden –
   The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
   And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
   The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
   Bring all your hope to nought.

After all these years the myth, and now concept, of "the White Man's burden" still speaks of the moral questions behind invasions, and conquests of nations and territories. The poem can be seen as a moral justification for American imperialism as Kipling's position was supportive of the US policy of "benevolent assimilation" in the Philippine islands. Kipling can't be serious.

And yet the poet appears to satirize his own glum position. With the "burden" of imperialism comes the false burden of a false conscience and the all too recognizable arrogance associated with any colonial design. I will not go so far as to call Kipling 'racist' – as others have done with regard to this poem – when there's an alternative, and more damning, reading of it. An interesting poem, after all, has two or more faces. Kipling may be expressing this very idea when he wrote in another poem, "Do I write jestingly? Believe me no – / Between the lines a deeper meaning lies".

Less problematic is his poem about the loss of a son in wartime. "My Boy Jack" almost condenses the whole World War I enterprise into a narrative of loss and mourning. Its subtitle "1914-18" says as much about the poem's emblematic rendering of the cost of war coincident with the "last" years of his son who went missing in 1915.

"Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?"
   None this tide,
   Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
   Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
   This tide,
   And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
   And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

It is a very personal poem and yet it is also a poem of the age, seeming to bottle up parental sorrows in the world. The empty consolation of pride is not enough compensation for lost children in the war. But there's a quiet dignity in grieving. I can't think of more fitting lines to commemorate the 100th year of the war next year.

Elsewhere, the poems use a freer, looser slang language. In poems like "The Irish Conspiracy", one hardly needs to strain hard to catch the drift of the slang. The poet's strong ear for the gossip of suspected conspiracy actually makes for a suspenseful reading. Some poems feel like military marching songs; others are almost like children's poems with an unsettling theme and rhythm. The following lines are examples of the latter:

[from "The Dedication":]

Time has whirled the spade away,
    Turned to slang the baby-speech,
And the child of yesterday
     Hunts, alone, a flinty beach –
Catches starfish as of old,
Gives 'em not for Love but gold.

[from "As One Who Throws Earth's Gold Away in Scorn":]

Wherefore, while each new day brings some new thought
    And life's chain sparkles, golden link by link
Write quickly; good or evil, all is fraught
    More deeply than you think.

And then there are the fickle, mischievous lines. "New Year Resolutions" is so heartfelt and true it bests the promise of every smoker not to light a smoke the whole year. One can safely bet the promise will not go up in flames.

I am resolved – throughout the year
    To lay my vices on the shelf;
A godly, sober course to steer
    And love my neighbours as myself –
Excepting always two or three
Whom I detest as they hate me.


I am resolved – to flirt no more,
    It leads to strife and tribulation;
Not that I used to flirt before,
    But as a bar against temptation.
Here I except (cut out the names)
x perfectly Platonic flames.

Overall, the 100 Poems selection distills the poetic works of Kipling in an accessible, balanced volume. His poems on empire, wars, and human nature are still potent pieces for reflection and debate. The new and old throw a new light on the poet and his times. Culled from the trenches of a life, the poems still carry the burden of their meanings.

I received a NetGalley copy of the book from the publisher.