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)



  1. Rise, I was sorry to see that Lázaro Francisco seemingly has yet to be translated into English. That book of his sounded very interesting, sigh. However, I was tickled by your line about "the undisputed ABC of Argentine letters"--especially since Miguel has been referring to Adolfo Bioy Casares as an ABC of Argentine letters of late. A Borgesian double, no? Whatever, continued happy reading to you in 2014, my friend!

    1. You and Miguel are right. Bioy shouldn't be left out. Let's consider B as the writer Bustos Domecq. :)

    2. Ah, Bustos Domecq, an elegant solution! By the way, that Argentinean article you linked to was surprisingly juicy (I missed it the first time around). Thanks for pointing it out.

    3. Always fun to read about who's considered "essential" by readers in the native tongue.

  2. I agree with Bernhard. Often what we call a great translation is actually quite far away from the original and the translator is more of a re-writer.
    Happy New Year to you and many great book discoveries in 2014!

    1. Happy New Year, Caroline! Hoping to discover more translations/re-writes this coming year.

  3. Labyrinths is indeed fantastic, the only Borges selection I read. Saw some books by Muzones along with English translations by Ed Defensor back in our college library. Too bad I never read them. The Woman Who Had Two Navels was also required reading back then. But I always had a feeling the lectures were perfunctory and sucked the enthusiasm of students for these literary works. Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks, Karlo. I can't say I'm a Borges completist because Borges is infinite.

      It's interesting to know there's an earlier translation of Margosatubig by Defensor. I hope more novels by Muzones and other writers in Hiligaynon get translated.

      How to make reading for class the same as reading for pleasure? Lecturers have their work cut out for them.

      Happy new year!

    2. I can't say I'm a Borges completist because Borges is infinite.

      That's funny, he fits so nicely in my 4-volume collection of his complete works ;)

    3. That will be 4 volumes of "visible" work. hehe.

  4. I have most of these books. I must read them soon.

  5. And yes, one of them from you! :D

    1. Aha, yes. Hope you enjoy it. I can't forget the story.

  6. Rise, looking at my bookshelf, I am ashamed to admit that I have not read many Asian authors outside India & Japan. Can you please recommend some good works from Philippines which have already been translated?
    Also, nice to see Knausgaard on your list (it is on every list now, isn't it?) I have just bought part one and two of My Struggle and looking forward to devour them.

    1. Hi, Madhuri. I'm also excited about starting Knausgaard's My Struggle. Soon, hopefully within the year. As to translation recommendations from the Philippines, there's only a handful of novels published in the last few years: the above-mentioned Margosatubig, The Gold in Makiling by Macario Pineda, Eight Muses of the Fall by Edgar Calabia Samar, and the Oleza novels by the Spanish writer Gabriel Miró (consisting of Our Father San Daniel and The Leprous Bishop, technically not Filipino novels, but they are translated by a Filipino and published in Manila). There are many Filipino novelists already writing in English. I may write a blog post about the "essential" ones soon.

  7. Hi, Rise! Giving into nostalgia and visiting some of my favorite blogs and bloggers.:) Really appreciate your list and the impact your list and blog creates for everyone who reads it. Also reminds me that I still have a couple of Joaquins in my bookshelf that I haven't read, including the one you mention here. Have to get to them soon.

    Happy New Reading Year!

    1. Thanks, fanta. I myself have 3 more Joaquins in tbr, all nonfic.

      A happy bookish year to you too!