Monday, June 5, 2023

Book Review: THE HONORARY CONSUL by Graham Greene

The Honorary ConsulThe Honorary Consul by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"In a wrong society, the criminals are honest men."

What would drive a priest away from the Church he fell in love with? What would make him kidnap a political prisoner?

This incredible novel takes place in Paraguay but could easily have happened in my country (the Philippines). So much of it is so familiar: the disparity between Christianity's teachings and the way Christians live out their lives, the material and spiritual poverty, the corruption found in nearly every sector in society.

As a fan of Graham Greene's other Catholic works, I found a lot of familiar themes and characters, but with a twist at the end that moved me deeply. Greene's genius is showing how Christ-like even the most fallen men are, when they transcend their sinful selves and show glimpses of the divine in all of us when put to the ultimate test. We have the ex-priest turned kidnapper-for-a-cause, the adulterous doctor-to-the-barrio, the lonely foreigner who marries a prostitute in order to save her, and a woman-child who falls in love with a handsome man who is not her husband.

Listing down the characters might give one the impression that this is a most tawdry tale, but you'd be wrong. This is Graham Greene, after all, and in his consummate writerly grace he sprinkles the darkest corners of our souls with redeeming Grace.

At the heart of the novel, Greene tries to explain the most terrible theological question of our age: how can God and Evil co-exist?

I found Greene's attempt at an answer most insightful: "The evolution of God depends on our evolution. Every evil act of ours strengthens His night-side, and every good one helps his day-side."

Greene was fully aware of how theologically contentious his idea was.

"All this is not in the catechism, is it?"
"No... but the catechism is not the faith... The Church is the world. The Church is this barrio, this room."

Greene wrote many other powerful novels, some of which I'm not ashamed to reveal have made me cry because they touched me so. But he considered this one his favorite because the characters start out bad and towards the end become worthy of Christ dying for them. And all done in a realistic, and unsentimental or romantic way.

The raves about Greene are truly justified. Get each one that you can, they're the type of books that make its readers better men. Wiser. Humbler. And yes... more good.

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Friday, June 2, 2023

Book Review: JOAN by Katherine Chen

JoanJoan by Katherine J. Chen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"So stand up straight, boy, do not slouch or hang your head, and be glad of what you have, though it may be little. Be glad the earth you till is the same earth turned by the warhorses of the great French knights, for the ground you stand on, the very air you breathe is different because of what came before."

So what kind of book had me staying up late, weeping past midnight on possibly the most stressful week of the school year?

This incredibly life-giving, feminist re-telling of the life of a teenager who did so much in her short time on earth.

This historical fiction book is perhaps the best narrative of Joan of Arc out there, for it focuses on the historical Joan, the female warrior who, at seventeen, led her countrymen accustomed to loss into miraculous wins, to the point that the English were fleeing villages at the mere sight of her in front of her army. Refreshingly, it did not focus on the religious saint.

In fact, in this novel, Joan doesn't receive heavenly visions and visitations.

The irony of it is, this secular approach did not detract from the miraculous nature of her achievements. All the more, Joan stands out as the Incomparable. No one else can stand beside her. Not even other saints.

Author K.Chen herself wrote: "Faith makes us strong, but we cannot ascribe everything to faith, at the expense of human works. We must remember that God shows Himself in the world in many forms, and among these is genius, though the manifestation of genius is always in the concrete: in music, in art, in literature, in the sciences, and, in Joan’s case, in war. This was my interpretation of her life."

This is not to say that there is no mention of faith in the book. What is inside is faith of a different sort: how others place their faith in a heroine, and how that heroine, in turn, has faith in her capabilities, in the God who lent these graces to her.

And her vision? Not heavenly hosts, but a vision of a France that is free of English hands.

"“I believe God crafted the sound of a woman’s scream,” she says, “to pierce the heart and to test our humanity, whether we still have it or whether we have left it behind. “But there are men for whom a woman’s scream is as a fist that bounces off armor. I have thought to myself, What choices does a woman have for vengeance, for justice? For we cannot simply pray. I can’t stomach my mother’s prayers. We cannot afford to wait and be still. I won’t live this way—not anymore. So when I spoke to God that morning, I decided, if I am to scream, let it be in battle. There is no chance for peace except at the point of a sword.”

I suppose what moved me deeply was the description of Joan's journey from peasant seeking vengeance to being raised so high as to become a threat to the actual ruler of France. When she transformed her desire for revenge into a nobler cause. When she found a purpose for which to live and die, when that purpose was revealed to be Nation and Countrymen over King.

"What would I gain by being a man? ... I would not become stronger. I am already strong.”

Despite its very realistic storytelling, the book seemed to me to be very "catholic," in its emphasis on both prayer and human works, its universal truths on the virtues of loving one's nation above one's self.

Joan was a force unto herself, she threatened the social order with her martial grace and femininity. And she paid the ultimate price for it. And yet, though the worst befell her, she was never truly defeated.

This was one of the best books I've ever been blessed to read. Joan will stay with me for a lifetime!

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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Book Review: WHEN WE CEASE TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD by Benjamin Labatut (translated by Adrian Nathan West)

When We Cease to Understand the WorldWhen We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“We have reached the highest point of civilization. All that is left for us is to decay and fall.”

Karl Schwarzschild said this before he died in 1916, at only forty-two years of age, and yet he had already proven Einstein's theory of relativity, and is credited for the discovery of black holes.

It is the week before graduation, and this joyful time is always mixed with a teacher's worry: have we prepared our students enough? In 2023, even third graders already know what black holes are. First graders already have Tiktok accounts set up (sometimes by well-meaning parents). Senior high school students give off worldly vibes, having had a wealth of life experience made possible by more free time, an indirect result of online learning during the pandemic.

We have so much access to knowledge, that we have lost our sense of wonder, and its counterpart, horror. We no longer know when to feel this appropriate emotion.

Black holes are horrible. They are so strong, they are said to warp spacetime itself. Labatut writes that such a singularity "was a blind spot, fundamentally unknowable. Light could never escape from it, so our eyes were incapable of seeing it. Nor could our minds grasp it, because at the singularity the laws of general relativity simply broke down. Physics no longer had any meaning...The point of no return—the limit past which one fell prey to its unforgiving pull—had no sign or demarcation. Whoever crossed it was beyond hope."

At what point in man's quest for knowledge did we cross into this point of no return? Did we even pause to consider the dangers of A.I. made accessible to all? Did parents consider the safety implications of the lack of privacy that occurs when they post daily photo ops and videos of their growing babies?

This is what this incredible book is about. It tells of how giants like Heisenberg and Bohr and Grothendieck and Schrödinger wrestled with questions of physics, mathematics, and morality all their lives, none escaping unscathed. One-sentence textbook explanations are revealed to hide lifetimes of hard work, and utter despair. These are men wrestling with human weakness, warring nations, and sought to explain the workings of the universe regardless.

The key word here is "wrestle." And this is, I think, the "heart of the heart" of a teacher's job today: to teach the value and integrity of wrestling with moral questions, and solving long problems instead of using ChatGPT for every assignment.

For knowledge gained without pain becomes worthless and unvalued, and my fear is that we are raising a generation of children who crumble at the slightest pressure, so used to ease and comfort and having mountains and hills of Life made low by parents who think this is what constitutes good parenting.

“The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy fingers of a general, but by a group of physicists armed with a fistful of equations,” warned Grothendieck. We have created weapons of mass destruction, and placed them at the mercy of fallible men, emotional and with frail egoes. And now there is a mad dash to teach children STEM, because everyone wants to be a doctor, or an accountant.

And this is all well and good. But perhaps we need to reflect on what all that knowledge is good for, if we no longer ask "Should we?" and blindly focus on "Can we?"

As we face graduation season, I'm glad I got the chance to read this singular literary achievement. Highly recommended for parents and educators, especially for Science teachers! Talk about adding Drama to Science.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Book Review: BERLIN STORIES by Robert Walser

Berlin StoriesBerlin Stories by Robert Walser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The world in all directions is a smile... Listen, linger, remain rooted to the spot. Be divinely touched by something slight... Turn your Sunday head in all directions to fully relish this Sunday world."

In BERLIN STORIES we find a collection of feuilletons (short essays meant to entertain) written between 1907 and 1917 by a Swiss writer living in a foreign city, describing its beauties as only a besotted outsider can.

This was meant to be read on a Sunday. Robert in his thirties was a most joyful young man, in love with the world and unable to be sad for the entire length of an essay. To read this book is to wander about a bustling metropolis, drinking lager at the Aschinger, then climbing on an electric tram to walk around the Tiergarten, catching the Russian ballet corps in a nearby theater, before walking back to one's rented room, hearing the sobs of one's millionaire landlady dying of loneliness next door.

The width and breadth of human existence, with youth's tendency to focus on light irrepressibly overshadowing the dark, is inside this very short book.

"How simple it all is. And where should one go now? To a coffeehouse? Really? Can one really be so barbaric? Indeed, one can. Such things a person does! How lovely to be doing something that another person is doing as well!"

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Book Review: FIGHTING FOR LIFE by Sara Josephine Baker

Fighting for Life (New York Review Books Classics)Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"It’s six times safer to be a soldier in the trenches of France than to be born a baby in the United States.”

Foul weather and cancelled plans allowed me time to finish this most remarkable memoir by a pioneering woman doctor.

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873-1945) was, by any account, extraordinary. She was the first director of the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene, the first one in the US. Her work with the poorest of the poor, women and children, helped bring down the terrible infant mortality rate by more than half. Later on, governments of other countries (even Japan and China) would send their representatives to learn from her.

"Public health education...meant altering the living habits of an entire population."

She observed that infants from well-to-do families, despite being born in cleaner surroundings, nearly had a 50% mortality rate compared with babies born to tenement mothers. The reasons, she says, are because of immunity to disease and the lack of motherly, affectionate care given to richer babies.

Of particular interest to this teacher were her efforts on preventing school diseases, especially during the flu pandemic during World War I.

"The schools were kept open. All of the inspectors and nurses were assigned solely to the care of this one disease. Every morning every school was visited by one of the doctors and the children were given a hurried inspection. The children went directly to their classrooms when they arrived at the school and directly home when the school was dismissed for the day. No class came into contact with any other class. So far as humanly possible, we watched those children."

In the wake of another rise in Covid cases in my country, it's worth remembering what works: keeping classes in bubbles, avoiding unnecessary leisure trips, and good air circulation (Dr. Baker wrote a doctorate thesis on "The Relation of Classroom Ventilation to Respiratory Diseases Among School Children").

"The rate of absence from school on account of respiratory diseases (which means bronchitis and pneumonia) was 32 percent higher in the mechanically ventilated 68-degree rooms than in the open-window rooms kept at the same temperature, and 40 percent higher than in the open-window rooms kept at 50 degrees. In the mechanically ventilated, 68-degree classrooms the incidence of common colds was 98 percent higher than in open-window 68-degree rooms and about 70 percent higher than in the 50-degree rooms."

This 1939 book fascinates, especially the chapter on her 1934 trip to the Soviet Union where she saw hospitals with many entrances, where patients entered via one of many doors leading to a possible isolation room and were examined before being allowed to walk in the main hallway. She also saw abortions being performed for free (this was before the state reversed its policy) and without anesthesia!

While much is outdated (medical techniques and medicines in vogue), a lot of her observations are strangely still relevant today.

On the perils of specialism: "Today, a patient has virtually to make his own diagnosis of his ailment before knowing what doctor to choose to treat him. Specialism is rampant."

On the dangers of labelling: "Ordinary child “badness” was not considered to be a pathological condition then. Nowadays if a child is anything but a little robot he is taken to a child psychologist to have the cause discovered. The net result is that mothers are unduly apprehensive and children are watched so closely that the tension is disastrous for both... Overanxiety on the part of mothers is extremely bad for children who find themselves the focus of this anxiety."

A lot of her work as a public health minister entailed working with government officials, corrupt and incorruptible alike. The evil apathy of some were simply appalling, as this transcript from a congressional hearing shows:

“We oppose this Bill because, if you are going to save the lives of all these women and children at public expense, what inducement will there be for young men to study medicine?”
“Perhaps I didn’t understand you correctly. You surely don’t mean you want women and children to die unnecessarily or live in constant danger of sickness so there will be something for young doctors to do?”
“Why not? That’s the will of God, isn’t it?”

I can't recommend this short read highly enough to anyone interested in children, public health, and the suffrage movement. Dr. Sara Josephine Baker is such an inspiration!

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Friday, May 19, 2023

Theatrical Review: THE RECONCILIATION DINNER by Floy Quintos

THE RECONCILIATION DINNER (redux) is truly a magnificent play about how people change throughout time, and how politics can change us.

The frame narrative is about two dinners, held seven years (and two presidential administrations) apart. The matriarchs of two families were college best friends, and so, they become ninangs to each other's children, and the husbands also become pals over the course of many years of friendship.

When I saw the unforgettable first run six months ago, I was a different person. For one thing, I hadn't started commuting yet. I still belonged to that extremely privileged group that saw the world through the tint of a car window, shut in an ivory tower.

What does my commuting have to do with anything? 


If you want to see the real Philippines, go ride a jeep to your appointment. If you want to see kindness and patience in your fellow man, go ride buses. (Not the P2P ones with tickets that cost over P100! Those aren't quite the same! But the ones that get filled to capacity... then get filled some more. "The bus is not full til your face is nearly kissing the other person's!" sings the conductor cheerfully.)

Sure, there's always the troublemaker, the one who disobeys the conductor, choosing chaos over order. But they're rare.

And sure, there are times that jeeps do not come as expected, and sometimes the MRT is closed for repair, so one has to hoof it (and lose some pounds along the way!).

But there's something positively holy about the commuting experience, I find. When you're brought into such close proximity with the sea of Filipino humanity... it changes you. 

There's no us vs. them. It's only us.

And whatever proud disdain I used to have as a result of political affiliation melted away when I became the recipient of many kindnesses, unasked for and undeserved, in the course of these months of travelling as most of my countrymen do.

So it was with a very different set of eyes that I happily viewed one of the best theatrical experiences of 2022, expecting that it would surely be better this second time around. (And yes, I commuted on the way and spent only P24.00!)

And it was indeed better, in many ways. The incredible chemistry between the two female leads (Stella Cañete-Mendoza and Frances Makil-Ignacio) became even more brilliant to watch. The added lines not only brought us up to speed in terms of the latest government "news," with the old lines still tickling our funny bones. Knowing that favorite jokes are coming adds to the enjoyment, and does not detract! 

But also, there was a new horror on the afternoon I watched. An unintended side effect, perhaps, but no less chilling.

(And this is no fault of the playwright, for any artist who births an artwork cannot be held responsible for how it impacts others.)

I speak of the horrible moment when, overcome with emotions at some lines that also shocked me deeply upon my first hearing them half a year ago, many members in the audience shouted YES!!!!! when extreme violence was suggested onstage. And I heard some laugh angrily, as well.

And these reactions chilled me to my core.

There were additional lines as well, that focused on the class difference between pinks and reds, although the richer family between the two voted for the side that won ("We don't believe in Tallano Gold," they're quick to say, as if to separate themselves from the rabble). "And yet, despite all my financial help to my employees, they voted for the current president," bemoans Frances Makil-Ignacio, earning sympathetic nods from the crowd.

It is no accident that the most common artwork to be found in this country is a picture of a teacher having dinner with both friend and foe. 

There is something holy about breaking bread. It becomes holier, still, when we share a meal with people we think are different from us. For when we dine with them, we discover that we aren't that different, after all.

Plays are products of their time. This particular play, this perfect mix of funny and sad and painful as all the best plays are, is no different. Here's hoping that it is received by audiences not as a marker of identity (a lot of pink shirts were worn in the audience), or shared group therapy over less-than-ideal election results... but as an honest invitation to reflect on how best to move forward.

Playwright Floy Quintos had his characters admit that yes, it feels so good sometimes to wallow in our collective hurt and vindictiveness... but it's not what our candidate would want. It's not the kind of country we believe in, that we voted for.

And while one character says "It's going to be like this from now on. Kanya-kanya na," perhaps this audience member is still young enough to think that this is not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but only a sad thought from a temporary weakness of spirit.

Elections are years in the making. We have some time until the next one. But no Messiah, no matter how gifted, is going to save this country. It's going to take ALL of us to do it. And ultimately, that's what this beautiful gift of a play means to me. RECONCILIATION over DINNER. Just because one fails one time, doesn't mean we stop trying to weave the torn fabric of society together. Kaya natin 'to!

Thank you  for the ticket! Go to the TFM page to read Nikki Francisco's review!

Click here to read my review of the first staging of THE RECONCILIATION DINNER (November 2022).

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Theatrical Review: Theatre Titas' TWENTY QUESTIONS by Juan Ekis

We call it "milagro." 

I found out what this slang word meant when I was told to avoid certain rooms and fields in college after dark, for "miracles" often took place there. Another miracle took place in Juan Ekis' play, written for a more conservative audience some twenty years ago. Lock two redblooded twenty-somethings, a boy and a girl, in a room for 24 hours. It would be a miracle if nothing happened.

I was witness to this attempt at a miracle in this 2023 restaging by Theatre Titas. It must be mentioned that the production company is composed of talents with ties to UA&P, a school known for its ultraconservative Catholic values. 

Catholic school alumni of a certain age are familiar with the Everts, a husband and wife team that go around the world preaching the message of chastity til marriage. Jason and Chrystalina Evert would have approved of TWENTY QUESTIONS. To underscore this, one of the characters proudly declares: "I take my faith seriously!"

Juan Ekis' play is a more enjoyable version of this (in)famous chastity talk. It's a dream play for those in the academe. If you need a short one-act play (running time was a little under an hour), espousing traditional values of saving one's self for marriage ("The best wedding gift for my spouse is my whole self!") and refraining from the contemporary practice of couples living in before marriage ("The real cowardice is this mock marriage without commitment... when we make our vows, it's sa hirap at ginhawa. What is living in but pure ginhawa?"), then TWENTY QUESTIONS is for you.

The idealism is sweet, the actors playing even sweeter. One wants nothing more than to preserve the innocence that Diego Aranda as Jigs conveys, which understandably makes his more sleazy leading lady want to ... uh... besmirch it.

We see a tacky neon pink design upon entering the venue. We assume we are in a love motel. Our two young protagonists enter, unease from every pore, in every awkward glance when they think the other isn't looking. Victims of a barkada tradition/prank, they are in pajamas as they face one day together, locked in one room.

The directing was effective. Wordlessly, the audience could easily surmise which one was the more innocent of the two. The more aggressive gender might not be the first one that comes to mind. Isabelle Prado's Yumi was the first one to break the touch barrier, the one who easily got bolder and very free, physically. 

The setup of the script allowed for easy jumps between profound and mundane matters, as boy asks girl 10 questions, and the other alternates with her own ten attempts to get to know the other better.

Isabelle Prado's inexperience is obvious beside her costar. She wasn't up to the challenge of conveying a life-altering deep dark secret convincingly. The director, Cheese Mendez, had her turn her back to the audience at a moment when she finally revealed all. One suspects that this was more to do with hiding a lack of necessary acting depth than any other reason.

There was also a scene that should have exploded more, but a lack of energy and risk-taking from both actors made for a missed opportunity. This audience member kept waiting for an emotional climax that never came.

In short, one comes away with a sense of potential unfulfilled, for here is an award winning script whose cleverness did  not fully come across on the night I watched due to the greenness of one of the leads, that no amount of charm could mask.

Then again, these are matters of energy, of one artist's depth of commitment to a role. This is something that can improve with succeeding runs.

This is a play that will be most appreciated by students getting into their first relationships. For the more mature crowd that I overheard on the evening I watched (conversations ranged from the difficulties of rearing children and the stresses of separating from a failed marriage), it may serve as a reminder that once upon a time, we too were as young, as innocent as that. 

One wonders if the call for chastity, for strict separation of a couple before their marriage, is still relevant in 2023. But there are those who will applaud the bravery of this surprisingly old fashioned play, that does not apologize for its vision of a simpler, truer love few are lucky enough to find.

And as a metaphor for cafeteria Catholics versus serious ones, and the vast difference in their lifestyles, it was more palatable and less insulting than most.

Thank you, , for the ticket! Go read Nikki Francisco's review at the TFM page!