Sunday, October 2, 2022

Book Review: THE ECHO MAKER by Richard Powers

I read parts of this book beneath the gentle shade of a tree, with sunlight winking above, and a gentle cow chewing cud one storey below. Our cafe was in the middle of a rice field, and it was the ideal place for a Richard Powers book. Written 12 years before THE OVERSTORY and 15 years before BEWILDERMENT, THE ECHO MAKER seemed to be an earlier echo of Powers' themes: how we are all connected, and how humans forget the threads that bind us to Nature at our peril.

Parts of this book were read during a long trip out of town, ironically so because it begins with a car accident. A young man, in the prime of health, is mowed down and suffers extensive brain damage in the horrific form of Capgras Syndrome. Unable to recognize those dearest to him, the young man's sister and friends do all they can to bring him back to "himself." And therein lies the problem. If selfhood is merely storytelling built up over a lifetime, what kinds of stories can reconstruct a man, instead of destroying him?

The novel is a mystery/drama with sustained nerve wracking tension, but slowly, over the course of 400 pages. This is Powers, writer extraordinaire, who manages to connect seemingly disparate elements, and it will take a re-read to fully appreciate how every little event is foreshadowing of some sort... echoes through time. Powers is powerful, this earlier work showing glimpses of the full bloom of his genius that emerged in his two more recent novels.

All the details of the human brain, its glory and its frailty, make one question "the solidity of the self." When neuroscience makes us question free will and self-hood, we come to realize that our hubris is just a defense mechanism against the reality of the puny human pitted against Nature.

How small we truly are.

I felt this instinctively, as I sat sipping lemonade, gazing at the distant mountains, its cloud-kissed peaks and below, the rice that gives life. How I wish I could go back there soon.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Ex Libris Philippines: Paperback Pokémon

If money were no object, what books would you buy?

For avid book collectors, let's rephrase the question: which book collection would you buy?

There's a trend nowadays amongst book collectors not simply to gather books by author or series. There's also the question of buying certain editions above others. The easiest way to spot these discerning readers is what they pay attention to. They won't care about the brand of your bag, nor your shoes. They will, however, ooh and ah over your Fitzcarraldo, or an even rarer NYRB edition! 

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Monday, September 26, 2022

Ex Libris Philippines : Bookstagram and its Contents

Actors in movies speak of book clubs with a hint of derision, imagining some kind of group therapy for bored suburban housewives plying each other with alcohol before noon.

But for some, myself included, book clubs can be a source of deep joy, and even a life-affirming sense of identity! Our book club helps us live lives in pursuit of truth and beauty, and if that isn’t the definition of art, then I don’t know what is...

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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Book Review: A CHANGE OF CLIMATE by Hilary Mantel

A Change of ClimateA Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"It is the one we don't have that dominates our lives. It's what missing that shapes everything we do."

Readers the world over are mourning the death of one of our greatest contemporary authors... Dame Hilary Mantel of WOLF HALL fame, whose books on the French Revolution and the Tudors are some of the finest examples of the written word anywhere. Am astounded at the outpouring of devotion and creative tributes written by her most ardent fans. There is a void, and people all over the world are filling it up with beauty.

On this dark weekend, I felt compelled to read A CHANGE OF CLIMATE, one of two Mantel books I had on my TBR pile. And I am reminded once again of the distinct combination of pleasure and awe she inspires in her readers.

"Try to relate everything to God... try to work on the scale of eternity, otherwise, the daily frustrations will cripple you," spoke the Bishop to the young English couple fresh off the boat, newly arrived to be missionaries in South Africa in the 1950's, at the height of apartheid.

But what the couple encounter there will uproot even the most devout professional Christian's faith. For there is nothing worse than the betrayal of one's most deeply held values, the ones that define our very core.

"I decided to do a good action and by it my life has been split open and destroyed."

Partly a criticism of the White Man's messianic complex, mostly an examination of families and secrets that tear them apart ... Mantel is a surgeon whose skill in slicing open the human heart is pretty much near Graham Greene's. To read her is to begin to understand just how complex we humans can be.

Mantel speaks to us of the importance of choice: "Each choice breeds its own universe... we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principle of decay... the universe the devil owns."

Am filing this under "DARN-THIS-WAS-GOOD-BUT-IT-HURT-TOO-MUCH-THE-FIRST-TIME-SO-I-SHALL-NEVER-REREAD." This was my sixth Mantel, and I wouldn't recommend it for first timers. My favorite book by her remains to be A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY. It's a safer read, for sure. But oh, her language! Each page is a delight!

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Book Review: DUTY KA BA? by Tepai Pascual

It is a truth universally acknowledged that

1) a lot of Filipino families have lost loved ones during the pandemic, and
2) there are SO MANY good looking doctor-hunks in Philippine General Hospital (there must be something in the water?!)

AHAHAHA HUHUHUHU. I say these two facts with the confidence that comes from personal experience.

Like thousands of others, my family endured heart break and loss during prolonged stays in hospitals. Which makes me all the more grateful to the incredible Tepai Pascual (of Maktan 1521 fame) for creating this amazing series in the middle of a pandemic! When one is surrounded by so much heartbreak and pain, books that bring joy become unutterably meaningful.

DUTY KA BA? started out as a webcomic, but Vol. 1 was recently launched at the 2022 MIBF and fans just can't get enough!

The series focuses on Melba, the patient who falls in love with her cardiologist whom she calls "Tomato" because he turns red whenever he gets "kilig." (Argh, there is NO English equivalent for this unique feeling of romantic joy/embarassment!)

DUTY KA BA? is uniquely Filipino. Written partly as tribute to amazing health care heroes, the humor is full of heart, the flirtation witty and relatable. We are all Melba! Oh to be as brave as her in voicing out her admiration for whom she loves. In the midst of death, there is still (love) life.

"E ano kung hindi maging kami? Ang mahalaga ay nagkakilala kami."
(So what if we don't end up together? The important thing is that we met.")
* cue tears *

It is an altogether joyful blend of romance, profound wisdom, and above all, INCREDIBLE artistry. Tepai Pascual makes you fall in love with all the characters, and she draws them so well! There is incredible nuance in their expressions, which is not easy to do! And how she managed to capture the voices of various nurses and doctors is GENIUS. I can't wait for Vol. 2, I hear new eye candy... I mean, residents... are in town.

DUTY KA BA? is a gift to the Filipino literary community. 5 stars isn't enough! Just order your copy already, you'll thank me for the reco!

P.S. It should come with a warning: read a few pages sparingly, at a time, because you need to space out the laughs that will burst forth from you, after each page! Asthmatics, be cautious! 🙂

(Rated MUST READ 10 out of 5 stars!)

Friday, September 23, 2022

Book Review: JOSEPH ANTON by Salman Rushdie

Joseph Anton: A MemoirJoseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The bazaar of conflicting views was the place where freedom rang."

I write this praying for the recovery of the author, who only last month was stabbed in Chautauqua, New York, before he was to give a public lecture, attacked by a man trying to carry out a fatwa issued way back in 1989. It is incomprehensible to any decent human being how someone can behave so barbarously, how a religious fundamentalist can love "a particular interpretation of faith more than human life," so much so that he will charge onstage to execute a man condemned by a dead leader's edict 33 years ago.

The best bits about the memoir are the first 150 pages, where Rushdie the author writes of the events leading up to the fatwa, and the immediate aftermath. Salman the man takes over then, until the book's end at page 636. A major theme in the book was the fact that the man and the author are two distinct beings. The book certainly felt and read that way. Critics will find much to criticize in the longer second part, but the book's value lies (for this reader) in the beginning.

Here there is great beauty, like the explanation of his name. It comes from Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroës, the medieval Spanish-Arab philosopher. "From beyond the grave his father had given him the flag under which he was ready to fight... which stood for for intellect, argument, analysis and progress... the freedom of philosophy and learning from the shackles of theology, for human reason and against blind faith, submission, acceptance and stagnation."

Rushdie goes on: "Nobody ever wanted to go to war, but if a war came your way, it might as well be the right war, about the most important things in the world, and you might as well, if you were going to fight it... stand where your father had placed you."

His discussion of the conflict between forces that seek to limit humans' perceptions and identities (exclusively identifying one's self by one's religion or one's political party, for instance) casts literature and art's opposing mission in a new light. While political and religious labels try to make infinite souls narrower, art and literature seek to expand our humanity.

Rushdie warns: "The narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them."

Let the conflict remain in the realm of ideas, he entreats. Let this right to free speech be defended by all civilized people.

The true enemy is rage. "Rage killed the mind, and now more than ever the mind needed to live, to find a way of rising above the mindlessness."

Rushdie observed how a vast majority of those who called for his death and persecution had never even read the book that inspired such hatred. This reader can attest to how difficult it is to get a hold of a copy of these books, but we need to try. Because we cannot, we should not, ever make the dishonest mistake of condemning something we have not seen, nor read for ourselves.

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Sunday, September 18, 2022

Book Review: DEEP RIVER by Shusaku Endo

Deep RiverDeep River by Shūsaku Endō
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"God has many faces. As do I... the real dialogue takes place when you believe that God has many faces, and that he exists in all religions... I don't think God exists exclusively in the churches and chapels of Europe. I think he is also among the Jews, Buddhists and Hindus."

Endo fascinates. Like forces of nature, his books go beyond liking or disliking, they simply ARE. To read them is akin to bathing in a boiling hot spring: both painful and cleansing, and always UNFORGETTABLE. This sixth one I've read has got to be the most powerful thus far (arguably even more than his most famous book, SILENCE). It's also the most "catholic," in the universal sense, and certainly the most ambitious as he sought to reconcile Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity like three streams originating from one source that flow back to the Mother Ganges, the river of rebirth. For Endo, this deep river IS God: "A deep river of humanity and we are all part of it... this river embraces everything about mankind... so deep I feel as though it's not just for the Hindus but for everyone."

It begins with a bus full of Japanese tourists on the eve of Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. Despite their outward homogenous appearance, each one harbors unique past trauma: some have lost life partners and are seeking their reincarnations, others have survived death marches in Burma by eating human flesh and seek redemption. The more fortunate of them wrestle only with a bone-deep search for love and meaning, in a post-war era that brought greater prosperity with the advent of consumerism, but a matching emptiness of soul.

Endo brings us to the ancient Indian city of Varanasi, which predates Christianity, where pilgrims go to die, where the faithful bathe in waters freshly strewn with the ashes of their beloved dead. All seek enlightenment and rebirth. All find a version of what they seek, though perhaps not in the form they were expecting.

Endo writes scathingly of the ignorance of those who view the rites handed down throughout millennia, through the lens of their narrow life experience, then proceeds to take us into the inner workings of three of the great faiths in a truly awesome display of literary imagination.

One of the main characters, a priest-in-training, responded to a nihilistic young woman by telling her that it didn't matter what name she called Jesus or God. He alternates between calling our Lord "Onion" and "Love," as if to underscore that the name of God doesn't really matter, as it changes with each of his different faces shown to different races.

I was particularly struck with the parallel Endo drew between Christ who gave all out of love, and the Hindu goddess Chamunda: "The mother of India... an old woman reduced to skin and bones and gasping for breath. Despite it all, she was still a mother... She is ugly and worn with age, and she groans under the weight of the suffering she bears.. She offers milk from her withered breasts to the children who line up before her. Her belly has caved in from hunger, and scorpions have stung her... enduring all these ills and pains, she offers milk from her sagging breasts to mankind... She displays all the sufferings of the Indian people."

We revisit a familiar Endo theme: that God is to be found in the suffering of sinful men, and that "even if I try to abandon God, God won't abandon me."

Endo effortlessly quotes from French novelists, the Amida Sutra, and the Book of Isaiah. The result is a tapestry that no other writer has dared to weave in novel form. To achieve all of this, to explain complex theological concepts while using accessible language and maintaining the tension required in all great narratives, is truly inspired.

No wonder that, out of all his many works, this is one of only two books that were buried along with the author (I can't find any mention of the second book... perhaps it was SILENCE?).

Love. God. Warmth of life. If you loved Thomas Merton and Graham Greene, you will love Shusaku Endo, and especially this particular novel (which was apparently made into an award winning film in 1995!).

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