Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Short List of Short Novels


So I've been reading (and rereading) short novels. This is partially because sustained feats of reading are harder for my deteriorated eyes, and partially because I always preferred short works anyway, as opposed to generation-spanning brick-thick books to wallow in.

While I decide which book to tackle next (probably High-Rise by JG Ballard or a Stanislaw Lem), I present to you a list, off the top pf my head and in roughly alphabetical order, of some of my favorite short novels.

Abel's Island by William Steig
Considered a children's book, it has more depth and charm than many a grown-up classic.

Being There by Jerzy Kosinski
Sharply satirical and probably more relevant today than ever.

Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll
A dreamlike book about dreaming and the worlds within us.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Truman Capote is the best.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
A sentimental favorite. Perhaps it doesn't hold up after the 80s, but I still love it anyway, because I read it at the right time.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
Made quite an impression on me over twenty years ago. Probably due for a reread.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Do not read this just before watching Blade Runner if you do not want to be disappointed by the latter.

From the Mixed-Up Files... by EL Konigsburg
Again, a children's book that is better than most grown-up books.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Apologies for being so obvious.

The Hand of the Enemy by Kerima Polotan
We need more nooks like this, and more writers like her.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Although it's actually the second "backup" story in the book that I love.

The Locked Room by Paul Auster
Probably the most mind-bending installment of the New York Trilogy.

Loser Takes All by Graham Greene
See previous post on Graham Greene and this book.

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
Found on my grandmother's shelf and enjoyed in a state of amused near-disbelief.

The Paradise Motel by Eric McCormack
Stories within  a larger story, fascinating and horrifying and wondrous.

Here's Where the Story Ends




And the short-novel reading streak continues, with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Funny how a book given to philosophical digressions and something very much like nostalgia should be such a page-turner, and even take on a suspenseful grip in its latter half. The book starts off seemingly aimless, but it all comes together as it speeds to its conclusion (I read the last 40 pages or so on the edge of my seat, as it were, raring for revelations).

The ending is something I am unwilling to write about here, just in case anyone reading this (spambots excluded) should have it spoiled for them, but let's just say it will make you go "I see," and then afterwards, "Wait. did I really see?" I eventually found myself on some comment threads, looking for people who had similar theories about what was said and unsaid, and the reliability of narrators. 

I've always liked but never quite loved Julian Barnes' books, though I do love the last chapter of A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. And I loved reading Talking It Over, but did not love the book itself, if that makes sense. Despite some issues, this one is probably my favorite, for now. 

I might not have enjoyed this book as much, earlier in my life, but now, reading about someone near the end of theirs is almost comforting. My health continues to seesaw, though not from utter wellness to utter helplessness. Just minor tilts from slighter to greater difficulty getting through a day. I am starting to forget what it was like to get through an entire 24 hours without once thinking of how I might get around, without feeling any pain doing simple things like standing up or climbing stairs. (Although let's face it, I never had a great time with stairs even at the peak of my so-called health.) It is almost strange to be grateful for such things as still having the ability to read and write and bathe and dress myself, though really, these are things we should all be grateful for, every day.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Wheel Spins


I reread Graham Greene's Loser Takes All yesterday. It was the very first Greene book I ever read; I remember finding a copy in a sale bin in a Makati NBS and taking a chance. The gamble paid off; reading it was sheer pleasure. It might still be the Greene book that I love the most (though of course Brighton Rock is brilliant). Of course that is probably more nostalgia for the grade-school boy that I was at the time I first read it than anything else.

But it doesn't matter. I am grateful for this little book's existence. Dismissed as a frivolity by its own author (it took me a while to understand how a writer could divide his output into "entertainments" and -- one presumes -- "real" books), it is nevertheless wonderfully written and engaging and even gives one some sort of hope -- for benevolence, for luck, for love -- false though that hope might be, ultimately. It is lightweight, no doubt, both literally and figuratively, but I will reread it again someday just for the pleasure of rereading it, which is more than I can say for The End of the Affair.

Later today I will see my doctor again. To extend the gambling metaphor, I have lost a lot, I feel, by seeing the wrong doctors. They have lasered my eyes and injected me with drugs and made me worse and worse in the process. It has taken me a long time to hit on a "system" that might work. It remains to be seen whether it actually will work, however. There are wins and losses. Everyone has to walk away from the table at some point.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Woke Up Like This

All I ever seem to dream about these days is the houses I used to live in, and the mother I lost.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What I Would Like

I would like to die soon.

Before my eyesight fades completely, before I become a complete burden to others, and before I disappoint any more people, I would like to leave. In my sleep, preferably (as if one could choose these things), like slipping into a dream, or rather, not waking up from a dream at all.

I don't think I can do it by my own hand, as much as I've thought about it in the past and especially recently. (Though it would be easy; my allergies are so extreme all I would need would be a handful of over-the-counter painkillers.) I'd rather not leave my family with that particular weight.

I don't think I'm going to be able to write the books I wanted to before I die, so I might as well go now, while I'm still a fairly independent, semi-functional human, before anyone else wastes any more time and effort on me. I don't know how I can make this happen though. Again, how does one choose these things, aside from straight-up suicide?

Maybe I'll get lucky.

It's funny, last night's dream was a positive one. I was back in my old room in Lola Cil's house in UP Campus, and I had finally cleaned up my huge heavy desk and I felt like I was starting with a clean slate, and ready for anything. It was a good feeling. Perhaps it's a preview of the afterlife. Perhaps dying is clearing your desk and getting ready for what's next.

I think I need more sleep.

The Strange

Last night I finished reading The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami's latest book (or at least the latest to be translated into English). I don't believe I've finished a Murakami since After Dark, all those years ago; of course, this one is so short that it takes less time to read than some short stories. (After Dark itself was one of his shorter novels; it seems it's been a while since I lost myself in a massive Murakami, though I remember my experiences with Wind-Up Bird and Norwegian Wood and especially Hard-Boiled Wonderland very fondly.) The illustration above was taken from the UK version, which seems to have nicer visuals all throughout than the US version designed by Chip Kidd (though admittedly the UK cover is uninspired). The vaguely annoying "oriental" imagery that always seems to accompany US Murakami releases (with the happy exception of the original hardcover edition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) plagues this one too. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering if Kidd is overrated, or perhaps just overworked.

As to the story itself, it was worth reading, though it will probably not stick for very long in my memory. The most affecting part of it was the last page, a sad sort of epilogue. This is not one of those uplifting fables to be given to teenagers upon graduation (this is a good thing, by the way).

I began this entry with some purpose in mind, but now feel my mind wandering, led astray by distractions. There was something there I wanted to say about childhood, and misfortune, and books, and mothers, and memory. But I am distracted by other voices, and by various aches and pains and worries. The past couple of weeks have not been easy; work has been more demanding than usual and my health more of a concern than usual. I find myself thinking, again, about how much longer I have.

I have trouble getting up, walking around, navigating stairs, breathing. Sessions with the doctor bring relief, but so far the relief has been temporary. We're increasing the frequency of the visits however and perhaps that will help. I dream of working my way back to a state of relative normalcy, but it seems like such a faraway dream, sometimes.

Perhaps for this reason, I find myself thinking a lot about childhood. Reading The Strange Library made me think, not of the libraries of my youth, but the malls I spent so much time growing up in. Specifically MCS, which is strange and labyrinthine in its own way. I may have to write a book about it someday, something akin to Downtown or Neverwhere, but different... (Virra Mall will require an entirely other volume to itself.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Reader Who Mattered The Most


It's been almost half a year since my mother passed away, and I just now realized something. The only person who read everything I had ever written -- from grade school sscribblings to high school essays to published stories to my first book to my columns for the Bulletin and the Star and articles for Esquire -- is gone. I will never get a text from her again telling me that she enjoyed a particular Friday's column, or my latest short story. My best reader (and, quite frankly, the most knowledgeable, exacting editor I ever knew) is no longer a phone call or a car ride away.Of course that loss is little compared to the loss of the woman who birthed me and raised me and loved me. But it is all part of one great loss. 

The one reader who matters the most to me is gone. I'm kind of surprised that the belated realization hasn't destroyed any notion I have of writing another story, much less another book. Perhaps that point of despair will come later, when it really sinks in. (Does it ever really sink in? Or is it just reminders out of the blue, just quick and lingering stabs, until it's my turn to go?) Or, perhaps, deep down I really must believe in some sort of afterlife, because I still feel that my continuing to write to the best of my abilities will in some way reach her, and, once again, make her proud.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Views on Toys


Tonight I was reminded (via a Facebook friend's update) of one of the few toys from my childhood that I truly enjoyed. I never had very many toys; since I started reading everything I could get my hands on at the age of three, most of the gifts I got from that point onwards were in the form of books. Which was the way I wanted it, really.

But once in a while, I got something like the side-scrolling Scramble video game from Tomy, or this: a Peanuts View-Master set. (From the Plaza Fair department store in Makati Cinema Square, I believe... Thank you, Mom.) I can't find an image online of the actual set I had -- It was a big round can which contained the View-Master and an assortment of reels, with an orange rubber lid. I can still remember the feeling of peeling off the lid, the slight escape of air, every time I wanted to get at the toy inside and click through those amazing little 3D images of my favorite cartoon characters engaged in familiar adventures. It was great.

I know I'm prone to nostalgia by nature (Nostalgia By Nature: that was my rap group in the 90s), but I seem to be recalling childhood possessions with greater clarity, or at least sharper feeling, lately. I know why, of course: it's another way of remembering my Mom, who basically chose these toys for me (sometimes assisted by my endless wheedling). Aside from the Peanuts View-Master set, she also got me the two-volume slipcase of Origins of Marvel Comics/ Son of Origins by Stan Lee (and Kirby and Ditko etc.). Not a toy, but who knows how I might have turned out without that immortal work of literature plugged into my brain at such an early age?

In principle, I don't think parents should lavish toys and gifts on their children, even if they can well afford it. When, like absolutely every other Filipino child my age, I asked for the big Voltes V toy with the five different ships that could be plugged together to form one giant robot, my Mom explained to me that it was so ridiculously expensive that they would never get it for me -- even if we won the lottery the next day, and could theoretically buy a hundred of them. It was just priced too high for a toy. That was a good lesson to shatter my mind with early on.

In the future, perhaps each child in each family will have the tools, digital and otherwise, to construct their own playthings without recourse to rapacious corporations. It could happen, a 21st century version of using your imagination and a cardboard box and/or a stick, or pieces of paper.

Still, I can't help but feel grateful for the few well-chosen toys I had, far between and few enough for me to appreciate them, and of course, above all, for the woman who chose and gave them to me. It may have been the least of the countless kindnesses she bestowed on my life, but thanks, Mom.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Sunny Morning at Mom's

I dreamed about my mother still young and beautiful and alive, and almost immediately, in the dream and in real life, I started crying uncontrollably, and then I woke up. The phrase "tears on my pillow" never had any lasting literal truth for me before this year.

I don't miss her every minute of every day, but the moments when I feel the loss come like gunshots, sudden and messy and undeniable in their impact.

Anyway, it was the endpoint of a long dream sequence that involved me being in Mick's townhouse (!) to help welcome Bobby back from the airport. This welcome back turned into a big house party which turned into a morning after, with Mick and everyone too asleep or hungover to help me home. And so I had to fight my way through streets and streets of soldiers and bus-riding mutants, Mad Max-style, just to get back to my place, which was in UP Village. (I remember Shinji Manlangit, of all people, handing me a laser rifle to help me make it through.) There was an army of people singing parody songs. There was a cult who had devoted themselves to making a warped version of Esquire Philippines, issue by issue. Yes, really.

And at the end of all this nutty chaos, Mick picked me up at home, and we went on a weekend morning to where my Mom was living, in a beautiful house with a swimming pool and a sala suffused with sunlight. Mom was sitting up on a daybed, and I had been bantering with Mick, and I turned to Mom to good-naturedly request that she berate Mick for making fun of me, and then I saw Mom so young and beautiful and alive and I immediately started crying, in the dream and in real life, and I woke up and here I am.

I love you forever, Mom.