*In the hopes of getting more literary minded discussions in our little space, allow me to introduce another regular contributor to Zerothreetwo, J. Marcelo Borromeo. For even more books and smart talk, read his blog at Portable TARDIS.
I read a lot of books.
Anyone who knows me knows this. Rarely do I leave the house without a book tucked under my arm. I sneak a page or two every chance I get, and when I finish, I always find myself overcome with a sense of accomplishment, a sense that I have come back home from a long trip abroad and already I see the world differently. At the same time, I am the kind of person who tries a lot to get others to read. Apart from bringing it up in conversation, I make considerable use of social media platforms to throw out titles into my less-than-immediate network, an effort that has been sometimes met with success. Occasionally, if I come across a passage that strikes me, I tweet it sans title and author (although in hindsight I have been struggling lately to recall which quote belongs to which book). Otherwise, I stack up my latest acquisitions and show them off on Instagram, drawing comments from those who have read this title or that, unless of course they are simply expressing the desire to read said title. My Facebook profile, which lists zero favorite sports or teams, a few beloved filmmakers and their works, a good number of bands, and the TV shows I catch when I can, is updated regularly with the book I have just finished. At the end of 2014, I reached book number 100 on that list, and it is worth mentioning that there are titles missing from this list which I have either neglected to include or am too embarrassed to boast readership.
In 2014, one of my personal accomplishments was committing to a blog to churn out writing on a regular basis, even if only on the level of the essay. So far, my blog prominently features a lot of book reviews, and recently, in the vein of my literary activity on the different social networking platforms, I decided that the reviews should have a particular bent towards recommendation instead of formal criticism. I decided on this while considering some of the problems that we Filipinos face in terms of how much reading we actually do on a weekly basis. I don’t want to dwell on them here (an earlier draft of this same article made that mistake and came off to me as too aggressive and perhaps distasteful), but I’ve always found this article insightful on that topic.
I myself often get the titles I am reading from sites like Flavorwire or The Millions, who regularly probe literary buzz in the West. Otherwise, I get titles from other readers: teachers, friends, and so on. I hope at the very least one of your resolutions for the new year (if you still believe in making them) is to read a lot more. If you have, I’ve got something for you: the five books I had the most fun reading in 2014, most of which I picked up before I started my blog. Hopefully, I have written these blurbs in a way that will make you want to read them. Whether they do or don’t, holler about how you feel. Leave a comment. Throw me a tweet. Start a blog. This is the Internet in 2015. Let’s talk.
Surprisingly, the novel, which follows the graduation of a young and sociable couple into the status of rich and prominent American family, does nothing to admonish luxury or any sense of entitlement that most privileged families in America famously possess. In fact, while Adam and Cynthia Morey get richer as the novel goes on, they become less despicable and even relatable. How in the world is it able to pull that off and still make that sort of premise enjoyable?
First, instead of presenting the Moreys’ golden ages, the novel’s chapters are centered on the individual crises that every now and then threaten the rosy lives that each member of the Morey family enjoys. These threats come in different forms but in great numbers: lawsuits, emotional instability, family issues, getting in with the wrong crowd, visiting another country for the first time, getting kidnapped, and so on. As the Moreys get older, their crises become more intense, and it becomes clear that the novel is trying to push the notion that privilege is as hard to keep as it is to earn in the first place. This way, it is not so much that we put ourselves in the Moreys’ shoes, but the Moreys, for a short period, become like those of us who are still caught in the struggle of trying to make it in the world.
The second thing that makes the novel enjoyable is its sheer charm. When the novel begins, one might feel a sort of giddiness at knowing exactly what it means to observe men and women in their mid-to-late-20’s at weddings as “adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults.” Jonathan Dee distracts us with concise phrases like this one, and the result is that we, too, in a sense feel very privileged to have experienced that.
Jenny Offill’s novel was widely hailed as one of the best books of 2014. The premise of this novel is nothing special. What makes it a delight to read is the way it handles its material. This slim volume, whose terse paragraphs can be quickly plowed through in a few days, is narrated by an unnamed woman who, having early in her life envisioned herself turning into a spinster and art monster in her old age, is reflecting on the evolution of her relationship with her husband over the past years. It is largely hinted at through the narrator’s sardonic tone that her recollections are occasioned by and building up to a point of degradation, a breakdown in the partnership between herself and her husband.
Her reflections make rich use of cultural references that allow the reader to immediately understand how she was able to interpret certain turns-of-phrase and certain actions in a particular way. Eventually, from these facts a realization occurs and it deeply shakes our narrator, who begins reassessing the aborted visions of who she was to become when she was younger. The decisions our narrator ultimately makes however allows the novel to take a turn that transforms it into the antithesis of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; instead of constructing an elaborate revenge plot, the narrator arrives at the opportunity for salvage and the wisdom that naturally arises from experience.
In Marie Jamora’s film Ang Nawawala, one of the characters remarks that the Eraserheads song Minsan is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The song itself is arguably a quintessential track in any playlist about barkada, but suggests that the fate of any barkada is typically more bitter than sweet:
“Kahit na anong gawin / lahat ng bagay ay merong hangganan / dahil ngayon / tayo ay nilimot ng kahapon…”
The same theme permeates Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel, which follows the lives of six aspiring artists who meet at summer camp. The central character, Jules Jacobson, is in the throes of adolescent awkwardness. In the novel’s first few pages, she is trying hard not to be a wallflower, trying hard to figure out her art, and trying hard not to embarrass herself in front of Goodman Wolf, her crush. To her surprise, the novel’s first chapter ends with Jules’ realization that she doesn’t have to try hard at all; the group she is part of, the titular Interestings, are totally impressed by her. From then on, the novel considers her relationships with each of the Interestings and plots them over the next forty-or-so years, presenting the mishaps and sometimes the accomplishments that hamper friendships.
Unlike the Eraserheads song however, the novel suggests that the dissolution of the Interestings can be handled with a sense of acceptance, a sense that the things that fill us with wonder in our adolescence can turn instead into the things that fill us with wonder in hindsight. In the end, this is what makes The Interestings a novel about maturity.
The first review I did on my blog sung praises of Ruth Ozeki’s most recent novel, which considers the notions of suicide in both modern and contemporary Japanese culture. That being said, this book might not make for light reading. Throw into the mix a couple of lessons on quantum physics to inform the novel’s extended metaphors, and you might find yourself working hard to put two and two together. The sum however is extremely rewarding.
Ozeki’s book is affirming in the way it interrogates the traditional ties between honor and death, and juxtaposes them against the inherent meaning of every present moment. It’s like a self-help book that doesn’t muddle itself by being overly vague or abstract.
The principles that Ozeki attempts to draw out are informed by concrete experiences; by making herself a character in her own novel, Ozeki directs the reader’s attention to the way one must become involved with another person’s narrative in order to properly re-tell it and impart its lessons, which have been compounded upon by the Ozeki’s own experiences and reflections. Ultimately the reader comes face-to-face with the power that probable fictions hold over every reader, underlining the idea that fictions don’t have to be true to fact, just true to life.
This last entry is a bit of a cheat. When I read it in 2014, it was for the second time, the first read-through not having been very enjoyable. I may have read it back then with a certain prejudice, wondering from which abyss Syjuco had emerged from and why his first novel’s narrative was unnecessarily complex, sandwiching storyline after storyline into each chapter. Finishing it became something of a chore, and having placed it into this list, I wonder if others who have read the book feel this way too: that Ilustrado is much better the second time around than it is the first. If one is diligent enough to connect the dots (reconcile the beginning with the ending, remember who said what and the importance of that statement, take notes even, if necessary), then Ilustrado becomes an affirming fiction of our people and times, a story of how we – the generation of the Internet and globalism and postmodernism in the Philippines – came to be as an effect of our fathers and grandfathers and our ancestors who either came to the Philippines with hope for personal gain or sat and watched as the foreigners planted their flags and their values before merrily skipping back to their respective homelands.
As a story of us, the novel also focuses on our present personal hopes, particularly our hope to make sense of ourselves either in our country or outside of it, and our national failures, particularly our failure to bridge the gaps between those living in the extremes of social conditions. It presents the story of us as the story of one generation, embodied by Miguel, desperately seeking to know what became of the last, embodied by the literary enigma Crispin Salvador, while engulfed by the burdens of regret in both generations. It is a story of how the power of literature is the power of miracles, able to bend time, space, and even death.
Finally, it is a call for Filipinos to come home – to recognize that the shades of airplanes are always a thrill to spot because they “[confirm] that we’re still tethered to home, even if only by shadows” – and, as we have chirped about doing since we were taught to chirp it as kids, change our world.