Sunday, September 30, 2012

I'll eat anything

I have no food allergies whatsoever. Give me your raw oysters, your most bitter herbs, your deep-fried insects, your steamed fish lips. I'll happily devour them. Like my good friend, Iya, mentioned this weekend, "I'll eat anything twice." That's why I have a special affinity for Jeffrey Steingarten, the resident food critic at Vogue magazine.

Steingarten's first collection of essays, The Man Who Ate Everything, was a joy to read. Rather than the essays being write-ups on restaurants, Steingarten's short nonfiction pieces range from the simple concept of bread to the intricacies of searching for truffles in France. His second collection of essays, It Must've Been Something I Ate, while having somewhat lost the novelty of his first collection, is still good reading for anyone who is serious about his or her food.

I'm sure that Steingarten enjoys the perks of having a Vogue employee ID. It's very much evident in It Must've Been Something I Ate. He can get into those posh restaurants without a reservation. He receives expensive kitchen gadgets as gifts. He can fly to France at a drop of a hat to serve as judge in the annual best croissant competition. His charmed gustatory life is crystal clear in his essays.

A lot of people would feel that Steingarten's nonfiction book scores low on the relatability factor, especially for readers beyond his first world existence. But we should bear in mind that he wrote these pieces for Vogue, the same people who have the cash to burn on an expensive handbag or a tasting menu in one of Thomas Keller's restaurants. I wasn't bothered by this observation at all. In fact, because of the high-brow feel of the essays, I felt that his life, or his job in that magazine at least, was something that I could aspire to. I wouldn't mind eating in the world's finest restaurants and being paid to write about my dining experience.

It Must've Been Something I Ate was the book of the month for the book club. Considering that I read it almost 10 years ago (it was published 2002), I decided to reread it. I would've wished that the moderator, Joko, chose The Man Who Ate Everything (published in 1999), as I found the essays here more food related. After rereading IMBSIA, I was surprised to find myself still amused by Steingarten's humorous turns of phrase and his meticulous attention to detail. Here's a man who would go to great lengths just to find the recipe for the perfect potato gratin. I can't imagine myself spending hours and hours in the kitchen. Heck, I can overcook instant noodles.

I really was looking forward to this month's discussion. Two of my great loves, as I mentioned in an earlier post, are books and food. Combine these two together, and you'd notice that I can get carried away talking about them. Just look at the photos below to see what I mean. Oy, I go overboard, really.

Photo courtesy of R

Yes, I've grown a moustache. Somehow, it gives me the license to be overly dramatic with my expressions and hand gestures. Aside from the mo, I've also done something new: I signed up for Italian classes. I've always wanted to learn the language, and last Saturday was our first meeting. It felt good to be in an actual classroom again, with a pen and a notebook on my desk. Molto bene!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Two much of a good thing

So finally I was able to get a copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas last Tuesday. And I'll be ever grateful to Fully Booked management for emailing me about it. I've been really eager to get my hands on a copy and read it, just before the movie comes out next month.

Well today, dear reader, I received another copy courtesy of R. Same edition. Quite funny actually. My first instinct was to feign surprise and blurt out, "Yay! You're the best!" I've done this Oscar-worthy act before with some people, and I've always managed to pull it off. But this time, the same book was in my book tote, which has no zipper to let me hide my own copy. I had no choice, I had to come clean.

Now I am doubly happy. Cloud Atlas squared! Maybe I can keep one copy at home and another in the office, no? Or perhaps someone from the book club would like to get it. No matter. Couldn't complain. My uneventful life just got so much more exciting because of this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Po-mo gaga

Imagine yourself having 99 brothers, and that all 100 of you are gathered together in one house of your dead father. That's just what happens in Donald Antrim's very, very delightfully weird novel entitled The Hundred Brothers.

The Hundred Brothers is quite a departure for Antrim, having written two novels with plots that you can actually followThe Verificationist and Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. I loved both novels, which had gritty and unnerving story lines, but the narrative style of The Hundred Brothers is one that needs getting used to.

For one, this novel is quite surreal and very post-modern. There's absolutely no explanation as to why and how the 100 brothers came to be; they just are. Also, the story just flows in one smooth arc. There are no chapters, not even paragraph breaks to denote distinct divisions in the story. There's one brother named Doug who Antrim uses to drive the novel forward.

Now the word "forward" may be pushing it a little bit, for the story somehow feels that everything is going in tangents. One moment we see two brothers innocuously perusing the journals in the library, the next we see another set of brothers engaged in fights. Everything's in an ordered chaos. Lots of slapstick thrown around, once again showing Antrim's gift of wry humor. Madness seems to be the order of the day.

Antrim doesn't make it a point to let all 100 brothers figure into his story. But he does name all of them. I didn't actually count, but all those names rattled one after another feel like being assaulted by 100 bullets. There are a few who stand out: Doug of course, Barry the doctor, 93-year-old Hiram, and Maxwell the cataleptic botanist, to name a few.

So how does it all end? Well, with a ritual sacrifice of one of the brothers. Ah, trademark Antrim. Of course there has to be a violent scene to cap off all that outrageous tableau.

Read this book if:

  1. You like post-modern novels.
  2. You know the feeling of having way too many family members.
  3. You'll read anything by Donald Antrim.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Books on food

This month, the book club is going to discuss a book about food, specifically, Jeffrey Steingarten's essays on food collected in It Must've Been Something I Ate. If you're in Manila and you find yourself free on the afternoon of September 29, do join us.

I remember reading Steingarten's nonfiction works about food almost 10 years ago, and I recall that I enjoyed reading both books. So I scoured my shelves to find these titles, which are now yellowing but still in good condition.

I know I had to reread It Must've Been Something I Ate in its entirety, but I can't help but read some of the essays in The Man Who Ate Everything, which is the earlier book and which I find the better between the two. My thoughts on IMBSIA will be posted next week after the discussion.

My shelves are no stranger to books about food: be they about specific food, memoirs by chefs and wait staff which are very interesting to read by the way, and culinary history, to name a few. Recently, I bought Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter, which is turning out to be a very endearing memoir.

But what I'm really digging is Adam Gopnik's nonfiction work entitled The Table Comes First. Gopnik wrote one of the most memorable memoirs that I've read (Paris to the Moon), wherein he chronicled the time when he and his temporarily lived in Paris. In The Table Comes First, he focuses on Paris again and how this city has influenced our sense of food enjoyment. It's quite fascinating, I tell you.

I don't have cookbooks on my shelf, as I don't cook myself. Heck, I can't even make a decent toast. But books and food are two of my great loves. So what better way to celebrate this love than to read books about food, yes? Bring on the bacon!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What really matters at the end of the day

People say that the end of the day is the perfect time for reflection. Did I do my job correctly? Am I richer today because of the things I've accomplished? Am I happy? I guess that's why a lot of folks feel that the sunset is very dramatic, for it provides moments for introspection.

What do you feel, dear reader, every time you see the sunset, that huge orb slowly disappearing over the horizon? It's as if it reminds you that the day is truly over, and what remains of the day, the few hours between sunset and bedtime, is for your enjoyment.

In Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker prizewinning novel, The Remains of the Day, the one doing the reflection is an English butler named Mr. Stevens. On the surface, one sees a very servile, loyal, hardworking, and unselfish individual. Truly the qualities one could expect from a man dedicated to his job.

Mr. Stevens exists solely to serve whoever is the resident of Darlington Hallbe it a Nazi sympathizer in pre-WWII England or a rich American who's every bit the fish out of water in English upperclass society. If ever I do have the money, the genealogical heritage, and the estate to have a butler and household help, I'd go with Mr. Stevens. But what really makes Mr. Stevens tick? Is he really happy? Is he really the perfect English butler as he seems to be?

Maybe he really is happy. Perhaps what molds his existence, his persona, is his utter disregard for himself in favor of the people whom he serves. Never mind that he sacrifices his having a romantic relationship with the head housekeeper or his apparent lack of showing affection to his father even on the latter's death bedall these are irrelevant to him. He serves his master, and that's all there is.

I loved The Remains of the Day. I loved its quiet tone. I loved Ishiguro's controlled narrative. I loved both Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton. The banter between these two are typical English: the two saying so much but really leaving out what's important. Miss Kenton's brashness equally matches Mr. Stevens's reserve. You're really hoping that something will happen with them, but the spark never catches fire. But it's still a beautiful relationship nonetheless.

Aside from The Remains of the Day, the only Ishiguro I've read is The Unconsoled, which I've read more than 10 years ago. I enjoyed that novel as well. In both novels, Ishiguro lets you in on the deepest thoughts of his main characters. The Remains of the Day does just that with Mr. Stevens. For all his musings, his daydreams, and his thoughts of what could've been, he can't escape his pragmatism, thinking if he did everything that he can as a man who serves another. And for him, that's really what counts at the end of the day.

Read this book if:

  1. You'll read anything that's won a Booker.
  2. You're fascinated with what's going on in great English houses.
  3. You love sunsets.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The bookshelf project #37

I do my very own happy dance every time I receive a bookshelf photo from an author. This week's pictures are from a wonderful author who's also a member of the book clubRaissa Falgui.

The photo below is just one of the bookshelves Raissa has in her house. I believe this shelf contains mostly books for adults. Raissa, being an author of a young adult novel, has lots of YA books located in another shelf.

I love the rustic feel of the shelf. Well, I'm partial to anything made of wood, so I just love this shelf. Also, the vintage reading chair is lovely. Let me tell you that even without cushions, this chair is very comfortable.

Recently, Raissa wrote an essay about how BookMooch helped rebuild her library. It's a beautifully written essay that is currently a finalist at the United Planet Day contest. Let's vote for her so that she wins! Click here to vote.

Raissa's YA novel is entitled Woman in a Frame. I'm really intrigued about this novel, as it has mystery, art, and Philippine colonial history elements. You can get Woman in a Frame from Flipreads and Amazon.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Book hunting in Bangkok

Last week, I found myself in Bangkok for the 2nd time this year for work-related stuff, and I thought the trip would be a good opportunity for me to finally get a copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Hey, if I can't get a copy in Manila, I might as well try somewhere else, right? So off I go.

During my 2nd day, I had some free time off in the early evening, so I decided to head to the nearest mall, which is the humongous Central World. I checked out two bookstores. The first, Asia Books, seem to carry only new fiction titles.

The Kinokuniya bookstore looked promising, but it didn't have the Mitchell. They did have lots of erotica, apparently riding on the Fifty Shades bandwagon. Kinokuniya is one of my favorite book haunts. I can spend an entire day in a Kinokuniya.

Erotic fiction at the Kinokuniya Central World branch 

On my 3rd day, I checked out another Kinokuniya branch in Siam Paragon. Again, no luck. Good thing I asked the customer service department to find out if they do have Mitchell in other branches. Just my luck, they have it in Prom Phong, which is 6 train stations away from Siam Paragon. They'll hold the book for me for 3 days. I did buy two books: Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, George Eliot's Middlemarch, and E. M. Foster's Howard's End. They came in Penguin editions. I couldn't resist.

When I get back at the hotel, I received an email from the Fully Booked bookstore in Manila, telling me that they finally have it in stock. Great! I figured I can it cheaper back home. And they told me that they also have it in their book fair booth, which was until Sunday. Perfect! I'll be back in Manila by Sunday, just in time to finally get my hands on a copy.

On my 4th day, I hopped on the train and went to Prom Phong, just to check out their Kinokuniya branch. They did have it in stock, and it's in the cover that I want! Thinking, thinking. Should I get it? It costs almost double the price. Nah, I'll just get the book in Manila, I said to myself. I did get 4 more books: John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes, Diana Wynne Jones's Castle in the Air, Paul Buckley's Penguin 75, and a book about useless Japanese inventions.

 The Kinokuniya Prom Phong branch

My flight on my 5th and final day in Bangkok was at 11.35 pm, and the last order of business ended at noon. Yay! Free time! And where else will I kill free time? Why, at a bookstore of course! But it dawned on me that I have no reading material while waiting for boarding later! You see, all my stuff have been packed. Packing for me is a science, requiring proper positioning of the items to maximize space. I don't want to bother anymore unpacking just to get a book to read for later. So I bought Jo Nesbo's The Leopard, which was my last book purchase in this city (or so I hope).

So yesterday, I dropped by the Manila International Book Fair to help out with manning our booth. (I work for a book publishing house.) Then I went to the Fully Booked booth to get a copy of Cloud Atlas. But they ran out! Can you effing believe it?! Oh well, I've always wanted a copy of Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so I just bought that to console myself.

My book loot last week
Heavy on the classics, no?

I emailed my contact at Fully Booked about what happened and she told me that they probably have some stocks left and they'll reserve one for me. Thank goodness!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The bookshelf project #36

Sometimes, we all have to make do with what little shelf space that we have at home. That's the case with my good friend and former officemate, Melchie.

There's something about seeing well-thumbed, spine-creased paperbacks on somebody else's shelf. It makes you think that Melchie's books have been much loved.

So let's take a closer look at Melchie's books, shall we?

I can see lots of thrillers. Grisham, Sheldon, King, Cook, Baldacci—I've read and enjoyed them too! And there's a few self-help books thrown in as well.

Thanks, Melchie, for sending these pictures. Seeing the books that you have made me suddenly want to read a thriller.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


I don't have an ebook reader. This means that I always leave the house with a bag to place the 2 or 3 books that I'm currently reading. You know that one thing that you can't leave your house without? For most people, that would be their phone or their makeup or some other prosaic thing; for me, it has always been books.

I am always in fear that I would be caught dead in a traffic jam and I have no reading material whatsoever. Ditto with being in a long queue in a bank. The thought that I don't have a book with me during a lull period makes my hair stand on end. If I find myself in the hospital waiting room with absolutely nothing to read, I'd turn to the nearest person and say, "Just kill me."

When I found out that a good friend from the book club makes tote bags specifically for books, I just knew I had to get one! Even the text at the side is so book-ish. And it's true, isn't it? When you see someone reading in the train, you always assume that their IQ must be way out there. And if they're holding a Russian doorstop, really, you wanna do the dirty deed with them right then and there.

Designed by Ajie

So now I have a bag with all that extra space where I can carry my copy of Anna Karenina, Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Atlas Shrugged, which incidentally are books that remain unread in my shelf for the longest time. Because we know books, just as long as you're carrying them whether read or unread, do make people look smarter.

Friday, September 7, 2012

At last, the final book and a meet-up

And so, finally, we finish the read-along of the Fifty Shades trilogy by E L James. After book 2, I had my doubts that I'll be able to get through another book filled with all those scenes involving just two persons. But patience is indeed a virtue. And the rewards for finishing the trilogy manifested in the very interesting discussions that we had in our private online Facebook group.

Yes, there were a few who didn't finish the trilogy despite having signed up for it. And yes, most of the gentlemen in the group were quiet in the discussions. Women, after all, are the target readers of this erotic trilogy. But kudos to us who have actually finished! The books in the trilogy were, well, wanting in several aspects. The writing was terrible in some parts (some would say in all parts). The minor characters were just thatminor, no character development at all.

So what did come out of the read-along? For one, we now have an understanding of what makes these books so popular. Sex, romance, a wealthy and handsome suitor, a woman willing to be dominated, a Hollywood ending. All these apparently make for bestsellers, regardless how awful the writing can get. Another is the tremendous amount of information (physiological, personal, criticisms) that the read-along members shared. The discussion threads were very eye opening indeed.

Our read-along schedule
It's been a fun-filled 7 weeks!

On the last day of the read-along, 31 August, we decided to do a face-to-face discussion to share our thoughts on the trilogy as a whole. All in all, it was a wonderful Friday evening and I would like to believe that every one had a good time. What a delightful way to cap the read-along!

These loot bags were done by one of the members, Ajie, who unfortunately couldn't attend the meet-up.
At first you'll think that these are charming, but wait till you get a peek of what's inside! 
Thank you so much, Ajie! These were awesome!

Not much testosterone in the group, no?
I was really hoping to hear the opinions of some of the gents from the online group.

How did I find the trilogy? Well, I found it not that bad. I had no strong feelings for book 1, Fifty Shades of Grey. Somehow, I did find it surprising that I enjoyed book 2, Fifty Shades Darker. That book delved into some of the issues Christian has. And you feel that there's hope for Christian and Ana after all. But the 3rd book, ayayay! Fifty Shades Freed, was a mess. I felt that E L James was just rushing to complete the series, throwing weak subplots to make the story more cinematic and engaging. These minor story lines just appear to be sloppily written.

And what's up with the long epilogue? I think the ending was fine as it is. Apparently, James feels otherwise. We get a few pages where the scenes are set several years after the last chapter. Then there are a few more pages that show us Christian's point of view when he first encounters Ana in the first book. Sheesh. Enough.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Of storks, roofs, and wheels

Well hello, dear reader. I barely noticed that it's been a week since my last post. I've been busy reading. And I've been reading a lot of non-contemporary fiction lately. I'm not so sure if I can call these books classics, but they certainly impart a wonderful reading experience once you get through with them. Now I know why Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, and Henry James remain unparalleled, why their works have been repeatedly called classics.

And so I've decided to check out classic children's books as well. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I read Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School, which won the Newbery prize in 1955. The illustrations were done by Maurice Sendak, he of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. This book certainly has an amazing pedigree.

Charmingthat's one word to describe The Wheel on the School. DeJong, being of Dutch descent, naturally set this book in a little Dutch fishing village called Shora. Now Shora is like your typical small village: all the residents know one another, there's just one school in the village, preoccupied with the simple details of day-to-day living. If such a town existed here in the Philippines, tell me and I'll happily relocate.

The names of the children of Shora just roll off your tongue pleasantlyEelka, Jella, Auka, Pier, Dirk, and Lina, the only girl in the group. But it's Lina who sets off the events in The Wheel on the School, for she has observed that storks have never been known to visit Shora, even though they have been seen to nest in the neighboring villages. Then she finds out that, many years before, storks did indeed make a stop to Shora and built their nests on top of people's roofs.

Of course, Lina's Shora is now different. For one, there are no trees to incite the storks. Another, their roofs are just too sharply sloped. Then with the help of their teacher, they come to the conclusion that what they would need are wheels perched on top of the roofs for the storks to use as their nests. The problem now is where they can get this wheel.

The Wheel on the School definitely leads to the idea that children, guided by responsible adults and motivated by something concrete (in this case, seeing the birds back in their village), can accomplish a task that may seem extraordinary. DeJong emphasizes the importance of teamwork and learning to look beyond the facade. The boy who seems fragile because of his small frame is discovered to be very resilient. The village grouch is actually someone who's sensitive and revels in the presence of children.

There's a strong Dutch flavor to The Wheel on the School. Children still wear those wooden shoes. (All the time this bit was mentioned, I kept thinking how uncomfortable they must be. But hey, I have big, oddly shaped feet.) The dike is a constant presence. The children's fathers are all fishermen, out to sea for weeks at a time. DeJong's depiction of Dutch village life in the 1950s will fascinate even the readers of today.

While there are stereotypes present in the novel and parts of the story fall continually into a tableau, I enjoyed this children's book. DeJong's story line is very linear. I had fun reading the adventures of each of the 5 children as they exert all efforts to find a suitable wheel. Lina may have started the story, but DeJong managed to shine the spotlight on all 5 children albeit unequally.

Next time I find myself in a bookstore, I'll happily hunt for DeJong's other works. And I'll check out other authors of classic children's books too.

Read this book if:

  1. You love classic children's books.
  2. You'll read anything that's won the Newbery.
  3. You've imagined yourself wearing those Dutch wooden shoes.