When life becomes too much you simplify and breathe.
How does one start introducing something about herself? It begins with saying one’s name, I suppose. I’m called Rhissa by kith and kin, but other people call me Liana. Only one late grand aunt called me Liana – she was the only one who called me by that name until I left the Philippines and strangers automatically assumed that I’m called Liana simply because it’s the name that’s written first. It became tedious explaining why I had two names so I just let them call me Liana. Ex-lovers, meanwhile, called me “Hon”, “sayang”, “baby” and “sweetheart”. A former best friend called me Rhiss.
But what’s in a name? It’s a word that separates an individual from the rest. It rings hollow unless you get to spend a lot of time with that person. In my high school days, I was described, in our high school year book, “as someone who packs a mean wallop”. I was raised on the ideology of feminism, which rankled most of my classmates and teachers who lived their lives according to the word of the omnipotent being. It didn’t help either that I was free to choose my religion, which was absolutely unfathomable for most of them. My lack of religion became a big issue for the people around me. My classmates waged a war against me and refused to talk to me – they didn’t even look at me! My grade two teacher was of no help either. She freaked out when she found out that my religion was free thinker and interrogated me, asking me if I ate pork (I did at that time but not anymore) and celebrated Christmas (still do!). Those facts didn’t change her mind about me being, I suppose, an anti-Christ in her mind, and I became a marked student until I moved up to the next level.
Trained in the philosophy of “learning to be free” espoused by the late Doreen Gamboa, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, talk to people, raise my voice in protest or agreement or was overwhelmed by the presence of the god on earth. I didn’t kowtow to anyone. This mindset helped me a lot in my college days where I walked, for the first two years, in the shadow of my father who wasn’t afraid to lock horns academically with his colleagues who happened to be my teachers. I wasn’t ruffled by the snide remarks uttered when their eyes landed on my last name during roll call. I breezed through their classes with flying colours except for my Shakespeare class because I dared to critique the bard who was her favourite author.
Some of my classmates in college thought I was tomboyish, which was worrying them to no end, because I was a soccer varsity player. Getting up at 5am, I was at the soccer field before 6am for training and off to class before 8am. My coach commended me for my tenacity and professionalism, and I’m certain he prayed then for my ball-handling skills to improve. I wasn’t bothered about what people thought about my passion for soccer. I was more concerned with the very visible sock marks I got after all the running and kicking under the sun. It took two years before the marks disappeared and I could wear flip-flops and sandals again in public.
Through the years other people asserted I was Muslim because I looked Malay. I was all the more seen as Muslim when they learned that I didn’t drink and didn’t eat pork, leading them, oddly enough, to pity me. But people are funny: some former colleagues also took to pitying me when they saw my work area flooded with sunshine. “You poor thing!” they would exclaim to which I would just smile and say, “I prefer the sun than the air-conditioning unit.”
How do I describe myself now? I feel that it’s my word against people I know. I’ve been marked as gregarious, which is true to a certain degree because when I’m in a good mood, I’m a social butterfly. Now when I say that I am shy, I am faced with laughter, giggles and looks of disbelief. Everyone is hard pressed to wrap their minds around the thought that I would rather remain in the background than take centre stage; that I get all anxious and uneasy in a large gathering filled with strangers; that I would rather flee into the night than speak before a crowd; and that I would rather sit quietly in a café with a book than attend a party.
I’ve also been described as sensitive and temperamental. I wonder if they read me my right. Am I really sensitive or are they desensitized? Am I really temperamental? Or are they too laidback to the point of being apathetic?
Amidst all readings of people about me, I know some facts about me are true. I write to carry on the family legacy of creative output. My father is an essayist-novelist- poet-critic; my mother is a journalist with more than 30 years of experience tucked under her belt; and my sister is a painter-illustrator. It's a cathartic process that keeps the mind alert and the soul light.
It becomes clearer as you get older and it comes as an epiphany. Actually, in this case, it was an epiphany that occurred twice. The first epiphany is with age comes this search for the quiet, to escape from the cacophony of sounds that drone on and on like terrible music on loop and jarring your senses. It sounds easy, but looking for the quiet is akin to locating the elusive chupacabra. Still, one perseveres.
Living in the city, the incessant chatter of people who shout even though they are only centimetres away from each other, the hum of cars marooned in traffic, or the rizz of the drill breaking up the road have inured people to the absence of sound. Today’s students are perfect examples of people who are deafened by silence. To achieve some peace and quiet, I have to raise my voice, coupled with a raised eyebrow, to hush them. Unfortunately, the quiet lasts for a few minutes and the raucous returns full blast. The very idea of tranquillity in the city is an oxymoron or so seemed. It was on a Saturday afternoon when I stumbled upon quiet in the most unexpected places – the cinema. I found myself alone in cinema 9 of Megablitz. I knew I went into the right cinema because the usher said so. It felt surreal as I imagined myself a celebrity in her private cinema at home.
It was in the cinema that epiphany two happened. In the midst of the quiet, I was ironically seized with panic tinged by a slight fear. I was all alone in a movie theatre that was deadly silent. It never occurred to me how it would be like alone in silence in my quest for the quiet. The epiphany continued: it was not the eerie kind of silence, but pure stillness. As I looked around half wondering if the other patrons would come, a little wave of serenity intermingled with acceptance of the unknown, of letting life unfold and thinking it will be for the best, washed over me.
It was blissfully quiet until a teenager with his parents entered the cinema. He was telling them loudly that they weren’t alone – he had spotted me among the rows of seats. The fleeting quietude vanished, chased away by his loud voice. It was good while it lasted. Naturally, the search doesn’t end at the cinema.
Dinner is nothing different. It is as mundane as lunch, and alleviating the humdrum of dinner in Bekasi means facing the derrière – numbing, bumper-to-bumper traffic en route to Jakarta. The very thought of traveling is off-putting, but curiosity about Chef Sun Kim spurred me to book a table for one at Arts Café by Raffles. He was cooking dinner that Friday night.
Chef Sun, head chef of Meta, a Michelin- star rated restaurant on Keong Saik Road, Singapore, opened his dinner with a trio of canapés. Canapé 1: tapioca fritters topped with roe and octopus, and sprinkled with seaweed. Crunchy, juicy two bites! Canapé 2: mushroom tart with broccoli and parmesan cheese. The first-and-only bite had me thinking of pizza except with a tantalizing flavour, and left wishing pizzas tasted like his mushroom tarts. Canapé 3: amaebi with tartar sauce. The cold canapé exploded in a burst of juicy flavours in the mouth punctuated by the garlic-onion toast it was served on. It did the trick of whetting the appetite for Sun’s six-course meal.
Chefs are akin to magicians except they dazzle their audience – seated at their tables – with culinary magic. Sun Kim didn’t disappoint as he pulled one kitchen trick after another with aplomb. His first culinary trick was surreal in plating and taste. Resting in a rock-designed bowl was sashimi of kampachi with pomelo, shiso, and gochujang that offered a unique taste of seafood and pomelo which did a little tug-of-war on the tongue with the freshness of the seafood, zestfulness of pomelo, and a touch of spiciness.
He followed it with scallop chawanmushi with clam cream, dill, and osetra caviar in a warm, glazed, black-and-white cup. The chawanmushi was soft, blending smoothly with the fresh scallop at bottom of the cup. Caviar on chawanmushi is a definite first for me and it elevated the flavour to a luxurious height.
Sun Kim went for something far from nondescript for his third course. He upped the ante with slow-cooked octopus with homemade X.O. sauce and Jerusalem artichoke sitting on a warm, black bowl. It was like unwrapping a parcel with this dish. Lifting the bokchoy leaf (am guessing) revealed the octopus that cut easily into pieces and a succulence commingled with a piquantness that rolled around the tongue. The spiciness of the X.O. sauce slowly creeps up your taste buds which doesn’t numb them but ignite them. A palate-tickling surprise was the puréed artichoke (reminiscent of molecular gastronomy cuisine) in squid ink that added a soupcon of saltiness to the dish.
Sun Kim’s fourth dish, grilled quail with mushroom ragu and parsnip taking centre stage on a huge white-black plate, was a new palate teaser. The tender quail tasted similar to chicken teriyaki, but the taste takes a different direction to a new, ineffable yet flavourful taste enhanced by the tangy parsnip.
The guests at the table to my right finally arrived, and I unintentionally caught snippets of their chat. The yarn went something like this: Sun Kim was treated by the male guest to an Indonesian Padang dinner that he enjoyed immensely given its similarity to South Korean cuisine in terms of spiciness. It was not the case with his sous chef Jared who couldn’t handle the chilli, and was sweating buckets.
As the guests to my right started their dinner, I was on my second to the last course which truly showed why Sun Kim is a Michelin-star chef. Called 40-hour cooked beef short rib shiitake mushroom purée, pickled shiitake, and buckwheat, the beef, hiding underneath yet another leaf, fell into bite-size pieces with a mere touch of the knife. Sliding the beef, pinned with mushroom and onion bits, across the buckwheat sauce and popping it in your mouth, everything melded into a perfect blend of tenderness, juiciness, and well-prepared beef.
Sun Kim’s magical culinary show closed on sweet, fruity note. Sitting prettily in the middle of a chilled bowl was mango salsa with passion fruit sorbet, coconut, and mint. My notion of dessert is something chocolaty so I was bit sceptical about Kim’s choice, but part of Kim’s magic is making your scepticism fade away and pushing you to embrace confidence in him. Spoon in hand, I glided it from the coconut cream, crowned with mint syrup, down through the sherbet and the mango cubes. It was a beautiful salsa of seamless tanginess and sweetness with every bite.
Dinner with Sun Kim was one amazing experience, and facing Jakarta’s traffic was worth it. There was always a treasure to discover in each dish, unearthing it as you go through the layers of the ingredients aesthetically plated in stunning crockery.
“The Star of Singapore” Wine dinner list
sashimi of kampachi with pomelo, shiso, and gochujang
Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve 2011, Alsace, France
scallop chawanmushi with clam cream, dill, and osetra caviar
Chateau Villa Bel Air blanc 2014, Graves Bordeaux, France
slow-cooked octopus with homemade X.O. sauce and Jerusalem artichoke
Domaine Anne Gros 50/50 Cotes du Bris 2015, Minervois, France
grilled quail with mushroom ragu and parsnip
Louis Jadot Beaune 1er Cru Les Theurons 2012, Burgundy, France
40-hour cooked beef short rib shiitake mushroom purée, pickled shiitake, and buckwheat
Chateau Malmaison 2007, Medoc, Bordeaux, France
mango salsa with passion fruit sorbet, coconut, and mint
Life has a way of aiming a spanner at you when you are doing your darnedest best to avoid it. A spanner can be a shattered heart that necessitates fleeing from the vicissitudes of life. Another spanner is when you’re pushed to the limit; this is reason enough to escape to somewhere serene. At other times, having a thumb caught in a taxi door for not being in the moment is one spanner that tells you unequivocally that it is time to momentarily walk away from life. Actually, it took a while for it to register that it was my thumb caught in the door, and the pain just exploded in my face when it did. Still, I didn’t get to flee to serenity until after a week or so after that stupid episode.
Serenity finally came in a comfortable corner with two high-back chairs and a low sofa next to the tinted floor-to-ceiling window. The Writers Bar was quiet at 430pm on a Friday afternoon. The sound of soft jazz music wafted through the bar, swirling in the ceiling then dipping into the posh furniture and flying back into the air. The silence was invigorating as it muted the negative thoughts colliding in my mind. It was therapeutic: my breathing became less shallow and agitated as I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly, and with every breath steeling myself against would-be spanners.
Sipping genmaicha tea and nibbling on French fries cooked three ways (it is a Raffles Jakarta thing) dipped in either aioli, ketchup, or chili sauce was fantastic. Equally good was to read page after page with mental clarity, and not be doing mental karate with stray thoughts that broke concentration while reading.
It is with certainty that spanners will be flying my way again and I would have to flee from them. The question now is when and where shall I go to find interim serenity.
Lunch in Bekasi has become a humdrum affair as the choices remain the same and predictable. At Grand Metropolitan Mall, for example, you have fish porridge and fried shimeji mushroom at Tawan; Hainanese chicken set at Imperial Kitchen; teriyaki chicken at Yoshinoya; and salmon-chicken set at Pepper Lunch. A new Vietnamese restaurant has opened, but eventually the fresh spring rolls lose its appeal. Kenny Rogers closed shop while a shabu-shabu restaurant has yet to open.
An exciting lunch means braving the traffic to get to Jakarta and drown in the myriad choices confronting your senses. Nomz Kitchen & Pastry was a suggestion from Kelvin Gotama who has combed Grand Indonesia for worthy restaurants. The open-restaurant concept of Nomz Kitchen & Pastry where potential diners can see through the restaurant – the traditional walls are gone – lends it a warm, cosy café vibe completed by the earthy interior and furnishings, and a counter display that would make gourmands salivate. Its menu truly overwhelms one with choices so much so that it takes a while to order. The choice must be right because getting to Jakarta is no walk in the park. Following my rule of thumb when I dine in Jakarta, which means selecting a dish that is not regularly found in Bekasi or a dish that would better be interpreted, I opted for Chicken Katsu while my lunch partner, KG, went for the all-day Sunday brunch choice of NomzBenedict. Our shared appetizer was Crumbed Escargot.
My rice bowl was a satisfying melange of crunchy chicken, egg, and soft rice drizzled with sweet sauce and mayonnaise. The portion was huge, but a long lunch had it finished down to the last morsel. As for the escargots, they provided a nice contrast to the Chicken Katsu particularly when dipped in the balanced sweet-sour-spicy dip sauce. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the escargots, which have a tendency to become tough when overcooked, were soft underneath the coating of crumbs, which I believe to be the kind used in cooking tempura. Meanwhile, KG’s Nomz Benedict was a filling and flavourful split bagel topped with poached egg, roe, arugula, and drizzled with hollandaise sauce.
It goes without saying that an exciting lunch is far from rousing if it only focuses on food. A huge part of the excitement is the conversation, in which KG is adroit at much like the older brother Kelvin, with topics running the gamut of everything under the sun, including, naturally, gorgeous men with the initials of TH.
Toby’s Estate at Grand Indonesia is next on our list for another exciting lunch at the city. It is another suggestion from gourmand Kelvin.
It was the ube flower icing that rekindled the hunt that ignited the cake trail. The ube flower icing added that punch to the palate after every bite. It was a must to have my fork glide down the slice from top to bottom because leaving out the ube flower icing completely marred the cake experience. To the uninitiated, ube (pronounced oo-beh) is roughly translated as yam, and back then in, I believe, the early ’90s, Red Ribbon was indubitably the ube cake maker. A craving for its ube cake meant popping by the nearest branch and getting a slice. But I lost my craving for it after being given a pitiable excuse the one time I set foot in a branch after years of being away that having a slice was no longer possible because there were no ube cakes that had been cut up.
Fast forward to now, thanks to Instagram, I was put on the ube cake trail. Prior to the launch of their Classic Ube Cake last August, Cara Mia Cakes and Gelato in the Philippines teased cake lovers with videos of the ube cake being made from scratch: the main ingredient, halayang ube, or boiled yam, spinning away in the mixer. No shortcuts for this baker! No instant ube mix being peddled in the market for this ube cake! Joy! The hype lived up to its name, as every bite was a palate- satisfying bite that didn’t leave one cloyed, but sweetly satiated down to the last ube icing swirl and a promise to come back for more.
Meanwhile, an outing Jakarta put me on a different cake trail – I was just looking for a very good cake which Bekasi is mournfully bereft of. The first serendipitous find was the Banoffie Pie from Nomz Kitchen and Pastry, an eatery with a warm café-vibe to it at the East Mall of Grand Indonesia. Ordered post-lunch, the bowl, which was good for sharing, was a merry mix of graham bits, slices of banana, ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings, and caramel sauce that completed the sweet coup de grace.
Rounding off the cake trail was another stupendous find within the same mall but at the ground floor of the West Mall this time. The Greyhound Café had this Choco Banana Crepe that partnered well with the lemon grass tea thus making for a perfect high tea selection. The cake is two alternating layers of bananas, chocolate, and custard that ends with glazed bananas on top that – contrary to first glance – are not chips but soft – not mushy – bananas. Just like with the ube cake, it is a must to have the fork glide down the cake to get all the layers and savour all that thrilling choco-banana goodness.
The cake trail is far from over because there are still a lot of untrodden cake trails.
Purple Oven came much later in my life. In fact, we just got reacquainted on New Year’s Eve thanks to my mother who was stoked to track down its new branch in Quezon City. She had heard about Purple Oven when a long-time friend asked if they could drop by its outlet in Makati so she could get some cookies. The place was packed to the rafters when they got there. Apparently, Purple Oven’s fantastic cakes and pastries had been drawing in crowds for quite some time. I was hopped-up because I am always keen to try out new – it is for me – cake shops.
Estrella’s, now rebranded as Estrel’s, was the go-to cake shop in my youth even though its only outlet then was somewhere in Laperal, Manila. Their caramel chiffon cake with butter icing flowers was the cake for all occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, family get-togethers. I strongly recall the “fights” to get any one of the four corners of the cake which had two sides of caramel icing unlike when you just get the middle part. Second go-to cake shop was the dubbed “national” bakery of the Philippines, Goldilocks, famed for its brazo de mercedes (soft meringue roll with custard filling), ensaymada (the Philippines’ version of the brioche baked with butter and topped with grated cheese and white sugar), egg pie, and moist chocolate cake.
Then Red Ribbon came into the picture, providing very stiff competition to Goldilocks. Estrella’s remained unfazed, focusing on its exclusive clientele. Red Ribbon blazed into the cake scene with an array of newfangled cakes: ube cake (it was the first yam cake), black forest (the thick shavings of chocolate and cherries were quite a sight), coffee crunch (the honeycomb crunch topping provided that sweet crunch to the palate), and chocolate mousse (the usual mousse in a cup had turned into a cake). Red Ribbon cranked up the competition by offering pastries such as bite size chicken empanada (chicken pie) and banana crunch loaf.
Sombreros, an independent cake shop on Pasay Road and relatively near to the defunct Celebrity magazine, was another go-to shop particularly for their crema de fruta or layered cake of cream and fruits topped with gelatin. Unfortunately, they closed shop after a few years.
The cake shops are still going strong, but my interest in cakes had petered out until I took a bite of Purple Oven’s Classic Chocolate cake. It was the simple but palate-tickling chocolate taste of my childhood, which was neither too sweet or bland, that I had been missing for ages. The cake had the right level of moisture which meant it didn’t rely on the icing for the flavor and texture. Each bite – cutting through with the fork from the top to the bottom of one’s slice – was precision in flavor, texture, and moisture. After the Classic Chocolate, we went back to get Grandma’s Classic Chocolate, a cake done with milk chocolate, and a dozen chocolate crinkles. Now, I am stoked to try Chocolate Campfire during my next vacation.
Tropical depressions have come and gone from the Philippines together with the old year, but Christmas is still here. A trip to two different malls attest to this lingering Christmas vibe. Robinsons Mall on Aurora Boulevard, New Manila has a Christmas ‘centerpiece’ fused with a carousel feel to it coming on every 10 min at the main entrance lobby. The Christmas light flickers, a gigantic bear rides a bike, and a Christmas song plays on loop. At the other side of the city, SM Mall of Asia, popularly known as MOA, is similarly still decked in its Christmas attire done to the theme of Christmas animals.
Without a doubt, the rituals – gift-giving, Simbang Gabi, and Christmas Eve dinner – have been performed yet the Christmassy feel still remains. I suppose this is part of the Filipinos’ much vaunted capacity to be happy in the face of economic crises, natural disasters, and personal tragedies. In fact, a report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer proved this supposition true when Gallup International’s 41st Annual Global End of Year Survey, an opinion survey conducted among 55 countries, placed the Philippines third-happiest country, following Fiji and Colombia.
The question that tugs at my mind is are the Filipinos truly happy? Or is it a calculated shift in mindset, choosing happiness over depression or hopelessness given the state of things in the country? I can only surmise that majority of my compatriots choose to be happy because the other options are far grim, and Christmas does help to negate hope against hope. The idea of the birth of Jesus Christ engenders hopefulness and its twin, happiness, which propel people to see their lives vis-a-vis the world in a different light.
Another reason is the belief that Christmas isn’t entirely over until the three wise men bearing gifts (or are they kings?) have done their visitation of the divine child. Once that day passes then Christmas is officially over and the Christmas decor can be taken down and stored. The Christmassy ambience slowly dissipates after this then speeds up when students troop to school and all employees report to work. A very strong indication that Christmas is over is the turtle-pace, stress-inducing traffic that confronts the commuters which had disappeared momentarily with the exodus of the population to their hometowns for the holidays.
But for now it is still Christmas with the future looking bright. It is best to revel in it before hard, cold reality sets in and locks horns with one’s happiness.
Despite the reminder from the police and the barangay tanod (village watchman), my neighbor and his family defied the firecracker ban. But, unlike the previous years, it was noticeably low key and less explosive (read: it didn’t sound like a nuclear bomb). Also, the firecrackers only went off two hours before 12 midnight and sporadically compared with them lighting the ‘crackers at the start of the day and at every hour as they were wont to do before. Their derring-do though exuded a childishness to it. They would light the bangers, the waiting for the arrival of the cops keeping them on tenterhooks. They’d stop after setting off a few firecrackers – shouting with maniacal glee that the police might come any second – then light them again after 30+ min have passed. At one point, the village watchman did descend upon our street to remind the community about the ban. My obstinate neighbors were angelic for an hour after the sudden visit of the village watchman only to return to their devilish way until 12 midnight.
Elsewhere in the archipelago, the stubborn defiance to the firecracker ban accounted for “injuries to more than 373 people across the country” on New Year’s Eve according to a report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The positive side of this defiance is that there was a 68% drop in the injury cases as compared to last year. The negative side to it is that the victims were still mostly children, for example, an eight-year-old boy from the Cordillera was one of the patients treated at a hospital while it was a much younger child, a five-year-old, at Maragondon in Cavite province.
I don’t comprehend this toughness against this ban (there are other issues in the Philippines that need this belligerence) because the celebration of New Year for the past years has gone beyond the border of sanity. It has become murderous. The point of the tradition – something learnt from the Chinese – was to scare the nasty spirits so the new year can come smoothly. But this old perception has long been subverted. Now, innocent merry makers chasing away the old year’s perniciousness have, unfortunately, become almost like spirits too falling victims to firecrackers and irresponsible gun owners who fire their weapons indiscriminately. People have forgotten, or possibly have glossed over, one little detail of the tradition: drive away the spirits by making noise, not put the lives of the merry makers at risk. It certainly looks as if the repressed anger and angst coupled with apathy have reached its tipping point with the way Filipinos foolishly brave dismemberment and death in keeping alive the firecracker tradition.
There was no stopping our neighbors as the clock inched to 12 midnight. Their intermittent use of firecrackers was interspersed with loud shouts rallying our neighborhood to join in the festivity ending in peals of laughter that was a mixture of gaiety and intoxication. If the night was a source of immense annoyance, the morning after was equally vexing. This time our neighborhood had to contend with the trash – remnants of the spent firecrackers and fireworks – which lined the street. The police should also have reminded them of littering.
I am a little late in doing an Oprah, but better late than never. In one of the Oprah newsletters I receive regularly in my mailbox appeared Amy Shearn’s article titled “11 Things Every Woman Should Write Down Before the Year Ends”. Perusing her list, I settled on borrowing one of Shearn’s suggestions: the read it list.
Reading is a refuge, hobby, and passion. For 2017, the genres were varied. Two of the books are still unfinished: Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler” and “The Witches – Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff. Calvino’s novel presents a difficulty for me particularly one of the characters who is a loner and seem to unable to fit in. Oddly enough, I can stand the other characters whom I read with detached interest. I am more than half way done anyway. Meanwhile, I drown in the trial details in Schiff’s work which cross the borders of incredulity, but, as I quietly tell myself, it was how the trials were in those days. I find myself arguing silently with the presiding magistrates and commiserating with the accused. It is interesting, but the flow isn’t as smooth as Schiff’s book on Cleopatra’s life.
I read Paulo Coehlo’s “The Spy” within a day because the prose was easy. It stoked my interest further to learn more about the famed Matahari because although Coehlo based his new book on the released documents on Matahari he also recreated parts of the story. The structure reminded me so much of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, which wove brilliantly non-fiction and fiction. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys was an engaging ride with the twists and turns wrought upon the lives of Fat Charlie and his estranged brother “Spider”, sons of the West African trickster god, Anansi, after his sudden death in a karaoke bar while singing to a young woman.
Changing course, I jumped into juvenile literature by diving into a book lent to me by a former student. “The Merciless” by Danelle Vega proved engaging because it combined the macabre sense of Edgar Allan Poe sprinkled with a bit of the supernatural and a touch of the plot of the iconic “Mean Girls” film. It gave me an insight to the new generation of Western teenagers and their concerns. The other book was much lighter then Vega’s book. Rick Riordan’s third installment of the Magnus Chase and The Gods of Asgard – Ship of the Dead, was a welcome respite from the dark vibe of The Merciless with its characters’ funny quips, the sarcastic humor alluding to modern teenage life, and the reworking of traditional Norse mythology. The third juvenile fiction was Caraval by Stephanie Garber that presented a new take on fairy tale. It was a shade darker in terms of a damsel finding her prince with the right touch of suspense which I found refreshing.
Quitting juvenile fiction, I plunged into an author new to me, JG Ballard, and his work “High-Rise”.The impetus to read it was admittedly because of Tom Hiddleston who talked about it in one interview. But somehow life got in the way until I saw a reissue of it at Kinokuniya and the impetus kicked in again because gracing the cover was Tom Hiddleston who played Dr Robert Laing in the movie adaptation. Hiddleston aside, the opening paragraph on Dr Laing’s meal had me riveted – stunned but riveted. I had to be certain that what I read about the Alsatian was correct. From Ballard, I ventured into the complicated but riveting prose of Henry James in his “The Turn of the Screw” where I emerged gobsmacked with the steady development of the characters and the turn of events.
Then I went back to my favorite genre, mystery, and got reacquainted again with the former servant girl-turned-nurse who later transmogrified into a detective-psychologist Maisie Dobbs in Jacqueline Winspear’s “An Incomplete Revenge”. Maisie Dobbs brings the reader back to the traditional way of detective work much like Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Ms Marple where sleuthing methods relied on the “grey matter” and good old-fashioned gumshoe work.
Closing the read-it list for 2017 are “A Zoo in my Luggage” by George Durrell and “Bad Girl” by Mario Vargas Llosa. Durrell’s book chronicled his adventures and misadventures on his trip to the British Cameroons in West Africa to collect animals for the zoo he planned to open in England. The former British naturalist – zookeeper- conservationist, author, and TV presenter regaled the readers – including me – with his hilarious experiences in capturing animals and how he maintained order in his menagerie of wild creatures. I caught people from the corner of my eye staring when I chuckled. A gaping jaw was what people would have seen if they looked my way when I was reading Llosa’s novel which was a complete departure from his usual work steeped in South American politics. Nonetheless, like his other works, his love story was also heavy. It dissected the concept of love peddled by society. Love in Llosa’s hands gives the reader the no-Cinderella-ending reality in the expectations-reality dichotomy. The bottomline: there is nothing nice and sweet about loving someone.
2018 will still see me reading. In fact, the new year is waiting for me to flatten my one and half tsundoku in my flat, and waiting to be opened is Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mystery of Udolpho”, another recommendation by “Professor” Tom Hiddleston.
The message sounding through the air had me running to the gate to see if what I heard was true. Normally, it’d be an announcement about service for fixing broken machines which quickly went in one ear and out the other. This time it was an announcement-reminder about the prohibition of lighting firecrackers during New Year’s Eve. A patrol car slowly passed through the road, a cop reiterating the new mandate against firecrackers – small or big. Bringing up the rear of the patrol car were two motorcycles carrying three cops that stopped before my neighbor. The woman pillion rider seemed exasperated as she repeated the ban about firecrackers to our neighbor who didn’t seem to grasp the idea. She and her partner then sped after the car. But my neighbor was at it again as the last cop on the bike drove by. He said the same thing – firecrackers are not allowed – in the same low annoyed tone. He added that fireworks were allowed, complete with an upward motion of his arm as if simulating a fireworks display in the sky. My neighbor laughed a bit in the face of the serious cop. When the last police had driven off, my neighbor’s son groused loudly, “What kind of a New Year’s celebration is it (with no firecrackers)?”
Firecrackers (paputok in Filipino), fireworks, and sparklers are staple accessories during New Year’s Eve in the Philippines alongside horns and clappers. In my childhood, firecrackers were benign with the injury being minor burns if the one handling it was utterly a dunderhead. People could still be out on the street making merry because there was no fear of grievous harm against their lives. But through the decades especially in the last decade, the firecrackers have gotten bigger and the explosions louder. It was as if the thoughts of the Filipinos, as the years went by, had drastically turned from celebratory to insane and murderous with New Year’s Eve providing a convenient backdrop to let go of pent up angsts through lighting firecrackers that have morphed into semi-bombs. One of the local TV news shows ran an experiment on the firecrackers that littered the streets of Manila. The findings were atrocious because the “dummies” were destroyed. A watermelon used to designate a head was blown to smithereens! The number of injuries escalated as well as the number of amputations done on adult and children rushed to the hospitals, their faces contorted in pain and their hand or whatever limb completely mangled. Hospitals were placed on “red alert” – ready for the casualties to be wheeled in the midst of revelry. The indiscriminate firing of guns by errant cops and owners aggravated the situation. But despite the warnings of the Ministry of Health, medical alerts from doctors interviewed on TV who blatantly displayed the medical instruments that looked like a carpenter’s tools they intended to use on the patients, and testimonies from injured firecracker-users, firecrackers like piccolo were still manufactured and adults and children were still lighting them.
I had come to dread even fear New Year’s Eve because I was put on edge with every “detonation” especially by our neighbor who started lighting firecrackers any time of the day weeks before New Year’s Eve. My family and I were jumping out of our skins with every boom and maniacal laughter that accompanied it. But this year’s New Year’s Eve celebration might buck the usual ghastly turn it takes. The cops’ message is much welcomed and well received because, for the first time in ages, people in my neighborhood – people and pets – can now truly enjoy a joyous New Year’s Eve. This is, naturally, much to the chagrin of my daffy neighbor, but to my sheer delight.