On The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

the-historianI initially hesitated to buy this book. When I first saw it in a secondhand bookstore I picked it off the shelf right away, thanks to its attractive cover, flipped through its papery-musty pages and nearly took it to the cash register before I began to vacillate, poring over whether I’m really at that stage where carrying around a vampire novel would cause embarrassment. For some minutes I thought it through like it was the most urgent of philosophical questions. Then I said, “Alright. Fuck it. I’m doing it. I’m delving again into my teen’s fiction,” that is, back into my Bram Stoker/Anne Rice era. After all, this moderately fat book was a welcome addition to my small but growing new shelf. But after deciding to just buy it anyway, I had the problem of not being able to begin. I think I was put off by its thickness (over 700 pages) and the rather minuscule print. A bit of research told me that it took Elizabeth Kostova over 10 years to finish writing this mammoth of a book and I thought that it would take me roughly the same amount of time to finish reading it too.

Now, you might be reading this post because you’re keen on reading vampire fiction, or because you’ve read Anne Rice’s entire The Vampire Chronicles saga and scoured bookstores, in vain, for something of nearly the same caliber, or because you fancy yourself to be some type of Goth, and not just any Goth, but that particularly melancholic breed of 90s Goths that still dreams up entire worlds that involve vampires. As an ex-member of this breed myself, I can’t possibly reiterate enough that despite even the bloodsucker stereotype has altered somewhat since Bela Lugosi, vampires today are as real as a cliché and that the reading public has been glutted with these sexy ass pale bloodsucking fashionable weirdos there’s virtually nothing new to them.

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On Camera Lucida: Reflections On Photography by Roland Barthes

51QnfMZXubL._SL1162_Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, posthumously published in 1980, has, at its core, a number of elements of the importance concerning philosophy in general, not only with regards to the interpretation of the “real” content or “valid” connotations of images forever immortalized in photographs, but as a careful, highly inquisitive, sobering inquiry for knowledge. It is a personal and theoretical contemplation on photography, inspired by the death of his mother and an enduring interest in the rhetoric of the image. Written in the first person, it suggests and elucidates the author’s personal impulsion behind this interest, and offers terms for structuring his emotional responses to particular photographs.

Camera Lucida is split into two different sections. At first, this seemed as an obvious attempt at imposing an implicit order on the text, a matter of structure. But the two sections are essentially dependent on each other. In the first part of the text, Barthes offers his own definition of photography: what it can be and what it ought to be; in the succeeding section, he seeks out for his departed mother among her lingering photographs. This latter part expounds on the former with the aim of reaching a new understanding of photography and of the self, a new “consciousness” through lucidity. The feeling I had in reading and re-reading the passages was quite overwhelming. The book is unsurprisingly dense, it is highly theoretical, but the manner in which Barthes presents his ideas and arguments is quite refreshing. Without being overly long-winded it’s almost like he isn’t expending much intellectual effort in presenting the ways in which one can analyze, understand and elucidate the photograph for what it could or does really represent.

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On Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

When I was younger, I have kept diaries, or journals, here and there, but I have never in my writerly life faithfully kept one, having been always ready to abandon my notebooks whenever I lost the urge to write. But I can perfectly imagine why one might keep a diary at all: to record passing thoughts, dribbles, mental preoccupations, the minutiae of the everyday so that, upon rereading years later, hope to be carried away back into that little space of private nostalgia. One might keep a diary simply for the sake of keeping a diary: to talk to oneself, or to treat it as some sort of chronological workbook in which to unfold images, to jot down one’s miseries, joys, desires, thoughts, sentiments, what have you, in the hopes of capturing on paper the “essence,” that kernel of the moment.

But there’s also a deeper, perhaps a more exigent reason to keeping a diary: a vague yet visceral feeling that writing through something could mean writing your way in or out, or in circles. Encountering forked paths, making decisions, reaching dead-ends, and embellishing all feel like necessary acts of building or tearing down – of constructing and deconstruction – in order to rebuild differently at a later time, or never. There are two things that writing seems to offer: clarity or confusion, an enhanced type of confusion – perplexity – which, looked at differently, is a type of clarity itself: an acknowledgement of unease, of complexity and ambiguity, i.e., it is clear to me that I am being perplexed. Whichever the case, writing offers a concrete record of thinking and feeling, a personal history, orchestrated by the act of writing and its subterranean mechanics.

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On A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

I’m inclined to call this book lengthy, long-drawn-out, rambling, excessive, too much, etc. – in fact it feels painfully longer and more time-consuming than its two prequels combined – but even using these words, I’m afraid, is a demonstration of inadequacy of language to express the often inscrutable extremities of human experience. But George R. R. Martin is a master of language, no doubt about that, and I found it quite amusing that he, the author himself, had said of his experience in writing this book in the most straightforward way possible on the acknowledgments page: “This one was a bitch.”

I’m one of those late readers who discovered George R.R. Martin in the advent of HBO’s hit TV series, Game of Thrones, and thankfully, I bought my copy of A Feast for Crows in a set that includes the other four novels in the saga. Which means that I read the novels slowly, cautiously but at a leisurely pace, and sometimes even in unison with the TV episodes. With that said, I can only imagine the excruciating five years earlier readers of the series and other fans had to endure as Martin wrote, rewrote, scrapped, bitched about, drafted, redrafted, whipped, mashed, pureéd, and otherwise gave birth to this novel kicking and screaming into existence – perhaps only slightly less agonizing than unfortunate souls lingering in Purgatory.

None of that had to happen with me, thank God. And for those of us who read the first three installments with much hearty enjoyment, with such gusto that sometimes bordered on hysteric overzealousness, and didn’t have to wait, expectations were, admittedly, very high. Perhaps impossibly high. And with some of the choices – difficult choices, I surmise – the author had to make to get this one out to the greedy, demanding, and oftentimes insensitive public at all, why, of course: dissatisfaction, displeasure, and discontent are expected.

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On Selected Poems by Thom Gunn

On the front and back covers of this slim volume, The Washington Post praises Gunn’s work for its “raw anarchistic energy and powerful intellectual control,” for its “existential rebelliousness” that is “tempered by a sense of our common humanity.” The New York Times Book Review elaborates and reaffirms thus: “Gunn allows his patterns of meter, rhyme and stanzaic form to emerge organically from the material … One can almost follow this happening on the page, observation finding its proper rhythm, emotion its spiritual level, the poet discovering new moods, new modes of reflection.”

While finding these gleaming recommendations interesting, informed, seductive, and, after reading this entire collection, quite spot-on, I would just like to insert here some of my few observations, and perhaps some reasons of my hesitancy to eulogize him.

Thom Gunn’s entire oeuvre is liberally accessible in this edition of Selected Poems, reassessed and edited by his poet friend August Kleinzahler. It collects some of his best, most elegiac and penetrating work from the 1950s to 2000, and according to the book’s blurbs, provides “a fuller retrospective account of the breadth and magnitude of Gunn’s extraordinary achievement.” This is my first time to encounter Thom Gunn – my first time, in fact, to encounter poetry of this kind – and I find that his work’s wealth and richness, its much-celebrated adroitness and terseness of language, its concentration on counterculture themes, resonates from a bygone era in the 1950s, 60s and 70s: from the so-called metaphysical poets drawn through the intermingling leitmotifs of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – seemingly crude topics such as the celebration of black-leather-jacketed motorcyclists, explorations and experimentations of homosexuality, drugs, the AIDS epidemic, and the destructive tragedy of death in the form of high Elizabethan poetry.

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On Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski

Today, in criticism, it’s unfortunate that when you describe a poem – let alone an entire collection of poems – as “beautiful” without stipulating the complex reasons why it is so, you’d be dismissed by many for being unsophisticated, too simplistic, or plainly disingenuous, so it’s not without a certain level of caution that I say that Adam Zagajewski’s collection of poetry, Eternal Enemies, is exactly that: beautiful. And more: it’s enchanting, luminously pellucid, lyrically melancholic, but altogether without the easy pop style of grim cynicism that, in comparison to this, you can readily attribute to the work of perhaps lesser poets.

In writing this I am all the more cautious because, impressed as I am, I can neither speak nor read in Polish, thus my appreciation of Zagajewski’s work (and the works of all Polish writers for that matter) must be limited, provisional. In this case I am left with no option but to guess. My guess is that Adam Zagajewski has a much greater, more profound impact to native Polish speakers than to those of us who can only read Clare Cavanagh’s English translation, and for that I can only envy them.

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On The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

“How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive, extreme and dangerous as it is? What compromises, what deals, what betrayals of its secret nature must it make to stave off the wrecking crew, the exterminating angel, the guillotine?” – Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Most of us in the business of writing readily assume that language is a reliable, stable, even objective, medium of communication. For most of us this is an axiom, an idea that, in itself, we accept as logically and self-evidently true. However, most of us also forget (or have failed or refused to study) that continental philosophers and philosophers of language such as Gilles Deleuze, Richard Rorty, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida have contended that language is essentially dynamic: language is not a “mirror of nature,” it is semantically self-contained, self-referential: the meaning of a particular word is neither a static objectivity nor an inert idea in the mind but rather an array of variances, contrasts, gaps, subtexts, and differences with the meanings of other words that changes through time and varies through usage. Meaning is multifarious, dynamic, not singular and objective. Hence, the illusion that language is stable. So it is that writers such as Salman Rushdie have exploited language by experimenting with its fluidity – its very dynamics – to fashion out sophisticated and, most will say, pernicious criticisms of religion and empowering political statements. And so it is that Rushdie has exploited this flux and erraticism of language in his most controversial and divisive work to date, the work that had almost cost him his head, The Satanic Verses.

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The Byronic Woman

(first published in The Philippines Free Press, November 2009)

For Mia

As curvaceous as the space
around dead stars, a Demiurge
of a high albedo strain,
I am lounging with the languor
of iguanas. I am squamous
in my crystalline domain.

For light-years I have wandered
here, in the dark, pariah
for the violence of my Will,
conjecturing stochastic, strange
encounters, and longing for
another chance to kill.

Some scales have broken loose
and drift around me, a torus
of detritus – a tiara
bejeweled like the diadems
of yore. In time invaders come
to mine my surface, to pry
encrusted prisms from within –
a race of vicious hoplites,
avaricious, enamored
of this lapidary skin.

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On Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

Every now and then, when the density of life – its enormity and its utter atrocious inhuman filth – is just too great a burden for your squeamish little mind to comprehend or deal with, fiction can serve as a midwife to understanding. And perhaps to salvation. As with great literature, it surely is the case with Death in the Andes.

Before Death in the Andes, I have only read Llosa’s The Bad Girl, a work that is more recent. Like The Bad Girl, I find that violence to Llosa is a theme, or topography, well-trod and very much familiar – a frighteningly comfortable subject that he uses to great effect. While not as exhaustive (or “psychoanalytic”) in its examination of evil, violence, and the way a person’s psyche is shaped by its exposure to human depravity and moral corruption as, say, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Notes From Underground, Llosa’s Death in the Andes is an intricately structured and multilayered hither and thither of clamorous voices past and present. It is an atmospheric suspense story, a political allegory, and, perhaps seen from an oblique angle, it can possibly be a love story. Although I found this one to be grim and quite distressing, I can see perfectly how this novel brings to mind a Peru that you wouldn’t find in the glossy pages of a holiday brochure or in the empty platitudes of a Miss Universe candidate. Death in the Andes is a crime / murder whodunit of a novel, alright, but one in which the very history and culture of an entire country is the unlikely killer.

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On The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

While I’m starting to enjoy reading Gregory’s books because they’re decently entertaining for the most part, I do wish Gregory would quit insisting (implicitly, of course) that she’s some academic historian. But I’m not about to get my panties in a bunch and go right there, since I’m someone who readily subscribes to the thought, or truism, that historical novels are the paragon of that animal called speculative fiction. No doubt this novel involved demanding scholarly research, but any hints of being scholarly are absent. While this book is leaps and bounds better than The Red Queen – its sequel, which I read first – it’s far from outstanding. And it’s mainly not because of what I’m guessing are its historical inconsistencies or lack of “scholarliness.”

The White Queen covers a time period of about 20 years (give or take a few) starting from when Edward and Elizabeth Woodville meet up until it’s almost time for the Bosworth Field. It’s a tumultuous period in English history that any novelist would struggle to incorporate all the events, surmise, and fill in the missing details with imagination. Gregory, in particular, at times needs to resort to writing in the third person to comment rather than dramatize Elizabeth’s narrative, at others she skips years. The early section in particular blends into one long war montage that becomes confusing. And it doesn’t help that so many key players have the same name (George, Richard, Margaret), despite of the map and detailed family tree ravishingly illustrated up front in the book.

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