Friday, November 6, 2009


Reading in the Philippines is a tricky business sometimes. As an essentially solitary activity, reading is often a catalyst for concern on the part of friendly Filipinos who worry that their American friends are sad and lonely because they’re tucked into a corner, nose in a book. (The same goes for Americans who are not dancing at a party or bar – they must be depressed.) It’s a wonderful expression of the Filipino mindset of concern for guests and friends, but sometimes it makes reading impossible – especially when you don’t want to offend Filipinos by showing a preference for books over their company.

Another concern is the price of books. New ones often approach the cost of books in the US – say P350 for a pocket paperback, the equivalent of about 7USD. That amount can buy ten meals at a local carinderia. Luckily there are used bookstores at many malls, and that’s where I do most of my book shopping. Several other volunteers on or near my island are avid readers and we exchange books once in a while. Sometimes the pickings are indeed slim (I was once greatly tempted to buy the Hanson biography Mmmbop to the Top to complement Ice by Ice, the Vanilla Ice autobio), but after more than a year I’ve got stacks of interesting books in my house. A good thing, since the only books I brought from home were five by Kerouac (Big Sur, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Tristessa). Aside from these – which are all fantastic – the following are a few of the best I’ve read in the past fifteen months.

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah) – an autobiographical account of Beah’s experience as a child soldier in West Africa and his reintegration into society. It reminds me of a true-life Beasts of No Nation – simply written, starkly nightmarish.

Whiteman (Tony D’Souza) – also set in Africa; tells the story of a young American volunteer trying to figure out the customs of an unfamiliar society. Sound familiar? I kept coming across strangely resonant elements in the book, which is billed as a novel. And sure enough, I looked up D’Souza’s background afterwards and it turns out he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)Blind Willow is a compelling collection of enigmatic, creative short stories that (for the most part) thankfully manage to sidestep the pointless, tiresome weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness that plagued a previous Murakami collection, The Elephant Vanishes.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – a postapocalyptic journey through burning America that is, unusually, neither nostalgic nor silly. The Road has gotten a boatload of acclaim since its release, and it is quite warranted.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – one of those books I should have read long ago, Thompson’s drug-fueled journey hurtles through Sin City in prose that miraculously keeps pace with the author’s fevered brain.

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (Marq Villiers) – a scientific study of the movement of water throughout the world – its uses, misuses, and the consequences of a growing population on a finite resource already strained in many parts of the globe. Much fascinating talk about cubic-meters-per-second and aquifer depletion, as well as a lot of information on historical water projects, like the water-theft that allowed (and allows) Los Angeles to rise from desert.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie) – two citizens of Mao’s communist China face reeducation on a remote mountain during the Cultural Revolution. Sijie is somewhat of an authority on the subject, having been reeducated himself in the 1970s.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller) – the author tells about her British-expat childhood and youth in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. It’s a story about two things: her ill-starred, alcoholic, unstable mother, and the white separatism that resulted, for Fuller, in an African life displaced from everything African.

These are all great reads, but sometimes it’s more fun to talk about the books that were disappointing or just plain awful. Who could predict that Fell in Love with a Band (Chris Handyside), the epic tale of the White Stripes’ rise to prominence, would be just as mediocre as, well, all the other music writing in the world? Or that Paperback Original (Will Rhode) could actually be even more generic and mundane than the cover’s synopsis, which is: “When the traveling ends, and the drugs wear off, the writing must begin”? (I use this book as a mousepad.)

The worst are the letdowns by authors I admire. It’s hard to believe that Tim O’Brien, creator of the staggeringly fantastic The Things They Carried (in my mind perhaps the second-best book about war I’ve ever read, after Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), could pen a sludgy, gimmicky mess like In the Lake of the Woods. And even after reading the wonderful Breakfast of Champions, Bluebeard, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, the scattered-to-oblivion God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater almost makes me question the genius of Kurt Vonnegut. Almost.


The Best

A Separate Reality (Carlos Castaneda)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah)

Mother Tongue (Bill Bryson)

Whiteman (Tony D’Souza)

Bluebeard (Kurt Vonnegut)

Ice by Ice (Vanilla Ice)

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (Marq Villiers)

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller)


The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

July, July (Tim O’Brien)

Don’t Stop the Carnival (Herman Wouk)

Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson)

The Lost Continent (Bill Bryson)

Hooking Up (Tom Wolfe)

Mr. China (Tim Clissold)

China Boy (Gus Lee)

Vanity of Duluoz (Jack Kerouac)

Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese (Mike Nelson)

Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste (Lester Bangs)

Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich)

The Liars’ Club (Mary Karr)

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

The Awakening (Kate Chopin)

Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Eric Darton)

12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time (Mark Jacobson)

Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Two Years in the Melting Pot (Liu Zongren)

Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey (Ed McClanahan, ed.)

Native Son (Richard Wright)

Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

The Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama)

Breadfruit (Celestine Hitiura Vaite)

Falling Off the Map (Pico Iyer)

Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson)

My Freshman Year (Rebekah Nathan)

Selling Ben Cheever (Ben Cheever)

The Key (Junichiro Tanizaki)

The Quiet American (Graham Greene)

Light in August (William Faulkner)

My Sky Blue Trades (Sven Birkerts)

Motoring with Mohammed (Eric Hansen)

Geisha, a Life (Mineko Iwasaki)

No good

The Binding Chair (Kathryn Harrison)

Fell in Love with a Band (Chris Handyside)

Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)

Man’s Fate (Andre Malroux)

Native Speaker (Chang-Rae Lee)

Among Warriors (Pamela Logan)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Kurt Vonnegut)

Paperback Original (Will Rhode)

Boy Island (Camden Joy)

In the Lake of the Woods (Tim O’Brien)


Ben Murphy said...

i know this is less about books and more about 'notebooks', but they also make their paper out of air which leads to the sufficianlty difficult task of writing in MOIST weather.

Ryan Murphy said...

You mean "bulu-basa"? Yeah, the onion paper... hate that stuff.