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Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994
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Quarterly Reading Report: Gay England, luminous seasons, baroque and twisted Japan

April 08, 2018 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Places

I just had my annual conference with my very patient accountant Lani, who can explain the soul-deadening minutiae of taxation without throwing ledgers at me. This tells me that the first quarter of the year is over and it is time for the accounting I do enjoy: the books I have read so far this year.

My personal quota is 54 books a year, or a book a week. You do not have to observe this rule, unless of course you want to. I can do it because I work in publishing so I have to know what’s out there, and also I don’t keep regular office hours so in theory I can read as much as I want to.

Even then I managed to read only eight books in three months. I have no excuse, I’ll just have to read faster in the next nine months. I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair—masterful, if we could scrape together several million pounds, we would buy the film rights.

Then All That Man Is, a collection of stories by David Szalay that was passed off as a novel. Yes, they have a common theme—Being a man is tough (and if you think that’s difficult, try being a woman)—but I don’t buy the packaging as a novel. Still, it is an extremely compelling read, the kind for which you have to drop everything until you’ve finished it.

Ali Smith is on my automatic-buy list, and her current project is the Seasonal Quartet, which she probably intends to complete in one year. She can, too, because for all the wordplay in her books you cannot see the effort, it just rolls along. Winter, the second book, is as wonderful as the first, Autumn. It’s joyful, cozy, ferociously intelligent and you should read it.

I finally finished David Mitchell’s number9dream, which I have been reading in bits since September. I’ve had the book for years, but saved it for when I finally visited Japan. Then I visited Japan and promptly left it in the hotel (and since it was Japan, the book was returned to me).

number9dream is endlessly clever, inventive, and intense—it’s like being in Tokyo, and I could not recommend it more. Oh and I think I get David Mitchell’s fascination with Japan (He’s only set three novels in it). Read his conversation with another Japanophile, David Peace, whose latest book is Patient X: The Case Book of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa is the first Japanese author I ever read, and I need to get my mitts on a copy of Patient X so I asked Juan to check out the bookstores in Hong Kong. It’s not there yet. I must get Patient X. The fact that my Tower of Unread Books grows higher by the day and haunts my dreams like Barad-Dur will not stop me.

Travel and reading are always linked in my mind. When I visit another country, I have to read a book by a local writer (or a novel set in that country). When I went to Budapest I discovered Magda Szabo and Antal Szerb—I love them so much, I wanted to change my spelling to Szafra. Paris is Patrick Modiano (and Eric Rohmer movies). In three trips to Japan I’ve amassed a dozen books which I have just started going through.

First I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. Yeah, he’s really British, but his folks are Japanese and the novel is set in Japan. And when he acknowledged a Tom Waits song in his Nobel Prize speech, I thought, “I am going to read every word you write, even if I didn’t like The Buried Giant.” Holy crap, An Artist of the Floating World is a great book. I think of it as a rehearsal for The Remains of the Day, which is perfect. Both are about fundamentally decent men who do not rise above the narrow confines of their lives. Both are very quiet and calm until the author breaks your heart with a sentence.

Then there was Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, most of them set in Japan, by Angela Carter (who was Ishiguro’s writing teacher). The style is baroque and just bleeding emotional torment, and…maybe another time, I have to be in the mood for this.

Fumiko Enchi’s Masks is a short and deeply twisted novel about the relationship between a formidable woman and the widow of her son. They are so stiflingly close that other people suspect a lesbian relationship. If only it were that simple. The mother-in-law manipulates the younger woman’s relationships with the two men who are in love with her, and when you figure out her end game you have to retrieve your jaw from under the table in the corner where it has taken refuge.

So eight books out of thirteen, a B- for me, but I’ll make it up.

What have you read this year?

Nella Sarabia’s optical shop reopens at Acacia Dorm in late April

April 02, 2018 By: jessicazafra Category: Announcements, Shopping

Some good news: Our suking optical shop will reopen across the street from its former location, at Acacia Dorm on the UP Campus. (If you’ve never been there, it’s near the UP Chapel and the Infirmary.) To get ready for the happy occasion, let’s revisit some of the dozens and dozens of eyeglasses Nella has made for me. (Except for a couple of frames I bought on a Seoul bangketa, all of them are intact and usable, so there are a lot of them.)

Nella’s great-grandfather was the first optometrist in the Philippines and her entire clan is in the optical business, so she has a collection of vintage frames. Years ago, when nobody cared about vintage spectacles (“Ay, luma. Wala bang bago?”), we would root in the bag full of junk and find frames that could be spruced up and reused. (No doubt some of them had previous owners who are dead, but I’ve never had haunted glasses. Dammit I should’ve gotten Prof. Nieves Epistola’s old bangaw glasses. I would not mind being haunted by such a cool ghost.)

Incidentally, these photos were taken by Allan, who swears he only used one or two layers of filtration. If the photos look plasticky to you, feel free to bite him.

These were my very first sunglasses. I could never wear sunglasses before these because my eyesight is bad enough without adding dark tints, and prescription lenses were expensive. I still wear them sometimes. (These are old earrings. I added little glass chili peppers I found in Quiapo.)

And another pair of vintage frames with prescription dark lenses. Also still in use.

These photos were taken at lunch last Saturday, after my three-day shut-in to start writing my next novel (I got a lot of work done but was stir-crazy after 48 hours). That’s Allan in front, Deo and Bubbles at the back. These glasses I saw online—they’re Danish-made, deadstock, so they were on sale. I asked Pat in Bangkok to buy them for me, and Nella made the lenses.

So when people ask me why I don’t just wear contact lenses or have laser surgery, my eyebrow goes into orbit.

A cleansing fury: Remembering Kurt Cobain

March 29, 2018 By: jessicazafra Category: Music

Not long ago I was in very good spirits when I met someone who proceeded to cast a black cloud over my mood. She probably meant well—it is always useful to prepare for the obstacles one might encounter—but it was not what I needed to hear. Please, I’m a raving neurotic overanalyzer, I already get in my own way.

We parted on cordial terms, and I thought I was fine, but as the evening wore on I got angrier and angrier. I refuse to be told that there are things I can never do. Sure, I’ll never win Wimbledon, but I do not like it when people try to get in my head using the fear of disappointment. (I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.)

I went to bed seething, and at 2am I sat bolt upright. I had to do something to clear my mind of this fear other people had tried to plant in it. I cleaned my house, but I knew I had to do more. That’s when I had the sudden urge to listen to Nirvana. I had not listened to grunge in years, but I needed to purge myself of bad thoughts, and very loud guitar rock has always done that for me.

So at 3am Nirvana was blasting in my ears. On headphones, because one must be considerate to the neighbors. That certainly cleared my head. I realized then that Kurt Cobain is my patron saint—well, one of them. The music couldn’t save him, but many are alive today because of his music. (And Layne’s, and Chris’s, and others we never met.)

Here’s the softer stuff.

April 5 is the 24th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. Man, I’m old.

Writing Boot Camp report, part 2: The advantages of going away to write something

March 26, 2018 By: jessicazafra Category: Places, Traveling, Workshops

From hereon I think Writing Boot Camp should always be held out of Metro Manila. Clean air and a change of scenery is always conducive to thinking (or sleeping, which is a vital part of writing that nobody talks about. Eight to nine hours a day, people. Accept no substitutes. Hmmm, I should do Sleeping Boot Camp). Traveling to another place, with all the hassle and expense it entails, tells you that this is not a regular weekend: you are carving out time and space in your busy life for something that is important to you.

Also, being strangers in a city not your own (although two of our participants live in Baguio) brings the group closer together and gives us an excuse to go out drinking afterwards. (We’re having dinner in Makati next week.) With apologies to previous boot camps, I think this was my favorite workshop of all. The group was small enough so we could get to know each other and root out the personal experiences that could be turned into stories. Yes, it’s a rather intrusive process, but then writing requires that you expose your emotions. There’s no use hiding yourself, anyway, because whatever you end up writing, the readers will always assume that the characters are you.

Writing Boot Camp was held at the Larawan Hall of the BenCab Museum. The museum is buzzing with visitors on weekends, but the Larawan Hall is tucked into a quiet corner with private access to Cafe Sabel. If you look away from your paper or your screen, this is what you look at.

Our boot camp participants were working people from their late 20s to their early 40s.

Vicky worked in branding and is now planning a family saga set all over the world.

Lord is a corporate executive and mindfulness coach whose stories dissect the conflicts and tensions within every individual.

Reina has a shelf full of degrees in Astronomy from Trieste, Princeton, etc (She’s been the subject of TV features as “the girl who proved Einstein right”) and is writing an astronomy book for the general market.

Annalyn is based in California, where she works with people with psychiatric issues—she feels that writing could help them. I totally agree, being from the Therapy school of writing.

Von, a lawyer (and a very influential blogger) is working on his collection of personal essays (We’ll call them Sedarian).

Allan, who was in the first writing boot camp (where he finished a novel!), is a manager at a BPO and does way too many things, such as run my feline overlords’ Instagram.

Marisol, a Fil-American who moved to the motherland a few years ago, works at Mt Cloud Bookshop and is processing many levels of culture shock.

On Saturday we had lunch at Cafe Sabel, which serves an assortment of salads, pastas, sandwiches, and coffee that will keep you awake for days. (This is the view from Cafe Sabel. If you feel like taking a walk, you can do the eco-trail.)

As we headed out on the first day, I saw the sunset through the branches of a tree and wondered if we should start looking for stone tablets.

The next Writing Boot Camp is in Normandy, France. I’m kidding, that’s my friend’s house where I stayed in November. The next Writing Boot Camp will be held somewhere in the south, I’m looking for a place. Any ideas?

Writing Boot Camp report: Disasters averted by sheer luck

March 21, 2018 By: jessicazafra Category: Places, Traveling, Workshops

I took the 11:15 bus from the Victory Liner terminal in Pasay. The ride is comfortable and safe, but the bus line doesn’t sell round-trip tickets and makes a very limited number of seats available online. Next time I will follow my friends’ recommendation and try the Genesis or Joy buses.

Once you leave Metro Manila the world opens up and you see sky and green. It’s amazing, our ability to live in cramped concrete boxes and subsist on gray air with trace amounts of oxygen.

Four and a half hours later, Baguio. The most tedious part of the ride was getting to the bus terminal. On weekends there is a tourist stampede to the mountains for cool air and strawberries (and ukay-ukay). I have some nerve complaining when I am one of those tourists.

I had booked a room at the Bed & View adjacent to the BenCab Museum 20 minutes by taxi from “downtown”. Here are the beds, and

Here is the view. I could write a whole novel on this balcony. In fact I think I will.

Raya was also in town for a break, so I have hung out with him every weekend since our Japan gig. (Gian was at film festivals in Amsterdam and Osaka.) On Friday I hopped into a jeep from the museum and met Raya and Abbie Lara at Hill Station. After our excellent dinner (the lechon kawali and laing is killer, and ask for the chocolate lemon tart even if it’s not in the vitrine), we went out looking for night life.

Oddly enough for a Friday, we couldn’t find any. We ended up at the old reliable Rumours. We were walking along Session Road when someone tapped Abbie on the shoulder and said she’d dropped her wallet. It was my wallet, containing my debit cards and stuff. I did not understand how it could’ve fallen out of my backpack (I had used a corporate giveaway backpack because who would steal it?).

When we were sitting in Rumours, I found out how it had happened: the backpack had fallen apart. The seam got ripped, probably because I had crammed it full earlier with laptop, notebooks, etc, and as we sat there all my things clattered to the floor. Luckily Abbie had a tote bag in her backpack so I could carry my stuff. (Lesson: Always carry a tote bag.)

Before midnight, Raya and Abbie put me in a taxi and gave the driver directions to the BenCab Museum. For many years I’ve told people that I have no sense of direction. I could cross the street where I live and somehow take the wrong way home…and I host a travel show. Anyway I settled sleepily into the back of the taxi as it barreled along Asin Road towards the museum.

My night vision is terrible—I really should eat more greens—and I could barely see where we were going. We had been driving for 40 minutes and I still hadn’t spotted the museum, but—remind me to tell you my Yokohama stories sometime. And then the driver said, “Nasa La Union na yata tayo.”

“Stop!” Good thing I had the number of the B&V guard. I dialed him and he gave the driver instructions. (Apparently the landmark is “the widening.” As in the section of road on top of the mountain that is being widened.) We turned around, and I was in my room in 15 minutes.

As I was emptying the borrowed tote bag I realized that my iPod was missing. Yes, I still use the big iPods, I am a museum of iPods. Dammit, did I drop it on the street? It occurred to me to look up the number of Rumours online. They had found my iPod and had been looking for Abbie’s number to let her know.

So. I lost my wallet and got it back. I got lost and made it home safely. I lost my iPod and got it back. My amazing luck! Of course it’s easier to be lucky if you’re among nice people. I like Baguio.

Next: The Boot Camp.

A very bright and massive star rejoins the cosmos: Stephen Hawking, 76.

March 14, 2018 By: jessicazafra Category: Science

We mourn the loss of a man whose physical body was bound to a wheelchair, but whose mind encompassed universes. And while his death is deeply felt, we must also celebrate his sheer grit and tenacity. Stephen Hawking was not expected to live more than two years after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He lived another half-century.

The cosmos is bigger and more wonderful because he told us so. He taught us that the mind need not be bound by time and space. We should name stars after him. Galaxies. Universes.

His obituary.

Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis from 1966