Travels are often wonderful whatever the purpose and the destination. Sitting through long, awkward travel hours, with a broken stereo and multiple stopovers, however, is annoying. But a quick stop to the bookstore might just bring the same relief as pocket liniment for the carsick.

Tales from the school yard

Anybody who has gone to school would want to relive school yard antics.

If the confessional “I-novel” is carving a big market in China, Philippine literature is fast spawning amusing school yard tales woven into charming short essays reminiscent of the works of Jessica Zafra and the writer-turned-urban legend Bob Ong.

Wala Lang (Miflores Publishing, 2004), a collection of personal essays by lawyer Bud Tomas, takes us to the U.P. law school jungle, the ghosts of Malcolm Hall, and debates on the difference between being obsessive-compulsive and being paranoid. There are also amusing tales of childhood and high school fiascoes such as the game of Deathball, a brutal mutation of basketball, and a violent game of scrabble.

The essays are breezy and conversational in tone, but not lacking intelligence. The pieces, juicy and roasted with humor, are also seasoned with amusing quotes from movies, literature, and even random barkada conversations. It is also wonderfully optimistic and sensitive to real-life situations.

In “Victory,” Tomas tells the euphoria of passing the bar exams but contemplates on what to say to a bar non-passer. In “Listen to my Stomach Talking,” he laments the proliferation of instant meals and the disappearance of the culinary arts. There are also essays devoted to trivial things like the method of enjoying sunrise and the hassles of keeping a car.

Intended as a regular column via electronic mail to friends, the pieces lack the staunch formality and academic bearing of other essay collections. All pieces are written in the same format of anecdote or insight, kicking narrative, and moral lesson, a factor which makes the collection a bit dragging. Surprisingly, however, the volume is informative, inspirational despite being contrite. Addicting as it is to the author not to forego a day without writing a Wala Lang column, it is equally habit-forming for the reader to read a Wala Lang or think of something along that line.

A Pinoy detective novel

Yes, there is a Pinoy detective novel. And who says a detective novel cannot be counted upon for a smooth reading?

For that purpose, F.H. Batacan accomplishes an intelligent action sequence that is purely Pinoy titled Smaller and Smaller Circles (University of the Philippines Press, 2002). Mysterious, intelligent and most of the time romantic, it tells the adventures of Gus Saenz, a Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist in hot pursuit of the Payatas dump serial murderer.

In a country where crime fighting is deprived of young blades and modern machinery, Saenz turns to skilled knife work, patiently conducting autopsies and identifying marks made on the bones of the victims. Intelligent and fast-paced, the novel deviates from the flashy, gangster slang-peppered, American comic-book pacing often used in movies like Sin City. Instead of the macho, superhero lead characters and breathtaking roof chases, the novel takes us inside the hard-knock life of Payatas dump scavengers, murderers armed with dental equipment, and the sub-level politics of the corrupt Philippine criminal and justice system, functioning almost like a satire.

What is amazing about the novel is the plausibility of its events, people, and circumstances. Everything is in synch with real, local setting, including the shrewd, corrupt lawyers and the banana fritter business.

Moving in only two time frames, the forward and the flashback, it makes an easy reading. The simple yet tasteful style enables the reader to finish the volume in one sitting.

Beautiful disease

Some people plead for sick leaves and often end up taking these breaks as relaxing vacation opportunities. Boring as the sickroom may be, confinement is still bliss when comforted by humor. Filipinos, having the thing for laughter in the face of sickness and disaster, are natural storytellers of misadventures and mishaps.

My Fair Maladies: Funny Essays and Poems on Various Ailments and Afflictions (Milflores Publishing, 2005), edited by Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, is a collection of funny essays on various ailments and psychological disorders, ranging from nosebleed to fear of cheese.

In “To Pee or not to Pee,” Far Eastern University-based writer Lourdes Reyes Montinola laments the misadventures of an overactive bladder, a disorder she claims came from “the power of suggestion” of a mother who always insists she goes to the bathroom before every shopping spree.

“Canary in the Coal Mine” by Susan Evangelista is an amusing account of her dealings with claustrophobia, a disorder that causes her to feel suffocated with the mere thought of a car in a tunnel.

The volume also contains clinical notes, culled from various sources, to explain the medical phenomena of each essay.

Though less prominent in the anthology, the poems are also engaging. UST Literature alumnus Angelo Suarez’ “Strabismus” is a quaint romantic portrait of a boy with a double vision disorder, out on a date.

The essays are short, lightly written, and informative. Though not designed to be swallowed in one sitting, My Fair Maladies is a book one can go through repeatedly in chunks.

A touch of nostalgia

Not all travels are for business or leisure. Some people hit the road for reflection and self-discovery. While some people prefer morale-boosting inspirational books fitting in the Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-genre, others prefer a companion-like book that can stir and move all emotions.

The True and the Plain (UP Press 2005), a collection of personal essays by Kerima Polotan treats the readers to a light narrative style with serious undertones. The graceful, flowing narrative carries the reader through the polluted Manila urban jungle all the way to the lush Bicol greenery and to a spunky American musical, and back again to a quiet house in Magallanes.

In “The Happy Hoi Polloi,” Polotan makes a shrewd, humorous observation on the life of the middle classes of the 1970s, the common woman’s happiness with a beauty parlor makeover, the famous cheap restaurants around Metro Manila, and the spunky metro youth.

“South Road” is a poignant piece on the value of family ties in the face of atrocities. As an older woman, Polotan recalls the ravages of romantic love in girlhood, and the warm, infinite, sisterly love of spinster aunts.

The volume has an intelligent, provocative middle-class quality. Though still possessing the trappings of high literature, it never fails to make the right commentaries about the same subjects nesting in journalism. Halfway through the volume, the readers grow heavy-lidded but mentally vigorous.

The volume is slightly impish but always intelligent. Though not explicitly designed to entertain, The True and the Plain succeeds in being insightful and coy, refusing to persuade, outpouring only the many passions of a seductive thinker.

Montage Vol. 9 • February 2006


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