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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Holiday reads: On love, voyages, and zombies

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From now until the end of the year, I’ll be featuring works that you may consider giving as gifts this holiday season. Each of them will be special in their own way, and offer each reader something to touch the mind, heart, soul, or all at once.

Let’s normalize giving books as gifts! Iceland has a charming custom called ‘Jollabokaflod,’ or, in English, ‘Yule book flood.’ Christmas Eve is their main gift-giving day, and when they open their presents, it’s a tradition to spend the rest of the night curled up with a gifted book and a cup of hot cocoa.

Here are some Filipino book suggestions for you to start a Christmas book flood tradition with family and friends.

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I haven’t had this much fun reading anything in some time. Chuckberry J. Pascual’s Mars, May Zombie! (2022, 386 pgs., pb, Adarna House) is a madcap caper of a novel. It’s got everything that makes a book great – a young protagonist/hero, a bad-ass fighter lola, adventure, quests, secrets – and zombies!

It’s 2028, eight years after the zombie outbreak that forces people to live in zones with varying degrees of safety. Mars and his Lola Vicky live in a Red Zone, where most of the survivors are clustered. Black Zones are where the zombies are, and Blue Zones provide the most safety for residents.

Mars and his grandmother, and his best friend Billie move from house to house in the Red Zones as they look for shelter, supplies, and clean bathrooms with running water and unclogged plumbing. Finally they decide to enter a Blue Zone, but they find wishing is not easy as doing.

As Mars and his loved ones undertake the journey, they encounter more zombies and kill them in all manner of spectacularly violent and satisfyingly cathartic ways. They also meet people from the Blue Zone and others like themselves who looking for better lives. As they do so, they uncover a huge secret that affects everyone’s chances of survival. It is the latter discovery that makes me hopeful for a sequel and more Mars adventures in their dystopic world.

As an author, Pascual has a wide range and can handle anything from heavy to light. His Bayan ng mga Bangkay, a collection of horror short stories, had a deeper, more intense vibe.‘Zombie’ is lighter in tone but, like ‘Bangkay,’ tackles a gamut of social issues from ayuda to the pandemic to the inequality between rich and poor, and the lengths that people will go to enforce these divides.

As Mars ruminates: “Hindi lang pala ang zombie ang kalaban naming. Meron ding mga sundalo. Paano naman kami mananalo sa mga sundalo? Baka bumubunot pa lang kami ng baril, pinasabog na nila kami.” And this scenario is familiar to anyone who reads the news. Some things never change, even after a zombie virus disrupts a society.

This use of a multiplicity of themes on several levels is a hallmark of Pascual’s work. ‘Zombie,’ while delivering all the thrills and chills any action and zombie fan can wish for, also has a deeper layer of nuanced meaning that will reward the discerning reader.

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In Solo Flight: Mga Kuwento (2021, 260 pgs., pb, Isang Balangay Media Productions), Rita dela Cruz offers 15 tales of love and loss as seen from the perspective of a single woman.

In her introduction to the book, Rena Hermoso writes that quite often, narratives in popular media employ the ‘male gaze’ that creates an idealized, sexualized, image of women that hews to a patriarchal mindset of society.

Dela Cruz employs the opposite take as she foregrounds women and their lived experiences in these realist stories.

In “Dalawang Tuldok,” for instance, she waxes almost lyrical about a character’s experience of using a fountain pen. As a fountain pen user and erstwhile collector myself, this passage drew me:

“Nakita kong hawak ni Charlotte ang Omas fountain pen at nilagyan niya ng isa pang tuldok ang blangkong papel. Ipinuwesto niya ang isa pang tuldok sa likod ng naunang dalawa. Maingat ang pagdampi ng tinta ng Omas sa puting papel, banayad at pulido, walang bahid ng kalat. Gaya ng dampi ng halik sa labi, marahan ngunit lapat na lapat. Ramdam hanggang sa kaibuturan.” This was, to put it straightforwardly, nakakakilig!

Dela Cruz uses a range of literary devices in her light prose and various themes such as surrealism, black comedy, travel, and unrequited love to craft stories that are relatable and engaging. This is an interesting and notable addition to feminist literature, as it furthers the representation of women and their narratives in media.

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Emmanuel T. Barrameda is a multi-awarded writer from Catanduanes whose latest work is Balager (2020, 160 pgs., pb, Isang Balangay Media Productions). This book is a collection of essays (sanaysay) in Filipino (he also writes in the Bikol language).

In his introduction to the book, Palanca Award-winning writer Niles Jordan Breis says Barrameda’s first-person essays touch on themes of island, roaming, and a cycle of departure and return that point to ‘travel as reflection.’

The word ‘balager,’ he points out, means ‘roamer’ or ‘wanderer,’ coming as it does from the Bikol word ‘balag’ which means a sort of directionless travel, or journeying without a destination. It is travel for the sake of travel itself, and is connected to the concepts of the flaneur (someone who strolls and observes human life) and solivagant (a lone wanderer).

In “Vice Versa,” Barrameda tells of a bus trip from Manila to Bicol that he took as a young child with his father. He was not told why they were going, but simply to take some toys along. The trip took ten hours, with the young boy seated on his father’s lap to take advantage of a free ride.

Along the way, Barrameda speaks both of the lengthy voyage undertaken by their bodies, with muscles aching from the strain of ‘kalong,’ but also of an inner journey:

“Wala kang ibang makakausap kundi ang sariling konsensiya habang nakikinig sa kalansing ng mga bakal at piyesa ng makina ng bus. Noong panahong iyon hindi pa gaanong hi-tech ang mga cellphone, wala talagang ibang p’wedeng gawin sa biyahe kundi ang matulog na lang kapag nakakaligaw na ang sukal ng tanawin sa labas ng bintana. Kaya talagang uusigin ka ng konsensiya sa biyahe.”

Other trips in the other essays in this book are taken on tricycles, AUVs, a Mitsubishi Pajero, jeepneys, taxis, and other public and private vehicles. But the most engaging journeys are the ones the “I” persona takes in his inner mind, through the past and a childhood littered with myriad experiences.

This book is for those who enjoy memoirs and those who want to explore the juxtaposition of inner and outer journeys as a frame for introspection and self-reflection.

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Dr. Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. You may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO


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