Books for our times
On the off chance you, gentle reader, have some extra cash to spare, why not spend some of it on books? Here are five worthy candidates for your hard-earned holiday bucks. Ateneo’s books are available on your favorite shopping platform or through their website; ditto for “Simpol.” The two foreign publications are best ordered through your friendly neighborhood bookstore like Powerbooks, while the guide to trees has an email address mentioned below.
“The Marcos Era: A Reader,” edited by Leia Castañeda Anastacio and Patricio N. Abinales, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2022. With the Marcos Restoration has come the republication of opposition classics such as Primitivo Mijares’ “The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos” (1976) and Ric Manlapat’s “Some Are Smarter Than Others: The History of Marcos’ Crony Capitalism” (1979). A sign of the times is that both books, period pieces of opposition literature, have been dusted off but not otherwise updated or critically reexamined, which blunts both their usefulness and relevance because whatever explosive impact they may have had then, the Marcoses have managed to insulate themselves from past attacks over three decades of refining the means and methods for blunting attacks, while relentlessly updating their propaganda messages and methods. This anthology is one I have been privileged to be part of (my part comes at the beginning, looking at Marcos, the man, and what his story reveals about his times and ourselves, as a people) so let the book’s description by the publisher tell you the rest: “This book brings into conversation historians, journalists, political scientists, pundits, lawyers, and economists across generations as they engage in a collective assessment of Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr.’s regime. Extensive as well as incisive, the essays in this unprecedented anthology appraise different facets of this seminal period’s policies, programs, and personalities and reveal a complicated legacy whose full import and impact have yet to be thoroughly unpacked.” Perhaps long overdue, it at least serves as an accompaniment to the Marcos Restoration long thought impossible, then improbable, and then, inevitable. The next book makes an invaluable, even necessary, companion to this one.
“The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State,” by Philip Bowring, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. While the best capsule history of our country remains “State and Society in the Philippines,” by Patricio Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso (a second edition has been published by the Ateneo University Press), the question of why our politics is the way it is, and what this says about who we are, collectively and as individual components of society, periodically demands an explanation. To my mind, this volume represents one of the best efforts by a non-Filipino, and perhaps it took a veteran newsman from England to be able to do it with such aplomb, objectivity, and yet, sympathy. The author has seized on the image of a jigsaw puzzle to frame his efforts to describe us: the effects of geography, of history in both retarding the creation of cohesive, progressive country, and yet also resulting in the formation of a society that is noted for its capacity for solidarity (even abroad!) and being ahead in terms of gender equality in comparison to our neighbors. The book is, broadly speaking, composed of three parts. It lays the foundations for describing and dissecting our modern-day leadership and institutions through a series of concise chapters on everything, from our geological to the colonial past, and the formation of modern Philippines from the Commonwealth to the 1969 elections. The second part consists of the chapters that take us from Ferdinand Marcos Sr. to Rodrigo Duterte: Indeed, the book is the first draft in the writing of the history of the administrations of Arroyo, Aquino III, and Duterte. One can only hope an updated edition will come in a few years to include the Marcos Restoration that took place after the book was written. The third part is a systematic exploration of our country, starting with the question of the strength (and weakness) of “Imperial Manila,” our deplorable educational and health systems, to poverty and one of its hallmarks, migration abroad, to aspects of our economy, the law, family, and minorities. The full measure of any book about the Philippines and Filipinos is whether one would find it suitable as a gift for foreigners as a way to introduce our humid complexities, and to fellow Filipinos as an invitation to reflection and discussion. This book qualifies on both counts: It is obviously written not just with affection but respect for us. If you have sufficient resources and leisure time, read this book as a companion to Abinales and Amoroso; if not, read this book alone (but, as above, with the Marcos anthology, too!).
“Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan,” by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of California Press, 2022. Author of the acclaimed “1492: The Year the World Began,” this time he scrutinizes the life of Ferdinand Magellan and dissects that explorer’s motivations: arguing that what drove Magellan wasn’t the desire to find a new route for the procurement of spices or the ambition of circumnavigating the world, but rather, to obtain gold for himself from what is now known as the Philippines, which he knew was there, from information from other Europeans. He reminds us that Magellan represented an ambivalent, even abhorrent, place in the annals of explorers, because he was, ultimately, a self-destructive failure. We spend much of our time arguing against old prejudices, such as whether explorers really “discovered” the Philippines or where exactly the first Mass was celebrated. But this book provides for the Filipino reader something valuable not least because so fascinating: an understanding of what was happening both in our part of the world and in the West, in the years leading to 1521, all the while experiencing a gripping account of the life and times of Magellan, a kind of mini-Colombus in his egotism, ruthlessness, deviousness, cruelty, and dedication. In last year’s quincentennial of the first circumnavigation of the world, the book to beat was “Ferdinand Magellan: The Armada de Maluco and the European Discovery of the Philippines,” self-published by the Bicolano historian Danilo Madrid Gerona in 2016. A haunting detail from his work was that when Miguel López de Legazpi finally accomplished the conquest of what became the Philippines, in Mactan there was hardly any population, much less sign, of the community once led by Lapulapu a mere half-century before.
“Alay: Philippine Native Trees at the Victor O. Ramos Arboretum,” by Pastor L. Malabrigo Jr. and Arthur Glenn A. Umali, Philippine Native Tree Enthusiasts, 2022 (email [email protected] to purchase a copy). This would otherwise be a specialist publication, but as our urban lifestyles reduce nature to manicured pockets of greenery and even rarer occasional examples of surprising survival, tree-spotting might as well become an urban hobby, and this book serves the bill. Consider it one of those specialist publications that should inhabit the shelves of tree and plant lovers everywhere. Besides which, with a name like Philippine Native Tree Enthusiasts, how can you not support such a group and its efforts?
“Simpol: The Cookbook,” by Chef Tatung Sarthou, ABS-CBN Books, 2020. The cheerful, practical, online presence of Chef Tatung made cooking during the pandemic an unintimidating possibility, and so, already a fan, I eagerly snapped up his cookbook when it came out. It didn’t and doesn’t disappoint. For the starter cook or the veteran home cook alike, the book is easy and practically foolproof. He is a principled, encouraging, and accomplished part of our food scene and deserves our patronage and support in his endeavors.