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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Comfort Me With Peter De Vries

I first read Peter De Vries when as a skinny, bespectacled college freshman, I ran across his novels at the library of the old Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center located then in Makati (Philippines).

His novels were the funniest I've ever read, even funnier than John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which is considered by some to be the funniest novel ever written. By “some,” I mean Americans; by Americans, I mean those good people over at Cracked. Well, Toole’s novel might be funny to them (I tried reading it, but I couldn't finish it), but Mr. De Vries’ novels are so much funnier, so much wittier.
Peter De Vries (1910-1993)

I remember all those good times I had reading Mr. De Vries' novels. I remember them the way other college freshmen remember the good times they had at all those parties. I’m a geek, in case you still hadn't surmised it yet (but then again, I was Grand Chancellor of the coolest Greek society in our university—for five ass kicking semesters, so there’s that). A geek Greek, is what I am.

Anyway, I was checking out Mr. De Vries’ wiki page, and I found out that by the time he died, all his books were out of print. I was outraged. Yet another reason for me to whine about modern society and its skewed priorities. I hate finding reasons to whine about. So imagine my surprise and delight when I serendipitously stumbled upon a copy  of Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, a De Vries novel I hadn't read. I was giddy with happiness, I felt as ecstatic as this kid: 

Peter De Vries was one of the greatest comedic writers, and I am very lucky that I get to read, and appreciate, his works. Why his books would go out of print I will never understand. Mr. De Vries is one of the reasons why a book lover would never regret all those times spent on reading. 

I remember reading these: Comfort Me with Apples, The Vale of Laughter, I Hear America Swinging, Madder Music, and Peckham’s Marbles. I couldn't read them fast enough. These books made me giggle like an idiot. Happy times. 

You know the feeling when the girl you just met at a party is laughing at all your jokes, looking at you with cow eyes,  drunk, and you’re sitting there with a packet of condoms in your wallet, sipping beer, and thinking Oooh baby you gonna get it tonight? Well, I don’t, either—but that’s not the point. I imagine that kind of anticipation approximates what I feel as I saunter home with this book.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Of Dragons and Kings (and Queens) and Broken Men

If you like happy endings, if you believe that good, honest, decent folks should triumph over adversity, and that evil, sadistic, psychotic, murdering bastards should die horrible deaths, then George R. R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire is not for you.
Stay away from it, don’t go near it, don’t touch it with a pole of any length. In Martin’s world, acting all honorable and shit will get your head rolling on the ground. Honor will not get you anything, except a knife in the back—the metaphorical kind, and the physically painful kind, the kind that makes you dead.
And not only in the back; but also in the front, in your face, or in your neck. Decapitations are a common occurrence in the series.

The books (there are five: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons, with two as yet unpublished) set out providing in depth characterizations of various characters, and when you, the reader, gets to know them, the author kills them off. This not only happens to main characters, but to other characters as well, characters who suddenly appear in the narrative, and just as suddenly die. It can leave you wondering, “What was the whole point?” while scratching your head. Or stroking your chin, or frowning at the book. If you get too complacent, and you find yourself taken in on a character’s story, events in the books will remind you that the author, George R. R. Martin, is unlike most authors.
One character sums it all up: “If you think this has a happy ending, then you haven’t been paying attention.”

Towards the fifth book (A Dance with Dragons), the reader gets the sense that main characters dying are getting too gimmicky. Also their subsequent “resurrection,” if that device is what the author plans to use in the subsequent books (there are two more, we must remember). If this one particular character however (who seemingly died in A Dance with Dragons) stays dead, a good part of the series would seem pointless, and his part could have been omitted in the TV version. All those character back stories, all those character development, all for naught. 

Maybe that is the point? That everything is pointless, that all those sound and fury signify nothing? Death oftentimes does not make sense. Reading the series is an exhilarating experience, but it can also be depressing, and sometimes infuriating.
Syrio Forel to Arya Stark:"There is only one god, and his name is Death; and what do we say to Death? Not today."

Yes, we get it— the world is a horrible place, life is not fair, good guys are really losers, treachery is around us, and that the Law of Reciprocity (aka the Golden Rule) is a pathetic attempt of weak people to get other people to treat them fairly. We really do not need to read books to know all these things, right? All we need is to read the news, take a closer look around us, and pay attention.

But George R. R. Martin tells these life lessons masterfully and compellingly. Or maybe he is not giving us any lessons; he is just portraying the human experience as what it really is— oftentimes tragic, unfair, a constant battle for survival, but oh, what a journey. As Ygritte says: “All men must die, but first we’ll live.”  
One does not simply read A Song of Ice and Fire; one experiences it.

As it is an epic fantasy genre, there are of course sorcery and dragons and other fantastic beings, although these elements take a back seat for the deadly politicking and court intrigues that make the series riveting. The series is real life couched in fantasy, basically; the politicking, greed, corruption, apathy and the backstabbing of those in power contrasted against the chaos of a war-torn land and its starving populace is unfortunately familiar to many people all over the world.  
Consider this passage from A Feast of Crows, the fourth book in the series:

“Is a broken man an outlaw?"
"More or less." Brienne answered.
Septon Meribald disagreed. "More less than more. There are many sorts of outlaws, just as there are many sorts of birds. A sandpiper and a sea eagle both have wings, but they are not the same. The singers love to sing of good men forced to go outside the law to fight some wicked lord, but most outlaws are more like this ravening Hound than they are the lightning lord. They are evil men, driven by greed, soured by malice, despising the gods and caring only for themselves. Broken men are more deserving of our pity, though they may be just as dangerous. Almost all are common-born, simple folk who had never been more than a mile from the house where they were born until the day some lord came round to take them off to war. Poorly shod and poorly clad, they march away beneath his banners, ofttimes with no better arms than a sickle or a sharpened hoe, or a maul they made themselves by lashing a stone to a stick with strips of hide. Brothers march with brothers, sons with fathers, friends with friends. They've heard the songs and stories, so they go off with eager hearts, dreaming of the wonders they will see, of the wealth and glory they will win. War seems a fine adventure, the greatest most of them will ever know.  "Then they get a taste of battle. "For some, that one taste is enough to break them. Others go on for years, until they lose count of all the battles they have fought in, but even a man who has survived a hundred fights can break in his hundred-and-first. Brothers watch their brothers die, fathers lose their sons, friends see their friends trying to hold their entrails in after they've been gutted by an axe.  "They see the lord who led them there cut down, and some other lord shouts that they are his now. They take a wound, and when that's still half-healed they take another. There is never enough to eat, their shoes fall to pieces from the marching, their clothes are torn and rotting, and half of them are shitting in their breeches from drinking bad water.
"If they want new boots or a warmer cloak or maybe a rusted iron halfhelm, they need to take them from a corpse, and before long they are stealing from the living too, from the smallfolk whose lands they're fighting in, men very like the men they used to be. They slaughter their sheep and steal their chickens, and from there it's just a short step to carrying off their daughters too. And one day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don't know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they're fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world...
"And the man breaks.
"He turns and runs, or crawls off afterward over the corpses of the slain, or steals away in the black of night, and he finds someplace to hide. All thought of home is gone by then, and kings and lords and gods mean less to him than a haunch of spoiled meat that will let him live another day, or a skin of bad wine that might drown his fear for a few hours. The broken man lives from day to day, from meal to meal, more beast than man. Lady Brienne is not wrong. In times like these, the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them...but he should pity them as well.”
Not quite how soldiers in other books in the medieval fantasy genre are portrayed. There is nothing romantic in being a broken man. No happy, easy-going hobbits in George R. R. Martin's world, no heroic Strider who will rise up and unite the kingdoms to fight a common enemy, no benevolent, sexy Elves to give the heroes powerful and magical weapons. There are even no heroes. The heroic ones are killed. George R.R. Martin is the anti-Tolkien--the Tolkien for the 21st century, as what Ian Irvine of The Independent calls him. 
John Irving, in his book “The World According to Garp,” says that, “A novelist is a doctor who sees only terminal cases.” 
He could have been referring to George R. R. Martin.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Meet the Binay Babes

Frustrated at being unable to help Filipinos abroad who are in trouble, Vice President Jejomar Binay of the Philippines proposed to President Noynoy Aquino the formation of a crack team of operatives whose members are expert in all kinds of weaponry and proficient in hand-to-hand combat; a unit that would be capable of extracting Filipinos abroad who are wrongfully imprisoned, Filipinos who are detained by an abusive employer, or being held hostage, in different parts of the world.

After consulting with his classmates in Ateneo, President Aquino agreed. Binay then arranged a secret meeting with his fraternity’s Inner Circle and asked them to assist him in looking for candidates.
Here are the results of the search.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Binay Babes:

Mayumi Dimapilas-Expert in stealth missions, hand-to-hand combat; inhumanly proficient in bladed weapons and firearms.
Born in the hinterlands of Mindanao, Mayumi was a lumad princess whose village was destroyed in a battle between Philippine government forces and Islamic separatists. Her father, the reigning Datu, along with his wives and all the members of their village, were killed. Mayumi was just five years old when her village was destroyed, and she was the only survivor. One of the rebels took pity on her, and brought the young Mayumi to his commander, Abdul Jakul Salsalani. The rebels fled to Basilan, bringing the girl with them. In Basilan, Mayumi was placed under the care of a legendary Tausug warrior, who was rumored to be a hundred and fifty years old. The famed warrior taught the girl everything he knew, making the girl an accomplished warrior/assassin by the time she reached puberty. When she was twenty, Mayumi learned that her family was actually killed in cold blood by the same Muslim commander who brought her to Basilan. Mayumi was devastated, because she came to regard the man as her surrogate father. She tracked Salsalani down to an island in Sulu, where the commander was holed up with his elite guards. Mayumi infiltrated the compound where Salsalani was hiding, killed about two dozen of the guards, and finally confronted the man who murdered her family. The commander it turned out had also been a student of the Tausug warrior. Both armed with a kris, the two engaged in single combat that lasted from dusk till dawn.  As the sun rose, Salsalani’s body was seen lying on the ground, bloodied and lifeless. Mayumi was kneeling beside the body, her kris on her lap. 
Pursued by the rest of the commander’s soldiers, she escaped to Manila, where she was approached by a mysterious man who claimed to be a fraternity brother of the Vice President and invited her to be one of the “Binay Babes.” 
She accepted.   

Alabama Cruz—Tech, gadget and explosives expert; sharpshooter.
Alabama is the daughter of an Army General. As an army brat, and an only child to boot, she grew up playing with guns; where other girls had Barbie Dolls, she had a Glock 17. At ten years old, she could hit a coin tossed into the air by her father, using her favorite pistol, the Glock. She had also shown an uncanny ability to master hi-tech gadgets and computers, which her doting father bought her. She also disarmed a bomb—even without prior training in bomb disposal—that was sent to their home by one of her father’s enemies. Realizing that her daughter was a prodigy, the General sent her abroad to study. Alabama earned a master’s degree in Computer Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she graduated at the top of her class. She was also the captain of the MIT jujitsu and shooting team. During her stay at MIT, she met Rajiv Mahabharatbu, a 4th generation Indian-American, and the two became lovers. Mahabharatbu turned out to be a CIA operative, and recruited Alabama.  The CIA quickly put her in a secret counter-terrorism unit that put her mastery of computers and technological wizardry to good use.  At her request, she also received extensive bomb disposal training, as well as explosive ordnance disposal, at Langley, Virginia. However, after a few years, she uncovered compelling evidence that her lover was a rogue agent, and was working for the highest bidder. Mahabharatbu got wind of her plan to turn him over to the CIA, and hatched a plot to kill Alabama. He rigged Alabama’s car with explosives. Unfortunately, her parents who were visiting her at the time, were killed instead. Alabama resigned from the CIA and hunted her lover, a manhunt that took her all over the world. She finally tracked down Mahabharatbu’s hideout in France, in a veritable fortress.
Alabama located Mahabharatbu on the top floor of the fortress-like structure.  She would have used a Barret M82 sniper rifle, but she didn't have one at the time.
Instead, she strapped explosives to a remote-controlled model airplane and used the toy as a guided missile to kill her lover.
Rajiv Mahabharatbu’s body was vaporized in the explosion. 
She returned to the Philippines, where her godfather introduced her to a mysterious Philippine government official who asked her if she would consider joining the Binay Babes.
She said yes.

Pedrita Pukaykay- Expert in sabotage, can operate anything mechanical (including all vehicles and machinery), expert grade in marksmanship and a master of FMA (Filipino Martial Arts); also has a supernatural ability to sense incoming danger.
Pedrita’s family, from Cebu, was a famous martial arts clan. She grew up in her father and grandfather’s dojo, where she started training at a very young age. She reached “Guro” (instructor) level before her sixteenth birthday. Pedrita also showed excellent mechanical aptitude.
She has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of the Philippines, and is a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy. She held the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Philippine Air Force.
Her family’s  dojo, located in a compound where all members of the family lived (including her siblings’ spouses, their children and Pedrita's grandfather--the clan patriarch), where destroyed in a fire. Her entire family was wiped out, except for her grandfather, who was badly injured. 
Pedrita learned that her family’s rival martial arts clan was responsible for the deadly fire. Upon recovery, her grandfather revealed to Pedrita their clan’s secret, deadly technique, which is taught only to the next head of the Pukaykay clan. After training assiduously for a year, Pedrita went after her family’s rival clan, and killed all male members of the clan one by one, until only the clan’s head remained.  The man was more than a match for Pedrita, however. The fight took everything Pedrita had, until finally, she had no choice but to use the technique her grandfather taught her. The final blow was supposed to immobilize her opponent; but due to her relative inexperience in using the technique, what landed instead was a killing blow.
The man never knew what hit him.
Avenged, she then resigned from the Philippine Air Force.
A few months later, a representative from the Vice President’s office approached her and asked her if she is interested in joining the Binay Babes.  
Why not, she answered.

At present, the “Babes” are currently receiving additional training, and should be available for deployment a few months from now. 

*I was rooting around in my old files yesterday and found this; this was written three years ago.
 Anyway, there is still no sign of the Binay Babes. =) 
(tongue firmly in cheek)
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