Batanes. If you live in the Philippines, chances are that name can evoke beautiful, unspoiled pastoral images of rolling hills, rugged mountains, an unobstructed expanse of sky and water, and an idyllic way of life. It’s the northernmost island province of the Philippines, separated from the rest of Luzon where the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea meet. Because of its location, Batanes gets a ceaseless beating from the strong winds and typhoons during monsoon season. It’s one of the more remote spots in the country and like most fellow Filipinos, it’s a place I’ve always want to see.
Early this March, I found the perfect excuse to go. We launched in Batanes Asa Ka Awan du Vatan (A Year in Batanes) under Firetree Press, the small book publishing house I am a part of. The book can be a travel journal of sorts, but it’s really more of a precious collection of watercolor paintings by Victoria Abad-Kerblat and different Ivatan artists with a month by month guide on the rich heritage and traditions of Batanes.
The day before the book launch, my colleagues and I got to make our way around Batan, the main island of Batanes, where the provincial capital of Basco is located.
“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”—Paul Theroux
Around four months ago, while killing time inside a bookstore, I saw this book and much as I’m embarrassed to admit, finally made my acquaintance with Paul Theroux.
The title was the one that lured me in. And the back cover copy finished me off: “Here Theroux recounts his early adventures on an unusual grand continental tour. Asia’s fabled trains—the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mandalay Express, the Trans-Siberian Express—are the stars of a journey that takes him on a loop eastbound from London’s Victoria Station to Tokyo Central…” A railway adventure if there ever was one.
Thanks to my sister’s friend, I finally got hold of a copy of Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape – Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the book is a memoir about meeting the girl of his dreams, of watching her die, and a lot of mix tapes through their years together.
While another friend of my sister recommended it (we were at Borders in Bangkok and he got the last copy, damnit!), the “Mix tape” in the title did it for me. On the book: “Mix tapes: We all have our favorites. Stick one into a deck, press play, and you’re instantly transported to another time in your life.” Never a truer statement made. Like any kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I had my share of mix tapes (eventually mixed CDs), some I made, others given. Almost all I can no longer find, probably buried in some shoebox.
Sheffield’s book is so much like a mix tape. Some references to a song or an artist make me remember. Childhood in the late 1980s spent listening to Top 40 hits (Casey Kasem! Rick Dees!) and recording my favorites on a cassette tape, and getting shocked and seduced by grunge in the early 1990s, particularly by Nirvana.
In the chapter of August 1994, Sheffield writes about the summer “when Kurt was dead but the promise of rock was raging on.” He writes about his fears as a husband, he writes about the MTV Unplugged special of Nirvana that kept airing over and over; Kurt singing “all through Unplugged, about the kind of love you can’t leave until you die… The married guy was a lot more disturbing to me than the dead junkie.”
I didn’t hear this back then when I was 13. All I saw and heard was this blonde guy and his band, with his guitar and scratchy voice, singing about feeling stupid and contagious, about being so lonely (and that’s okay), about a girl…so much angst, misery, love and being able to sing/shout all about it through the guitar riffs. My teenage heart was happy.
By the end of the chapter–and Sheffield writes it brilliantly, hitting the nail on the head when it comes to listening to Cobain–I was asking my husband for the iPod and shuffling through my closet for those shoeboxes. I wanted to listen to Kurt again. Maybe this time, decades older and married, I’ll hear through some of his songs about the kind of love you can’t leave until you die. Or just be transported back to that time when you felt nobody would understand what you’re feeling, besides some band from another part of the world.
“But when I listen to Kurt, he’s not ready to die, at least not in his music–the boy on Unplugged doesn’t sound the same as the man who gave up on him.A boy is what he sounds like, turning his private pain into teenage news… I hear a scruffy sloppy guitar boy trying to sing his life. I hear a teenage Jesus superstar on the radio with a song about a sunbeam, a song about a girl, flushed with the romance of punk rock. I hear the noise in his voice, and I hear the boy trying to scare the darkness away. I wish I could hear what happened next, but nothing did.” Thank you Rob Sheffield.
It’s the smell that gets me. Every time I step into a bookshop (most bookshops anyway), I feel like I’m snuggled in between the pages of a book. (You know, when you buy a new book and you bury your nose in its pages, and even run your thumb across the pages to fan the smell of book paper–I love that!) And for anyone who loves books, what could be more satisfying than stepping into a small shop that just smells of books and have shelves and shelves of it.
I was told that the conservation shophouses along Duxton used to be occupied by a number of seedy bars. Well, after it cleaned up its act, different businesses have opened up shop, including Littered with Books.
Littered with Books in a conservation shophouse along Duxton Road in Singapore
What do you do when you have a glorious, free day? When you’ve sent all your stories to your editors the night before? And when you have no immediate deadlines? For me, the answer was to clean my bookshelf. I’ve been meaning to clean the bookshelf in the bedroom for the past few weeks after I realized the growing number of books I kept buying and haven’t gotten around to reading yet (or what I call my ‘book debt’). They could no longer fit in the said small shelf and have taken residence on every known surface in the room. There was going to be a way to make them all fit. I was determined. It took more than an afternoon though as there were distractions, but I did discover a few things…
I love this photo by GREEN iS from Flickr (link on the photo), but I am glad that I didn't have to clean these many books
Do not watch Atonement. Or some other depressing, tragic movie. I’ve been putting off watching it because I know the story, I know how devastating the ending will be, and I know I’ll be a weeping mess. I thought, I’ll be distracted with the cleaning, that I won’t really pay attention, I won’t feel invested in the characters, and I won’t feel bad when it’s revealed that (spoilers for fellow late-Atonement viewers) Robbie and Cecilia both die and Robbie was never really able to come back to her after being wrongly accused and sent to fight in the war. And there are wet tissues and some dusty books on the floor. I’m crying and sneezing at the same time and I don’t get around to cleaning the dusty shelf until I get myself together.