Category: Books

The Great Book Loot of 2009

I buy more books than clothes, thanks mostly to very limited closet space. And although I updated my fashion haul this year, raiding book stores still remained my de facto activity on shopping weekends in spite of the great book blockade annoyance of 2009. Here are my favorite books for the year that was:

  • Open: An Autobiography (Andre Agassi) – The only male winner of tennis Golden Slam (all four majors and one Olympic gold medal) shares his struggles and triumphs in the sport he hated, his depression and fall in the rankings, and how it all came together for him as he completed his career grand slam and finally met the woman of his dreams in this controversial but wonderful retelling of the story of one of tennis’ greatest and most colorful players. Freebies for Federer fans: Agassi has only good words for the reigning GOAT.
  • The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – Not your ordinary young adult fiction, The Hunger Games is about the brutal tradition of sending youths to an annual tournament where victory is achieved through merciless killing of all other participants.
  • Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell) – The central idea for this book is that successful people do not reach their potential by themselves. Instead, Gladwell argues that success is often a result of a combination of right timing, help from family and community, and thousands of hours of preparation. In fact, to be truly primed for success, a person should have logged in at least 10,000 hours of preparation or practice in the field of their specialization, whether it is in technology, sports, or music. Moreover, a person’s cultural background and family history plays a great role in one’s success, which makes you realize that your background may either be a help or a hurdle towards reaching your potential.
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffeneger) – This might as well have been titled The Time Traveler, as it is mostly about the chrono-impaired man who jumps from one period to another within the span of his and his wife’s lifetime. He meets her first when she is 9 and last when she is 80; he only lives to his early forties.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson) – I’m still reading this tome, a chocful of compressed bits of information about how the universe and the earth came to be, and how the forces that shaped the cosmos for millions of years allowed you to be here in the first place.
  • The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follet) – This is just a runner up, but for those who wish to have an idea of how those majestic cathedrals that date back to the medieval times were built, and how their builders went about their business of…well, building…this book is a good place to start.

Open: An Autobiography

Andre Agassi's Open: An AutobiographyThe moment I opened Andre Agassi’s controversial book, Open: An Autobiography, I was hooked on this brilliant retelling of the story of one of tennis’ most colorful champions. The Golden Slam winner (7 grand slams and 1 Olympic gold medal) held nothing from his readers and instead offered an insider look at the lonely world–at least his world–of tennis.

The son of a tennis-obsessed, violent Iranian migrant, Agassi was practically forced into the sport at 8, his father believing all along that he would become world number 1 someday. Thus began his hatred for the sport that would make him one of its most successful players. We all know that tennis rides equally on the mental strength of its players and on their physical agility, and Agassi provided page after page of insight into the mental savagery that went on in every game, including the psychological maneuverings on- and off-court among players, their supporters, and the pesky press.

Much has been said in the media about the crystal meth and Agassi’s lying to the ATP to escape a possible banning from the game that he never failed to mention he hated to anyone who was willing to listen.  People derided his wild mohawk then, and the public made fun of the hair when it was announced that it was fake after all. The fear that the fake hair would fall during a rally even cost him what could have been his first French Open title.

However, the real story is what went on during the years of his fall from the top of the ranks to outside the 100 circuit because of depression. I remember somewhat following tennis back in my college days on the news. While Sampras won slam after slam, the supposed competition between Agassi and his fellow American helped make the sport very popular in the US in the ’90s. I listened to news of his marriage to Brooke Shields and then found months later that Agassi had fallen so far below the rankings that it only made me believe that the actress caused his troubles. In Open, Agassi does not necessarily blame his first wife for his bad results, but it surely factored in the depression over the sport, his life and the treatment he suffered in the hands of the press.  However, if ever their relationship had any redeeming value at all, it was that Shields convinced him to ditch the wig.

Months after their divorce, everything started to come together for Agassi. The humbling experience forced him to play in qualifying rounds and challenger circuits in order to be able to compete in more serious tournaments. Eventually, his efforts paid off and he managed to become the fifth man to complete a career Grand Slam and the oldest to be world number one at 32.

The best part, however, is reserved for his courtship of Steffi Graf whom he had already admired even before he won his first major title, how he set up practice sessions with her, followed her around the tennis circuit, and waited for her to call him back. To this reader, “fraulein forehands” represented the elusive but eventually attainable French Open title, and if the cosmos had played any part in their fates, both players won their last French Open titles on the same year.

The implications of Agassi’s meth use might have had a bigger impact on tennis although it was just a recreational drug instead of a performance enhancer (I’m no expert on this). His fake wild hair was his way of hiding his confusion over who he was instead of being his way of rebelling against the norms of the sport. But I would dare a guess that what spurred him on to achieve greatness in the sport that he hated was his equal hatred for losing in it. I wonder how much he would have attained had he loved tennis.

The Café Scene

“The story of how Paris became what we now think of when somesays ‘Paris’ is the story of men and women who were able to reinvent the wheel in many different domains because they understood the fundamental importance of these two concepts: Stick to the high-end and forget the low. Never underestimate the importance of décor and ambiance. Take, for example, the café. The coffeehouse became an institution in England, the Netherlands, and Germany in the 1650s and 1660s. The original coffeehouses were fairly modest affairs; men frequented them to drink coffee and beer and to smoke. This concept had no appeal in France. And then, in 1675, the humble English coffeehouse was reinvented and quickly became an essential part of the new capital Paris was then becoming.

“Francesco Procopio transformed the coffeehouse; he made it exquisite. His peers referred to him as an ‘artist’: he had, after all, created the formula that made the café a way of life in Paris. Elsewhere, cafés featured nothing worthy of the name décor, whereas, at Café Procope, the tables were made of marble, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, the walls were decorated with elegant mirrors, and coffee was served from silver pots. Beer was banished from these elegant surroundings; patrons sipped exotic cocktails instead. And they could snack on delicate pastries and sorbets in flavors such as amber and musk. The Procope, was, in short, the original chic café.

“Its example was quickly emulated: by the turn of the eighteenth century, the world’s first café scene had been created in the newly fashionable Saint-Gemain-des-Prés neighborhood. Parisian cafés attracted a very different clientele than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe–elegant women, who would never have set foot in a coffeehouse, frequented cafés to see and show off all the latest fashions.”

–de Jean, Joan. The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Photo source

Quel Temps Fait-il?

I like rains in the afternoons, but not when I’m about to take my commute from work. I like rains in the evenings, but not when I have to compete with Manila’s 15 million other commuters to get a taxi. I like rains in general, but not when it causes horrible traffic jams or when it means getting my shoes soaked in grimy waters.

I guess people are just as fickle when it comes to liking and disliking the weather, and I can tell from their status updates on Facebook, but it has very little effect on people’s moods, according to a Humboldt University study. As CNN weather reports of more wet days to come, bring out your raincoats or umbrellas; stock up on “bed weather” food; find good books to read within the comforts of your room. For this weekend, I’m reading Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda.

One day to go before TGIF.

Get over Mr. Darcy!

“I blame Pride and Prejudice for the fact that the hero of every romance novel is rotten to the heroine the first time he meets her. In my heart, I also blame it for our persistent and anachronistic tendency to regard a man as an embodiment of personal destiny. Well, not Pride and Prejudice alone. But we carry stories around in our bones, and among novels about the sexes, it’s the best there is: Elizabeth snagging Mr. Darcy is romantic heroin for the discriminating reader.”

“The archetypal heroine” on Globe and Mail