Not A Book Review: The Historian

There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

There is more to this book than I care to admit. And I hope you would indulge me a little as I look back on its premise.

In the months leading up to my father’s final diagnosis, I clung to books as a way to cope with the inevitable news of his cancer. I scoured bookstores for anything that resembled a father-daughter story in the hopes that I could try to prolong mine. I was in a foreign land at that time, where English books were limited compared to what I could find back home. Even bigger bookstores such as Red only had a few shelves of English books.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is one of the few books I came across in this hopeless search. I bought it not knowing it was essentially a vampire story – a fact that I am only accepting now that I finished reading it. Perhaps it is with the same goggles I used to look for the books that I read its story; convinced that it is more a father-daughter adventure than it is a postmodern historical take on Dracula. That is the beauty of fiction – I am allowed, once in a while, to corrupt it with my own agenda.

The story starts off with the unnamed daughter scouring her father’s library. She finds a mysterious vellum-bound book with a woodcut of a dragon in the center as well as letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” The dragon, it turns out, is the symbol of Vlad Tepes or the historical Dracula, and the book is an invitation to enter his otherworld.

The story spans a generation of historians that are bequeathed with the dragon book by mysterious means, including the daughter, a historian-in-the-making. What follows after finding the book is a rat race of questions and discovery behind its origins, its meaning, its purpose, the bequeathed one’s role, and a lifetime of tragedies brought on by the historical Dracula (as opposed to the romanticized, Hollywood version of Dracula). Between the flashbacks in the form of letters from previous historians, there is beautiful prose on the places that lay the foundation for much of the story. From Amsterdam, to Venice, to Bulgaria, to Turkey, and to Wallachia – the places were lifelike, unrushed in its writing, and considered equals to the characters themselves.

Despite the detective-like flow of the book, much of what I took away from it are found in the first few chapters. The dynamics between Paul and his daughter is the very reason I spent weeks reading and rereading Part One and only a few days finishing Parts Two and Three.

The few silences in the book are used to establish the relationship of the father and the daughter. Theirs is a subdued one, restrained even as the story around them has reached its climax. It is these silences that I have come to love about the book – the daughter’s gradual understanding of her father, finding meaning even in the slightest nuances in his eyes; the father taking his time to calmly share his story, finding relief in their shared silences as they both process their histories.

John Goodman also wrote about Silence, although his was more deliberate and devoid of any tragic Dracula story. I cannot help but connect Goodman and The Historian as I try to understand my own shared silences with my father. He wrote,

“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”

I am convinced that at this time you will no longer consider this an appropriate book review. It is not. The book is only a means by which I was allowed to appreciate the same shared silences I had with my own father. I set out wanting this one last adventure with him, that extra milestone in the lifetime we spent together. But what I got was an appreciation of the spaces in between those adventures. Turns out, those aren’t so bad at all.

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Into The Fold

We are only as linear as we allow ourselves to be.

In my previous work so many moons ago, we clung to the concept of a multi-disciplinary approach. It was a hot term then, overly used in so many of our proposals and discussions – but for good reason. Statistical data is only as good as its qualitative sociological or economic analysis; the message flows better with both disciplines working hand in hand.

Some disciplines are harder to mold together. But with a little imagination and perseverance, one can use mathematics, for example, to create beautiful pieces of art!

Such is the case with Robert Lang, a NASA physicist and acclaimed origami artist.

“It’s like dancing with a partner whose moves I know. If I move this way, I know my partner is going to move that way, and so I explore the math, develop the equations, solve the equations, create the folding pattern, and then I find out what it looks like. And as often as not, it is beautiful.”

The Great Big Story sat down with Robert Lang to discuss his work process here:

Hollow

Imagine standing “inside a forest of every forest and every forest that’s ever been made.”

One of my favorite writers, Herman Hesse, once proclaimed trees as “the most penetrating of preachers; they do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

Sometimes I forget the spirit of these amazing preachers, consumed instead by whatever it is I can gain from them in the time being. Particularly now that I work with them, I find myself focused on the yield and the elements that may or may not influence my harvest in the next few months. The logistics of farming consumes so much energy that the poetry of nature and of life is lost in the everyday stresses of managing a farm.

I forget that my father, when he was still strong as a bull, labored over a small land by the foot of a mountain to make a diverse and self-sustaining farm. That the heirloom trees on that land stood over him in the heat of the sun and argued with him when he tried to tame them. That every new seedling he planted heard his songs and stories about duwendes and fairies as they were birthed into the land. That my brothers and I were once tasked to plant more trees outside our gates because you can never have enough trees for security.

The farm holds a piece of our family’s history and story and there are no better witnesses to those precious moments than our trees.


A thousand breadths away in the UK, Katie Paterson in her new art installation combined 10,000 unique tree species to form a single snapshot of Earth’s history.

Hollow” is an arboreal microcosm permanently installed at the Royal Fort Gardens. Collaborating with architects, scientists, researchers, as well as with evolutionary biologist Dr. Jon Bridle, Paterson collected tree samples from every country on the planet including historically significant trees. The endeavor spanned several years.

Included in the installation are pieces from the Indian Banyan Tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment, a Japanese Gingko tree in Hiroshima (a tree that witnessed and survived one of the darkest moments of human history), and the ancient 4,846 years-old Methuselah tree.

Under your feet lie fossils which span 390 million years, and above you thousands of unique tree samples connect across time and space, each with their own story to tell.

Watch the BBC documentary on Hollow here:

Montmartre

All at once muted and intense, Montmartre is the Paris I imagined.

We trekked our way to Montmartre hoping for clear blue skies and instead we got the gloomiest Paris day ever. So we sat down at the first open café we saw, ordered croque madame and coffee, and just let ourselves be.

The neighborhood still has an electric feel to it. Maybe not the same as those immortalized in books, songs, and paintings, Van Gogh’s included, but still slightly palpable.

Certain areas in the neighborhood screams with history, its  streets privy to the scandalous parties, subversive artistic performances, and embrace of liberal practices Montmartre was once known for. While other streets are more fluff and staged to lure the tourists in.

In this bizarre land swarmed a host of colorful artists, writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, a few with their own places but most in furnished lodgings, surrounded by the workers of Montmartre, the starchy ladies of the rue Bréda, the retired folk of Batignolles, sprouting up all over the place, like weeds. Montmartre was home to every kind of artist. – Félicien Champsaur (1882)

Very few physical evidences of those times remain in Montmartre except for a few establishments such as Bateau Lavoire (Picasso’s old studio turned to restaurant) and Moulin de la Galette (now also a restaurant but was once working class dance hall). Even Moulin Rouge has been stripped of its debauchery and replaced with a more tourist approved exterior.

But that’s what makes it all the more interesting. The neighborhood now is more lived in yet you feel it in the air, how this small hilltop community changed artists, poets, writers, and subsequently, how we have all been influenced by those same artists, poets, writers in more ways than one.

Of course, one cannot experience Montmartre by just having breakfast outside a café. One must walk its hilly cobblestone streets and get lost, a liberty certainly worth enjoying in this neighborhood.

Farm House Tour

A perfect view of Mt. Isarog , the relaxing sound of the nearby river, and cold fresh air, I’m really blessed to call this home. Here’s a quick (tagalog) tour of our small farmhouse at the foothills of Mt. Isarog.