What it Takes to Fix a Nation, with Jonathan Tepperman (A Book Review of “The Fix”)

I was skeptical reading Jonathan Tepperman’s book The Fix (Amazon | Indiebound) at first, because as much as I’d like to say that I’m a pretty open and flexible person, my politics are not. I’ve been invested in a specific ideology for a while now, something that has helped me understand the world, our society and how people function.

With a barrage of economic and political crisis around the world, it’s inevitable to lean into a little bit of idealism. To dream up of an alternative world where the 1% isn’t ravaging the rest of us, where wars aren’t the norm, where governments actually function to serve the people.

The reality is grim. The level of inequality among the world’s population is at the highest, threats of nuclear warfare are imminent, and the political rhetoric is at its most toxic, at its worst. And this is only in the United States.

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But there is hope, as Tepperman writes in The Fix. And even better — there are solutions. As he breaks down the “terrible ten,” most pressing issues of our time such as poverty, immigration, Islamic extremism and political gridlock, he also provides concrete illustrations of how different countries have tackled them.

Ten problems (half political, half economic), ten countries, ten solutions.

But first, it is important to note Tepperman’s premise, as illustrated by the cases he presented. Much of these solutions rely on existing government structures and more specifically, politicians.

Take Brazil for example. In a country where about a third of the population is beneath the international poverty line (defined as living on less than $2 a day), former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva implemented a policy which defied all conventional wisdom (and politicking). He introduced Bolsa Família, a social welfare program which attempted to reduce short-term poverty by providing direct cash transfers provided that families ensure their children’s educated and vaccination.

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Described by The Economist as an anti-poverty scheme that was winning converts
worldwide, close to about forty million Brazilians moved from poverty into middle class, with the average household income up by 27 percent.

The program is not without fault of course, and also drew criticism from other sectors of the government and Brazilian society. Still, Tepperman was able to illustrate something that many nations are adopting at the moment, like the Philippines and Zambia. Continue reading

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The Ways We Choose to Live, with Magda Szabó (A Book Review)

Assuming that someone could vouch for us, and assure her that neither of us were likely to brawl or get drunk, we might perhaps discuss the matter again. I stood there dumbfounded. This was the first time anyone had required references from us. “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen,” she said.

I grew up with Ate Marie, our nanny and household help. My mom had a full-time job with three little girls to take care of. Her mother-in-law, my paternal grandma passed away when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and my maternal grandma, her mother, was abroad, working in the U.S. She needed all the help she could get. When I was about ten, my father found out he was adopted and that his real mother was in London working as a nanny.

A few years ago, I was involved in a campaign for domestic worker’s bill of rights. The campaign involved educational discussions, continuous social media outreach and visits to the state’s capital, Sacramento, in efforts to level up the rights of domestic workers and caregivers.

How I’ve known domestic work my whole life has been this way, from Ate Marie, our household help, my grandmother who was a nanny in London, the Filipinos who become caregivers in the U.S. and around the world, and the countless women who labor each day with their heart and hands.

And then I met Emerence.

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Fall, 1981 by Tamas Galambos

Magda Szabó The Door (Amazon | Indiebound) is the story of Emerence, a Hungarian woman who becomes employed by the narrator and her husband as their household help. The narrator is a writer, married with no child. From the moment she sought Emerence, much of her existence revolved around understanding the older lady’s existence. This was already evident upon their first meeting: she asked for references & remarked that she doesn’t just washes anyone’s dirty linen. She sought out details, asked around, even traveled back to Emerence’s hometown to get a glimpse of who she really was. Continue reading

Gagamba: The Filipino Spiderman, with F. Sionil José

No, he is not the dashing Filipino iteration of the well-loved superhero around the world. Nor is he the lean prototype of a man scaling the side of towers and buildings, saving lives, saving everything. But to be fair, there is a building in the story, “Camarin” as it is known, a story in which Gagamba (spider in Filipino) is the hero of.

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by Manny Garibay

In a killer earthquake which struck Central Luzon where the country’s capital Manila lay, the Camarin building came crashing down. Gagamba was right outside, at his usual stall selling sweepstakes tickets when he felt the turbulence. Even though the shock caused him to fall on the ground, he got up and walked away unscathed.

Inside the building were people from varying economic backgrounds and professions, all cocooned within the building’s cool air-conditioned air and plush ambiance, fit for the capital’s elite, crushed under the rubble a few minutes after one that afternoon.

The cripple, Tranquilino Penoy — otherwise know as Gagamba (spider) to the denizens of Ermita — was one of those who survived the collapse of the Camarin building on M.H. Del Pilar Street — the only building in Manila which was totally wrecked.

I’m slowly making my way through the stack of books I picked up in the Philippines in March, hoping to orient myself on Filipino literary greats. This is my first F. Sionil José book. His name leapt out of the spine, as I recognized it as one of those I need to be acquainted with. Gagamba (Amazon) after all received the 2004 Pablo Neruda Centennial Award.

So thus lived Gagamba, in awe of it all — not hurt, still breathing while the whole building and its occupants under the rubble. He attributes his luck, this bizarre incident befallen an unlucky man with his deformities, to none other than his God.

F. Sionil José goes through each victim, each buried character’s story. It is a cacophony of characters really, a cocktail of the worst kinds of people in society, mixed in with a few good ones, an amalgamation of life unfolding before the reader’s eyes.

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by Manny Garibay

There’s Fred Villa, Camarin’s new owner. He has just upgraded many of the building’s facilities, making it more suitable and appealing to his clientele. Not only was Camarin known for its excellent Spanish cuisine, but high-profile politicians, businessmen both local and foreign frequented the establishment for its main specialty: women, or as Fred called it “call girls.” Continue reading

An Intimate Look of How Plants View the World, with Michael Pollan

My grandfather was an avid gardener and the house I grew up in the Philippines was surrounded by an orchard of fruits and vegetables, flanked by different kinds of flowers, plants and trees.

A favorite one when I was growing up was a flimsy flower tree by the foot of the stairs that led to our house — it was tall, but light enough for me to shake gently so that my sisters and I can pretend that it was raining (the dew drops filled in). On sunny afternoons, I would give the tree a gentle shake, its flowers falling slowly from its branches and the three of us would sit in wonder, in awe of the falling pink petals.

I was thinking about that tree, and these things in my childhood as I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). The book has brought up a lot of different emotions and memories for me on nature, on food, on my complex history with these things; it even prompted a post on my personal history with food earlier this week.

The Botany of Desire is a book about the plant’s eye-view of the world — specifically the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato — and how each of these things have been shaped by human desires. What seems to be at first a process of domestication, Pollan explores how humans can actually be objects of these plants’ desires for survival.

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Malus Domestica

A is for apple. A is for America(n). How many times have you ever heard of the phrase “as American as apple pie”? The apple has been an essential part of American lexicon — wholesome, healthy and sweet. These attributes, specially sweetness, has elevated the symbol of the fruit, actually a native of Kazakhstan to a symbol that most of us identify with. Continue reading

At War with the World & Within, with Arundhati Roy

“…she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”

I was late to The God of Small Things (Amazon | Indiebound) reading party but I distinctly remember reading it at the time that I did — more than a decade later. It was December 2011 and I finally picked up a copy I’ve had for several years. It was also a little over a month after a 4-year relationship ended, so I did the next best thing I can do for a healing heart: read.

I woke up that Christmas morning with one intention: to finish GoST. I’ve been immersed in Arundhati Roy’s world for a few days and that morning, sprawled out on the living room couch, I felt illuminated. A good book warrants a good cry. My face was drenched with tears as I finished the last page — everything that happened in the book finally made sense.

Roy’s newest literary fiction masterpiece The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Amazon | Indiebound) is written with the same effect, at least for me. It isn’t until the very last page that I finally understood the lot of it — a sweeping tale of personal and political liberation, a 400-plus tome about hijras and the Kashmiri conflict.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is essentially two different stories which converge into one. The two main characters — Anjum and Tilo — are brought together by many similiarities, women living in the outskirts of India’s society, upended by many political upheavals, a recurring theme in the book. But first, two main things before I go into more detail: Hijra, and Kashmir.

Also called “the third gender,” hijra is the term used to describe the transgender community as well as intersex people and cross-dressers in India. In ancient, sacred texts, they are believed to be bearers of luck and fertility. But while they are revered in Indian society as spiritual figures, they still suffer from discrimination and harassment.

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Kashmir (or Jammu & Kashmir, also J&K) is the northernmost geographical region of the Indian subcontinent. I first learned about Kashmir in my anthropology class in college, a region bordering India, Pakistan and China struggling for its independence. As seen in the photo above, the region is administered and disputed by three nations. As with any nation vying for self-determination and local autonomy, the Kashmir conflict has claimed thousands of lives with human rights abuses from Indian forces.

The book starts with Anjum living in a desolate graveyard and goes back to her childhood. Roy presents the conundrum of being a hijra as soon as Aftab was born through the character’s mother: Is it possible for a mother to be terrified of her own baby? 

Jahanara Begum was.

Her first reaction was to feel her heart constrict and her bones turn to ash.

Her second reaction was to take another look to make sure she was not mistaken.

Her third reaction was to recoil from what she had created a while her bowels convulsed and a thin stream of shit ran down her legs.

Her fourth reaction was to contemplate killing herself and her child.

Her fifth reaction was to pick her baby up and hold him close while she fell through a crack between the world she knew and worlds she did not know existed. There, in the abyss, spinning through the darkness, everything she had been sure of until then, every single thing, from the smallest to the biggest, ceased to make sense to her. In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things — carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments — had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him — Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.

Jahanara Begum kept this a secret, even from her husband. Aftab grew up innocently enough, until that undeniable day of natural reckoning. From this came a departure of all sorts — Aftab slowly growing in to himself, as the days, months and years progressed to his initiation at the Kwabgah, a community of hijras in Delhi. He became Anjum, and for a long time, she was the most popular and sought after hijra in the country.

At a point in Anjum’s life, she became a mother. This set off a series of events that led her to the other main character of the book, S. Tilottama. Known simply as Tilo, the conflict in Kashmir unfolded right before my eyes through her. Although never the activist nor the soldier nor the militant freedom-fighter, Tilo was a canvas that brought to light the multifarious weight of the Kashmiri struggle for freedom. There were corrupt politicians, well-meaning journalists, nefarious soldiers, torturers, activists, militant Kashmiris ready to defend and fight for their land and Tilo. Never in it, but always in the thick of it. Continue reading

A Lifetime of Resistance: Bienvenído Oscar!

i was born Boricua,
i will keep being Boricua,
and will die a Boricua.

–Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican Independentista
(Oscar does not capitalize the “i” when referring to himself, in order to deemphasis the individual with respect to the collective)

I picked up Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance (Amazon | Indiebound) at a local event in Berkeley where I signed up as a security volunteer. Even though I didn’t know who OLR was, I was excited to be part of an event celebrating the release of a political prisoner. Apart from Angela Davis whose book inspired me, I don’t hear many stories of political prisoners being released.

Maybe it was the timing, but I wanted to learn more about Oscar and his own struggle as a Puerto Rican independentista. As I write this, ten political prisoners were just released in the Philippines as part of ongoing peace talks between the NDF and the government. But more still languish behind bars. Many of the political prisoners released by the Philippine government are out of jail on certain conditions — as consultants for the peace talks.

The event was rapidly filling up, as people walked in with  the widest smiles. On the stage was a big “Bievenído Oscar!” banner. The reception hall was lined with artwork calling for Puerto Rican independence. The air had an electric feel to it and I’ve never seen so many activists in one space so joyous.


Oscar was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico in 1943. At age 14, he moved to Chicago with his family and soon enough, he was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. But what came out of his time in Vietnam was not an increase in patriotic fervor, but a realization of who he was — Puerto Rican.

As soon as he came back from the service, he started to organize his communities and push for an end to U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. From 1969 to 1976, Oscar helped found several programs and initiatives: the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school for Puerto Ricans celebrating innovator Paulo Freire (who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed); the Puerto Rican Cultural Center; campaigns for bilingual education support; Project 500 at the University of Illinois, an educational initiative to ensure the annual admission of five hundred Latino and African American students; the Latin American and Latino studies, as well Proyecto Pa’lante; the Latin American Recruitment Education Services; the first Latino Cultural Center in the state of Illinois; the Spanish Coalition for Housing and many others.

His civil activism between 1969 and 1976 clearly evidenced his genuine and significant effort to use every possible route of change within Chicago’s existing official structures. The question, however, remained: was it really possible to develop lasting (and not merely cosmetic) change within the prevailing dominant structures of U.S. society?

Continue reading

Loving in the Martial Law Years, with Lualhati Bautista

“Martial law” was just a buzzword when I was growing up, hemmed in within the walls of an all-girl Benedictine school compound, something we talked about in passing during our history class. While the lesson itself was short, I remember feeling a sense of indignation towards the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family who imposed martial law on the nation from 1972 to 1981.

This was how the conversation with one of my classmates went: “Imagine — at this age, we already have debt because of the Marcoses. Grabe! All the money they stole from the kaban ng bayan, all of Imelda’s shoes, all of their extravagances — even our great, great, great grandkids are already indebted!”

At that age, my comprehension was limited to what my mind could fathom: the ridiculousness of it all, the audacity of the Marcos family, and how I would be paying for a debt when I haven’t even started earning yet. That was about 20 years ago.

In May of this year, President Duterte declared martial law in the southern part of the Philippines after alleged ISIS-backed groups clashed with the country’s armed forces. To date, more than 84,000 have been displaced after being forced and ordered to evacuate from their homes. Last year, I published a post about martial law revisionism after seeing the resurgence of the Marcos family in the Philippine political area, backed by Duterte nonetheless.

Call it historical amnesia if you will, call it historical apathy. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States, until I moved away did I start to see my home country in a different light. Loving her from a distance. And it wasn’t until I became part of a national democratic movement did I learn about the atrocities of martial law, beyond what I learned in the classroom.

There were the economic ramifications, but also the grave human rights abuses. The suspension of writ habeas corpus. The torture. The enforced disappearances. Fear. The erosion of trust within communities, within movements.

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“Malumbay si Ina” by Pablo Baens Santos

I saw all of these when I read Lualhati Bautista’s book Desaparesidos (Amazon), a novel about a family’s struggle during Marcos’s martial law. Anna is a mother, a widow, a survivor of torture and a former member of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that the administration was trying to crush. The book revolves around her struggle and her story, from the time that she was part of the NPA, to her abduction where she was tortured and raped, to the time when she was imprisoned, and up until she went back to her civilian life as an NGO worker.

The story starts with a convening of NGOs, faith-based leaders, international human rights organizations, lawyers and martial law victims and survivors as a case against the Marcoses is being prepared. Anna is present, but her mind wanders back to the time when she saw the body of her lifeless husband in the town plaza, afraid to claim it for fear that their newborn child in her bosom would suffer if she did. She would be immediately identified as a rebel, her cover blown.

Hinigpitan niya ang yakap sa anak. Anak, tatay mo. Ayun siya, iyong nasa pangalawa. Namatay siya para sa bayan.

Gustong-gusto na niyang yakapin ang bangkay ni Nonong. Gustong-gusto na niyang bugawin man lang ang mga langaw na nagpipista sa natuyo nang dugo sa mukha nito, halikan ang mga daliri na binunutan ng kuko.

Pero wala siyang magagawa. Kailangan niyang magpakabato, timpiin ang sarili, mag-isip ng masaya.

(What follows is my meager translation:)

She held on tight to her child. My child, here’s your father. There he is, on the second. He died for the nation. 

She wanted so badly to embrace Nonong’s corpse. She wanted so badly to swat away the flies hovering over the dried blood on his face, kiss the fingers where his nails were torn out.

But she couldn’t do anything. She had to be steely, compose herself, think about happy thoughts.

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“August 21” by Phyllis Zaballero

While Anna was helping build a case against the Marcoses, the story pivots between several events and characters to reveal the kind of repression Filipinos were dealing with at that time. There were mass arrests, harassment from soldiers, even the burning of homes in villages.

Bautista painted fear in every character: from the former rebel who pointed out his comrades’ hideouts, the pregnant lady who was entrusted to take care of Anna’s newborn, Anna’s second child Lorena (named after the revolutionary martyr Lorena Barros) who resented her parents for being away, and the family of Mang Manuel and many others.  Continue reading

What You Know, What You Don’t: A Story of Marriage by Lauren Groff

“Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely;
you do know someone entirely.”

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Trust Green Apple, a local bookstore which has been my go-to for a decade now, to hand you the next best read just when you needed it. Right there on the corner of a long table of bargain books was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (Amazon | Indiebound) at $7.95. Of course I had to get it.

And what a wonderful decision it was to walk away from the bookstore, holding between my calloused brown fingers a world I was about to submerge in, the world of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder.

I usually balk, roll my eyes, make a face at the mention (even hint) of “chick lit.” Aka beach reads. Aka “light lit” that to this day, I’m still challenging exactly what it comprises of. To be fair though, someone gifted me with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (Amazon | Indiebound) after I’ve repeatedly ignored it or walked past it on shelves and ended up loving it. Absolutely loving it, no matter how problematic it was.

But this was no chick lit as I had originally assumed. I was also slightly comforted by the “National Book Award Finalist” sticker on the cover because I have so much trust in Lisa Lucas. Fortune Smiles (Amazon | Indiebound) by Adam Johnson won that year.

A unity, marriage, made of discrete parts. Lotto was loud and full of light; Mathilde, quiet, watchful.

Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage, told from both their viewpoints. Fates is Lotto’s side while Furies is Mathilde’s. The novel begins with quite possibly the most tender scenes I’ve ever read, just a few moments right after the couple gets married and each is lost in his or her own thoughts. On the beach, the ocean all to themselves. And then it pans out to Lotto’s childhood — from how his parents met, his youth and the eventual death of his gentle giant of a father, Gawain.

After his father’s untimely death, Lotto plunges within himself straight into a dark, deep well. This is where I first started to root for him and his happiness.

He began to live for the sand, the beer, the drugs; he stole his mother’s painkillers to share. His sorrow for losing father went vague during the day, though at night he still woke weeping.

It was through his friends, particularly Chollie (who reminded him of his father) and through Mathilde that he was able to feel at home, with himself again.

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Throughout the first part of the book, it’s easy to be enamored of Lotto just like how every girl in their world seemed to be. From his days in college to his newfound fame as a playwright later on, his was a character that enchanted and captivated you. I don’t know if it’s his profound loneliness that made you want to empathize with him, but even at his lowest he was lovable.

His father’s death had been so sudden, forty-six, too young; and all Lotto wanted was to close his eyes and find his father there, to put his head on his father’s chest and smell him and hear the warm thumpings of his heart. Was that so much to ask?

Continue reading

A Return to Sacred Land, With Rosario Castellanos

“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript 

It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Amazon | Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.

I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.

Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.

Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.

Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.

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A Tzeltal woman in Bachajón (Source)

The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.

Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.

The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.

One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:

“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”

Continue reading

Homesick for Another World, with Ottessa Moshfegh

It’s rare for me to come across a book where I don’t want to annotate it. Over the years, I’ve learned not to fold the corners, stop writing on the edges or underline/highlight passages for the simple act of preserving them. Instead, I’ve resorted to using a nifty app called Evernote to take notes.

A Means to an End

Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s book Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) then was a rare case, because I plowed through the book without even going to Evernote once. A barometer for engagement and how I’m in love with the book is how much I would go on the app to take notes (which could be quite annoying but worth it). This time around — a first in Libromance history — there was not one single note.

It’s not that the books is bad, but it was an unusual read for me. Homesick is a compilation of short stories about people you’ve met or will never meet, people whose lives are all shrouded in the kind of “normalcy” we all refuse to acknowledge. A lot of freaks and kinda freaks. There’s Jeb from An Honest Woman, pining for his new neighbor, decades younger than he is. There’s the story about the small town boy in pursuit of his acting career in Hollywood, who spends most of his time with his tabloid-astrologer-landlady. There’s the story Mr. Wu, a nondescript man obsessed with the cashier at a local arcade. And then a teacher who keeps calling her ex-husband to leave him voice messages (reminiscent of Girl on the Train), drunk and drugged up for the most part:

“Dear Principal Kishka, Thank you for letting me teach at your school. Please throw away the sleeping bag in the cardboard box in the back of my classroom. I have to resign for personal reasons. Just so you know, I’ve been fudging the state exams. Thanks again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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I got really uncomfortable many times throughout reading the book, with a sickening feeling on my mouth. I guess it’s true that she Moshfegh’s work is Flannery O’Connor-esque. I’ve always looked for the “universally relevant” in my book, and I think reading Homesick takes a little more digging.

It’s not for everyone. If you do want a dose of weirdly, dark lit about the other side of the people you know but you’ve never imagined — this might just be your book.

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All artwork is made by the amazing Michael Kerbow.

51zp1zkt38l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Homesick for Another World: Stories (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press (304 pages)
January 17, 2017
My rating: ★★
Homesick for Another World