That Big Love, with Paul Auster (A Book Review of ‘4 3 2 1: A Novel’)

The moment you turn the last page of a book, finally heaving a sigh of relief or perhaps some dejection at the end of a journey you wanted to go on, you become a different person.

It’s funny how I can always remember the empty feeling I’m left after finishing a really good book, a kind of piercing emotion that throws me off every single time. Such as when I read Exit West, during my lunch break at work. Having to walk back to my desk was a little disconcerting, having just spent so much time, all of it memorable with Nadia and Saeed as they drifted from one place to another. It almost feels like spending a lifetime with these people, as if these characters were people whose numbers I had saved on my phone, that I could call up on and check in whenever I want.

After finishing Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) one evening, I had to take a walk. I could’ve settled for my neighborhood, a suburb south of San Francisco, but instead I headed to the nearest mall by my house. I felt like I needed to engulf myself in a sea of strangers.

The book is the story of a young man, Archie Ferguson, who lives four different versions of his life, a grand tale, a coming-of-age story.

On my short drive to the mall, I was thinking about the boy. In the eleven days that I spent with the book, not once did this character leave my mind. There’s the story, or stories I should say, the structure, and the character that struck me over and over again as I slogged my way through the brick of a book 4 3 2 1 was.

First, there was the story of Archie Ferguson, actually, the many stories of Archie Ferguson from his grandfather’s descent in New York City up until his youngest son’s marriage to the beautiful Rose Adler, Archie’s mom. Getting to know his parents’ story and his birth, his childhood in its many variants was interesting, because this way, you get to know Archie four more times as intimate as you normally would in a typical novel. Who he was was pretty consistent, a mild-mannered child whose internal world was filled with characters from the books that he read, who was incredibly drawn to the people in his childhood, people who revolved around him that he couldn’t seem to let go off. This was a common thread throughout his life, no matter which version I was reading.

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Second, the structure is seamless, as if there were events from another version or distinct scenes that would continue on to the next one, as if the four stories was one whole epic called The Book of Terrestrial Life. This is such a masterpiece in its entirety, a labor of love, except for a few quirks and the early deaths that made me wonder if they were intentional or quite frankly, if Auster just got lazy. (I mean, I’m struggling to write only one book but here’s Auster with four different versions of the same story, four books all in all). I like that he really kept it consistent, that Archie was Archie through and through, with the kind heart always looking for the big love that he always dreamt of. Continue reading

The Way We See Things, with Fiona Mozley (A Book Review of ‘Elmet’)

Count Elmet (Amazon) by Fiona Mozley as an unexpectedly beautiful read, a tender tome of family and loyalty.

As with the other titles on the Man Book Prize, I wouldn’t have explored this book if it weren’t for my #FinestFiction reading challenge. This felt a little like reading Autumn by Ali Smith, to go beyond the first few pages for a book filled with luminosity, to find ways to just stay with it. And I’m glad that I stayed with it; otherwise, I wouldn’t have met the intense family of three.

Right from the start, what slowly pulled me in was the narrator. There are two narratives in the story, one told in the present, a person on the run, while the other weaves a fabric, draws the roots. The narrator of both stories is  lonesome boy named Daniel, the son of Daddy and sister of Cathy, quiet in his ways, different from other kids like his sister.

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The family lived in the outskirts of town atop a hill, away from everybody else in their village. Daddy provided for the family by performing odd jobs for different people, at times marred by violence, with prize fights every now and then. He always won. People put bets on him, and many more made money out of his victories. At the end of the day, there’s Cathy, Daddy and Daniel.

Living outside the realms of what “normal” is, him and Cathy were often bullied by other children. On one occasion where Cathy fought back, she was reprimanded and got in trouble instead of the boys who mocked and bothered them. Daddy was somber when he was told.

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The Legacy of Shame, with Kamila Shamsie (A Book Review of ‘Home Fire’)

“I pledged to ISIS in January 2015 and left in March,” said Raad Abdullah Ahmad, 31. “My family disowned me after that. Imagine having no family. I left because I didn’t like what they did to people.”

ISIS Fighters, Having Pledged to Fight or Die, Surrender En Masse (NYT)

When I read the lines above in a NYT article, my thoughts immediately went to Parvaiz Pasha, a fictional character in Kamila Shamsie’s book Home Fire: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) which was long-listed for the Man Book Prize for fiction.

Since I migrated to the U.S. in 2004, the political reality of the country has always stayed the same: at open war. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria. Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS. That has translated to war against Muslims, officially ordained as “terrorists” by the West.

My coming-of-age story is marked by this reality, a young Filipino immigrant slowly understanding the social pathology of violence, of the industrial military complex, of the other-ing of militants who essentially wanted the same thing the U.S. did.

In Home FireI was able to get a glimpse of the story behind Parvaiz’s decision, a British Pakistani who was recruited to a militant group on accounts of being the son of a famed jihadi warrior. Shamsie takes her readers beneath the layer of what we see on our TV screens, or what politicians have chosen as their generic anti-terrorism mouth pieces.

Parvaiz’s dad brought shame to their family, after joining a militant group himself. His involvement was immediately frowned upon, he was disowned. As a child, the boy took great pains to conceal his father’s identity, and it was only when he met another elder, a father figure who intentionally tried to recruit Parvaiz did he realize what his father’s work meant to other people.

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These responsibilities were what estranged the father from Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka and older sister Isma. The legacy of their father loomed in the household, a cause of great shame to both women. The story centers on these three characters, as Shamsie skillfully adopts and mimics their struggle as a Greek tragedy. She hones in on their relationship, illustrating the ebb and flow of simultaneous allegiance and estrangement. Continue reading

Loving in Ireland, with John Boyne (A Book Review of ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’)

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Before I picked up John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Amazon | Indiebound), I must confess that I barely knew anything about Ireland. The most I’ve read about the country and its history was from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, wherein he mostly talked about how a crop, the infamous potato, from a historical, political and epistemological context in the country.

The book centers around Cyril Avery, an Irish gay man who survived. Emphasis on the last word because he did, in every essence, survived everything he went through from being carried in his mother’s womb in the beginning of the book until its last page.

I was traipsing in the Riviera Maya when I started reading the book so that probably made it a little harder for me to get acclimated to. While I was burying my feet in the warm Caribbean sand, it occurred to me that The Heart is probably not the best beach read (whatever that means). But I forged ahead, certain that Boyne had an important story to tell with Avery.

And boy did he! I wasn’t prepared for the kind of violence in the book, even though it’s the kind I’ve known throughout my life even as a young girl in the Philippines. Ireland in 1945 following the declaration of a free Irish State in 1922 was largely influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Spain brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the 1500s as part of conquest strategy, while Catholicism in Ireland dates back to the fifth century with a history rich with violence itself.

This violence brought on by the Catholic Church: from Cyril’s mother’s exile from her town after getting pregnant out-of-wedlock to the pervasiveness of homophobia in Irish society which resulted to violent deaths. It wasn’t surprising then when one of the characters, whose lover was murdered by his own father on accounts of being gay, would say this:

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On Separation, Family & Revolution, with Derek Palacio (A Book Review of ‘The Mortifications’)

I first heard of Cuba when I read Assata Shakur’s memoir Assata: An Autobiography (Amazon| Indiebound)  as a young Filipino immigrant. I had no knowledge of the country, only that there was a strict embargo in place, but I knew it had to be a good place, good enough to give refuge to a black revolutionary woman.

Over time, I started learning about Fidel Castro and the country’s history, from Spanish colonization to socialist revolution to its communist government. I learned about Raul, the Bay of Pigs Invasion. I learned about Che Guevarra. And then it hit me — back in high school in the Philippines, I used to rock a red shirt with the infamous Guerrillero Heroico, the revolutionary’s famed portrait. I remember being drawn to the man on the shirt, wondering who he was and what the reason was behind his piercing look. Turns out, that shirt was my first introduction to Cuba. With these things in mind, I dove right into The Mortifications: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) by Derek Palacio.

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The story begins with the  Mariel Boatlift, the emigration of Cuban immigrants to the United States back in the ’80s at the height of economic downturn. At the center of the story is a family: Uxbal, a father hellbent on continuing the revolution, his wife Soledad who wanted to leave for good and the twins, Ulises and Isabel who knew nothing about what was going on at that time except perhaps that they were about to be broken.

They settled in Connecticut, as opposed to other Cuban immigrants and exiles who stayed in Florida and created their own haven, Little Havana. Far away from everyone, the family of three tried to make sense of their new home. While Ulises escaped in his world of books and literature, Isabel suddenly turned towards the Church.

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This Body Is, with Roxane Gay

My dad’s signature greeting to family relatives, friends and people he meets has always been, roughly translated from Tagalog: “Looks to me like you’re getting skinny!” It doesn’t matter if it was the first time my dad has ever seen the person, or if they’ve just seen each other the day before.

Cue a hearty laugh, a grateful smile, a relieved sigh; the greeting always yields the intended effect. At an early age, I knew that being skinny was a compliment. It was a good sign. If one was gaining weight or on the heavier side though, one could expect a frown, a hushed tone, a look that implies shame.

So I knew my dad was on to something: losing weight = looking good = feeling good. It’s a brilliant formula, but only if you were actually losing weight. But that doesn’t matter.

When I picked up Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Amazon | Indiebound) by Roxane Gay, I only had the faintest notions on what it was about. All I know is that I have to read Gay’s work — from An Untamed State to Bad Feminist (I’ve yet to read Difficult Women) as she’s become one of my favorite writers (in spite of that tweet suggesting Lebron join the Golden State Warriors).

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Gay’s book is about hunger in many forms: that adolescent need to fit in and be wanted, a yearning to speak the truth without pain, the comforting solace of food, the promise of safety, to being desired and desiring other bodies.

At the core of Hunger is how Gay has turned to food and literature among other things to keep herself safe, after being raped by a group of boys when she was younger. She didn’t know how to tell her parents for fear of hurting them, so she buried the painful truth and built herself an armor of defense, a fortress for one.

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In a culture run by capitalism, the need to cater to the male gaze and the unending dissatisfaction brought about by the media and so many industries to turn a profit come first.  Continue reading

Reading the World with Ali Smith (A Book Review of ‘Autumn: A Novel’)

“What you reading?”

This was the question Daniel Gluck, an older man (almost a century old) with the wisest soul would ask Elisabeth, his new, young neighbor every time they took walks. Before you go down that route, it’s not what you think.

Autumn: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ali Smith is a novel set in the UK, not a love story but a story about love in many forms.

There’s Elisabeth and her mom, living alongside their neighbor, Mr. Daniel Gluck, and the world around them revolving in varying degrees of discovery and reconciliation.

The story starts with Daniel Gluck in reverie, washed off in an island where he is strong, he can run, and he is able to fashion suits of leaves for himself. He is beyond elated. In real life, he has been sleeping for what seems like forever while Elisabeth reads to him, watches him.

This how the odd friends met: Elisabeth was supposed to write about their neighbor but her mother advised her to make it all up. The write-up was good (“A Portrait in Words Of Our Next Door Neighbour”), so much so that her mother ended up showing it to their neighbor after all. Good ol’ Daniel Gluck was amused.

Their first meeting, a denial on the young one’s part, on account of embarrassment. Said Elisabeth was her sister.

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Theirs was no ordinary friendship, no feudal relationship. They talked about arts, books, ways of looking at the world. The ever-present question, always Gluck’s greeting to the young one was: What you reading?  Continue reading

Poetry as Vulnerability, with Words Anonymous and Juan Miguel Severo

It all started with Juan Miguel Severo.

Thursday evening dinners are a thing in our family, as my siblings and I, along with our partners enjoy a homecooked meal at home with my parents. Over pork cracklings (toppings for a mung bean dish), my sister showed me video that has just gone viral.

It was Severo’s Ang Huling Tula Na Isusulat Ko Para Sa’yo (The Last Poem I’ll Ever Write For You) and by the end of the 6 minute mark, I was utterly floored.

It was my first time seeing Filipino spoken word poetry. The words that came to mind instantly were tagos sa puso (straight through the heart). Most of the poetry I’ve read from Filipino poets like Lorena Barros, Jose Garcia Villa and Bienvenido Lumbrera have awakened my consciousness, touched my mind with indelible truths. And while I am grateful for these poets for bringing the kind of light needed to usher in what has been the darkest, Severo brought out a different, more tangible element with his spoken word: how it feels to be vulnerable.

I was hooked and I wanted to find out more about the Filipino spoken word poetry scene. Severo was a member of Words Anonymous, a group of spoken word artists in the Philippines.

When I was in the Philippines earlier this year, I was hoping to catch a show. I wasn’t so lucky, but I was able to pick up a few copies of the Words Anonymous’s first collection of poetry Tuwing Ikatlong Sabado (Every Third Saturday).

The book is a transcript of spoken words by the group, compiled and edited by Severo. There are 26 pieces in the collection, poems about love and heartbreak and tenderness and yearning. Of unrelenting hope, of day breaking with the promise of (even more) love.

While my eyes glossed over the pages, I tried to imagine what it would like to be in the presence of these poets, how it would feel like to be in the same room with them and engulf my senses in their pain, in their hope, in their magic.

Two poems that stood out to me, interestingly enough, shared a word in the title of their pieces: landi or “flirting/to flirt.” The word is versatile, as it can denote playfulness in one second, or a weapon of slut-shaming in the next.

I particularly enjoyed Abby Orbeta‘s poem “Hindi Lumandi si Rizal Para Lumandi Ka” (roughly, “Rizal Did Not Die So You Can Flirt”), a poem about a long-lost love, written in a timeline of the worst things to happen to the country.

Orbeta intersected what-coul’dve-beens as she narrated a massacre that happened down south, to a typhoon that ravaged a city. The poem was a commentary on longing, on political consciousness, on a former lover’s attempt of “helping out” at a time of disaster. The country’s national hero, Jose Rizal, did not die after all, so that the youth can engage in “vo-landi” — volunteering while flirting.

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While Orbeta’s poem had more of a playful tone, Jonel Revistual‘s poem “Biyaheng Malandi” (roughly, “A Flirty Trip”) is an entirely different landscape. Continue reading

A Balm to Many Wounds, with Jesmyn Ward (A Book Review of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel’)

Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was like having a deep, deep breath lodged in the cavity of my chest, something I held on to for its entirety. Ward’s newest novel isn’t for the faint of heart either, but for someone who’s strong of will, someone who can understand the gravity of what it means to be healed, and what it means to need healing, specially at a time when the world just feels too heavy.

I got to know Pops and Jojo first, in a barn where they skinned a goat, on the family’s farm in rural Mississippi. This scene is the first of many where tenderness becomes the thread with which binds the two, young and old, tender Pops with his words, sparse and overflowing with love for the young one, the equally tender Jojo.

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Before anything else there was already loneliness — something that seemed to walk all over all of the characters, permanent in their skin. Except perhaps for the youngest one, Jojo’s younger sister, his light, Kayla.

I came upon Sing, Unburied, Sing unknowingly, only that I knew I had to read Jesmyn Ward. From her Mississippi herself, I remember listening to an interview she had on NPR where she first discussed her first book, Men We Reaped (Amazon | Indiebound). The book was dedicated to men in her life — her uncle, her brother, several friends — whose deaths have had a profound impact on her.

“I see history, I see racism, I see economic disempowerment, I see all of these things, you know, that come together, or that came together, sort of in this perfect storm here in southern Mississippi, and I feel like that is what is bearing down on our lives.”

Ward grew up in DeLisle, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, a place “ravaged by poverty, drugs and routine violence.” Knowing this about Ward, her history then made reading her new novel a little easier, albeit the fact that I was still holding my breath for the majority of it.

I didn’t know that this was going to be another book haunted by ghosts of dead people, as I was still recuperating from George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Amazon | Indiebound) which was ok, in spite of the insurmountable grief it illustrated.

A few scenes later, Leonie enters the picture. She is Pops’s daughter, Jojo and Kayla’s mother. Brother of Given, who died after being shot by racist white people (they called it “accident”), wife to Michael (white, in jail for drugs). She’s addicted to meth, and she sees Given every time she’s high, always watching her.

And then there was Mama. Sick in bed, still seeing stars and ocean and plants around her.

Have I mentioned how difficult this was to read? Continue reading

On Love & Refuge, with Mohsin Hamid (A Book Review of “Exit West”)

When Warsan Shire, Nigerian poet wrote No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, I knew that in spite of my experiences as an immigrant, I knew nothing about being a refugee.

Since the refugee crisis broke in the Middle East, I’ve read different stories about the forced migration of millions of people from Libya, Syria and other countries to neighboring nations and particularly Europe.

Much of the focus in the media has been the trek itself — from buses of refugees in the Balkans, boats carrying migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean sea from Libya to Italy, where they could be met with people smugglers and human traffickers.

Over a year ago, I wrote about how I’ve always turned to literature to try to make sense of things. As I plow through my #FinestFiction reading list, the refugee crisis came to light again as I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Amazon | Indiebound).

The book follows the lives of reluctant lovers (at first), Nadia and Saeed in the process of living, of leaving. Saeed is very much the son of his parents, timid and reserved, while Nadia is out on her own, having left the roof of her parents’ house as soon as she was able to. She dons black robes for protection, as she rides her motorcycle through the city of an unspecified country.

ExitWest - QuotesIt is a love story as much as it is a story of migration and transitions. Instead of focusing on the journey out, what Hamid focused on was how wars move and change people. In Exit West, he showed this up close.

The unfolding war within the city felt personal. It felt incredibly intimate. One day Nadia and Saeed would meet after spending the day in their respective offices, the next day they were left wondering why one of their bosses stopped coming to work, eventually closing down the business.

Electricity went out. People locked themselves in, bolted their doors. Neighbors became militants. With attacks happening daily and fearing for their lives and safety (and sanity), the two sought to find a way out.

Doors, which became prominent throughout the book, became the mode of transportation. I found it funny that I was reading about doors again, after just having read Magda Szabó’s The Door. After paying an agent and putting their trust in a man they barely knew, they waited and prayed for passage.

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Soon they were in settled in a camp in Mykonos. And then in a mansion in London. And then in another camp, where they worked daily to build homes for other refugees. And finally, in the Marina past San Francisco.

They passed through many doors, as other people around the world did in search of home, of love, of safety. With each time they emerged from the other side, they became more of themselves. That even though they went through the same horrific situations, as victims of xenophobic and racist attacks, Hamid focused more on the ebb and flow of their relationship.

I once read a Goodreads review that summed up this book in a phrase: quietly brutal, quietly beautiful. This book was a brilliant read that made me tear up multiple times. Hamid’s language is simple, his words sparse but searing as he narrates a tale of love and refuge, of how we seek safety and comfort in foreign places, in each other, from strangers.

In her poem, Warsan also wrote no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying – leave, run away from me now, I don’t know what I’ve become. As much as time changes all of us, being far-flung changes the dynamics and the chemistry of love. Nothing is ever the same, and the key is to let it all out in the open, whether it changes us or not.

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Exit West (Amazon | Indiebound) by Mohsin Hamid
Riverbed Books (240 pages)
March 7, 2017
My rating: ★★★★★
Exit West