Nesting on Fire, with Celeste Ng (A Book Review of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’)

Sometimes all the hype turns out to be the real thing.

You know a book’s about to be B-I-G when all the book sites are talking about it, when emails pop up in your inbox with that one book over and over again.

Before I even knew what it was about, Celeste Ng‘s Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Indiebound) was that book. I had to get it.

Turns out, the hype wasn’t just noise. It was actually substance. A lot of it.

Little Fires is Ng’s second novel, following her first book Everything I Never Told You which became an instant bookseller, bagging numerous awards.

In this book, Ng portrayed what the nuclear American family should look like, in a pretty progressive place too nonetheless, that she was able to effectively support America’s delusion into thinking that it is, for the most part, doing the right thing.

She begins by detailing the life in Shaker Heights in Ohio, close to Cleveland, a haven of manicured lawns and matching houses where most folks are upper middle class. A small town where most people come back to live from college and nest quite comfortably.

At the center is Elena Richardson, a white woman, a mother of four who lives in relative stability in Shaker Heights. She is married to a lawyer and is a successful journalist. Except for when she went away for college, she’s spent her entire life in the community. When she takes in the recluse artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl as tenants at one of her smaller homes (she sees it as charity, a gesture of goodwill), she didn’t realize the ripple of change that move would set.

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Sunshine Like a Stick of Butter, with Rachel Khong (A Book Review of ‘Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel’)

It was just few years ago when my grandmother, who I was named after, started leaving plates of food on the table. For my grandfather, she says. At that time my gramps, a notorious womanizer, has been dead for at least 10 years. She then started accusing household help of stealing items she’s kept away, or for sneaking out when she’s sent them to run errands for her.

I was about 7,000 miles away from her when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She passed soon shortly after that.

Grandma was on my mind when I first started reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound), a story about a year-long care-giving of a daughter for her ailing father suffering from the same sickness.

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After her mom suggested she move back for a year to help care for her father, Ruth slowly establishes a life back at their home in southern California. In the midst of reacquainting herself with her father’s new ways (a sour temperament, always holed up in his home office), she also recounts moments from her last failed relationship.

Ruth cooks for his father, studies and avoids what could exacerbate his symptoms, is diligent in ensuring he takes what he needs. But it isn’t so simple, she finds out. It started with him forgetting his wallet, then forgetting to turn the faucet off until it got to a point where he would show up to teach a class at the university on the wrong day.

In one of many attempts of trying to regain “normalcy” in his life, Ruth and some of his father’s mentees and colleagues employ an elaborate set-up. As agreed upon by everyone, they would pretend that he is back in the university teaching, as the “students” pretend to move the class from one place on campus to restaurants across town to avoid being caught. His father seems to be his old self back. Continue reading “Sunshine Like a Stick of Butter, with Rachel Khong (A Book Review of ‘Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel’)”

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

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

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

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

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

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 “This Body Is, with Roxane Gay”

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

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 “Poetry as Vulnerability, with Words Anonymous and Juan Miguel Severo”