On Grief and the Permission to Leave, with Max Porter

Book Reviews, Fiction

I don’t know who to thank for bringing Max Porter’s book Grief is the Thing with Feathers within my sphere of biblio-senses, but I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. While grief and gratitude may be emotions on opposite ends, I was able to reconcile both in this book — one of the most memorable pieces of literature I’ve ever read.

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Grief is fiction, also poetry, centered on the death of “Mum,” whose husband simply called “Dad” and whose children called “Boys” narrate loss and pain in the book. An unexpected character “Crow” also appears consistently, whose presence makes for a sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-profound literary experience.

Through poignant vignettes, Mum’s death is foretold by all three — Dad, the boys and Crow — in varying emotional landscapes, as the small family slowly builds their life without her.

The Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross states that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think it’s safe to say that the characters go through these stages, once you get into the novel’s unconventional but refreshing format.

At the heart of the Grief is its ability to capture the gravity of loss, and put it into words.

BOYS:

Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and glamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us? There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis.

The boys’ narrative was innocent, infinitely curious about death, its specifics and (always about) Dad. In some ways, it seemed like losing their mother was an easier thing for them than it was for their father’s. They had each other to console and derive comfort from. While they were once accomplices in mischief before their mother’s death, they became great allies in dealing with grief.

The Power of Homegoing, with Yaa Gyasi

Book Reviews, Fiction

Reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at the time of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths was surreal, as if I was looking at the lives of these two black men from a generational perspective, with Gyasi’s historical fiction lens.

Over the weekend, protests across the country and around the world erupted as yet again, the lives of black people were taken by the police. Both deaths were captured on video, making their demise even more infuriating. We were witnesses to the violence wrought by the state and to the brutality of white supremacy.

And still — after Alton, after Philando (and after Tamir, Rekia, Trayvon) — we are still faced with questions like: but don’t #AllLivesMatter?

If there is anything that Gyasi’s book offers, it’s precisely every counter argument and every explanation possible to explain why #AllLivesMatter is problematic. It all goes back to something that Homegoing explores: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Love, with Alain de Botton

Book Reviews, Fiction, Soul + Spirit

…is a lot of romanticism.

It’s in the movies we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to. From Disney “Princess” films to books and movies inspired by Nicholas Sparks, the irresistible charm of romance permeates our culture. It’s the nostalgia of the fairy tale, it is its allure that keeps us affirming star-crossed lovers (Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to Meyer’s Edward & Bella).

We talk of love in its highest regard in romantic relationships — the chocolates and the flowers, the grand gestures, the undying affection that has taken over and shaped how our society at large sees relationships. We are enchanted by that initial “spark” and eventually find ourselves looking how to recapture it (as in, Rekindling the Romance: 9 Secrets to Keeping the Spark…).

The love stories we see and hear about are really only the beginning of those relationships, Alain de Botton argues, in his new book The Course of Love. What happens after the proposal, followed by the wedding, are the lives of two people bound not by romance alone but by the humbling reality of living with another person.

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Nigeria, Philippines, Americanah: Longings & Musings

Book Reviews, Fiction

For three nights in a row after finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah I found myself missing Ifemelu and Obinze.

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It was about 11 at night, and I was sitting in bed with the vastness of the Oakland sky outside my window. I reached to my side table and held Adichie’s book, still in awe of how one book could contain multiple worlds. How one book could illustrate timelines and lifetimes.

I saw myself in the pages, along with Ifemelu and Obinze, the two main characters of Americanah. Ifemelu, with her “prickliness.” Obinze, with his tenderness.

Reading about their lives unraveled a reality that was a little bit familiar, albeit entirely different. As I turned each page, I knew that I resonated with the book so much because of two things: immigration and the (im)possibilities of long-distance love.

When Ifem (a nickname from Obinze) moved to the U.S., her experience as a non-American Black woman was amplified. It was new to her, much as being a Filipino was new to me.

Student Anti-Vietnam Rally, 1968

Writing about war is never an easy task, it involves remembering what must not be forgotten, slowly treading a path in one’s memory that is never neutral. It is filled with opposing forces — of heroes and villains, of the noble and the wretched, of the conqueror and the conquered. But it must be done. This, I believe, was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s task with his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer.

In addition to books that bravely asks life the hardest questions, historical fiction is fast becoming a favorite. From the genre-bending 100 Years of Solitude by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to a recent reading of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (of which I wrote about in a previous post), Viet’s The Sympathizer is an unexpected but welcome addition.

I dove into the book right after Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, and I acclimated to the nameless narrator’s tone in no time.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

The Necessity of Memory with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book Reviews, Fiction

Remembering the Grief and Reality of War, with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book Reviews, Fiction

I finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun a day before April 14, 2016, which marks the 2nd anniversary of #BringBackOurGirls. Back in 2014, the militant group Boko Haram kidnapped about 276 Nigerian schoolgirls from the Chibok Government Secondary School in the middle of the night. Over the weekend, Pope Francis also arrived at the isle of Lesbos in Greece to show support to the Syrian refugees. To date, there are 4.6 million refugees from Syria, with 6.6 million displaced within the country after civil war broke out in 2011.

With the news cycle and a heart-wrenching experience with the book, all of these things were on my mind.

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Photograph: Philip Ojisua/AFP/Getty Images

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel set in Nigeria in the ’60s —  before, during and after the country’s independence, followed by a brutal civil war. The twins Olanna and Kainene are two of the story’s main characters, whose lives shift dramatically at every turn of event that rocked the country’s political, economic and social stability.

The twin’s lives are intertwined: Olanna leads a life with Odenigbo, her “revolutionary lover” as Kainene calls him, along with a group of intellectuals they drink and opine with in the cool evenings; Kainene opts to run their family businesses along with her lover, an aspiring British writer, Richard Churchhill.

“This Odenigbo imagines himself to be quite the freedom fighter. He’s a mathematician but he spends all his time writing newspaper articles about his own brand of mishmash African socialism. Olanna adores that. They don’t seem to realize how much of a joke socialism is,” said Kainene to Richard.

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Artist: Ayeola Ayodeji

The Courage it Takes with Sunil Yapa

Book Reviews, Fiction

It’s a little weird to read the chants you’ve been yelling at protests, rallies, in meetings and conferences centered around social justice. I saw these on the text of Sunil Yapa’s book Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, a book set in Seattle amidst the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests.

Weird because I’ve been stepping back on my participation in social justice endeavors lately, and reading about some of the characters in the book feels like déjà vu. Most of it too real, too familiar. I feel a certain tiredness in my body that I’ve been trying to keep at bay but sometimes, the spirit needs to rest.