The Woman’s Lot, with Min Jin Lee (A Book Review of ‘Pachinko’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

As I write this, Trump’s visit to Southeast Asia is underway. The 12-day tour in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines reflects the increasing importance of the region tied to American interests, in aspects of geopolitics and economics.

South Korea is his second stop, and I think about the increasing provocation from his administration and North Korea’s regarding nuclear weapons. This has been the most dominant issue in the news cycle. Many cower in fear, but many more are calling for anti-militarization, specifically from a country with the largest military budget in the world.

This was the context as I read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Amazon | Indiebound), a multi-generational saga of a Korean family in the early 1900s. From the shores of Yeongdo beside the port city of Busan comes Sunja, the daughter of a poor couple who has thrived in spite of living under imperial Japan’s tutelage.

Lee’s book tells Sunja’s story from her birth throughout her life, as she moved from Korea to Japan. After becoming pregnant with a man who turned out to be married, Sunja’s life turned upside down. Her pregnancy was sure to bring shame to her family, until a sickly minister, Isak, volunteers to take her as his wife and bring her to Osaka.

It is in Osaka where most of the book takes place, as Sunja and her newfound family (Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife, Kyung-hee) face the rest of their lives head on. Two more generations follow, with Sunja’s sons and their respective children, as they try to survive in a country that either ignores or loathes Koreans.

Throughout the entire story, the women suffer the most — from carrying the burden of shame with Sunja’s unwanted pregnancy, to being the kind of wives their husbands expected them to (such as Kyung-hee’s predicament), to the indelible and incredible task of mothering.

Even at a young age, this was what her mother taught Sunja.

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

Book Reviews, Fiction

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

Book Reviews, Fiction, Soul + Spirit

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.

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

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love, Soul + Spirit

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

Book Reviews, fiction

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

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

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. 

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

Book Reviews, Fiction

“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? 

Poetry as Vulnerability, with Words Anonymous and Juan Miguel Severo

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

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.

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

Book Reviews

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.

The Fix - Quotes

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.

Gagamba: The Filipino Spiderman, with F. Sionil José

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

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.”