Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A Book Review

Book Reviews, Fiction

Where I live, there’s never a shortage of Chinese restaurants to choose from. As a Filipino, if I’m not craving for Filipino food, my version of comfort food is Chinese. I’ve got Rice ‘N Roll up the street from my house, Little Szechuan which delivers the best lunch plates to work and Wing Lee, my go-to for dimsum in the morning.

But beyond my fill of salt and pepper fish fillet or the crispy hunan beef, I admit I’ve never thought so much about the stories behind my food. And of course just like any group of people around the world doing something together, there’s always a story, and/or a back story.

The book, the food.

This is the premise of Lillian Li’s novel Number One Chinese Restaurant (Shop your local indie bookstore), a Chinese restaurant called the Beijing Duck House that specializes in carved peking duck and hotpot in Maryland. Jimmy Han struggles to run the restaurant under the shadow of his deceased father who opened the restaurant, and his older, more pragmatic brother Johnny currently overseas. As the youngest of the family, Jimmy has had his share of fuck-ups and have always sought to prove himself–to the Duck House staff, to his parents, to his brother, even to himself. But beyond Jimmy are even bigger players in Li’s novel–the two oldest servers of the establishment, Ah-Jack and Nan, who have carved and waited and served countless customers throughout the years.

Together, these three create the tapestry of the novel along with other characters, as Li weaves in and out of their lives centered on the Duck House. From the restaurant owners, staff down to the crew working in the kitchen, immigration also plays a central theme. But at the core is love–the kind between reluctant lovers, a mother and his son, and all of its other messy manifestations.

The voices of Nan and Ah-Jack are the most memorable to me, two wait staff who have spent decades of their lives in the restaurant. Each with a family of their own, their lives become intertwined when the older Ah-Jack takes a young Nan in under his wing at another restaurant they used to work at. They both live their respective married lives at home but at work, the two dance on the edges of unrequited love as they get older, wait more tables. Day after day, duck after duck.   

The Seas by Samantha Hunt: A Book Review

Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction

Sometimes you come across a book that throws you so out of field that the only choice you make is you sit with it, go through every single page, suddenly caught in a buoyancy you didn’t think you’d enjoy until the last turn, the last sentence and last word rolls of your mouth, stuck in your mind. You don’t know whether that last breath was a sigh of relief or regret, the characters still swimming in your head.

Because as a water sign (Pisces), you know that drowning yourself in a book filled with themes of water is the next best idea, guaranteed to hook you in as the waves pull you closer, succumbing to the swell.

When I first opened The Seas (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Samantha Hunt, I knew I was in for a out-of-body, oceanic ride. What I didn’t anticipate was how deep I would be pulled under by the 19-year old narrator, a young woman whose current is unbreakable, fierce in the ways she loved.

The Seas by Samantha Hunt at Ocean Beach (San Francisco)

Convenience Store Woman: A Book Review

Book Reviews, Fiction

Ever have one of those moments where you feel like you’re not made for this world? That nothing you see around you makes any real sense but you’ve got to get on with the norm, with what’s expected to make life less complicated?

Meet Keiko Furukura, the star of Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (Shop your local indie store), translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Convenience Store Woman with convenience store goods.

After a couple of incidents in her childhood where she was deemed not normal, Keiko resolved to not doing or saying anything outside the norm to avoid displeasing her family. She didn’t want to ruffle any more feathers although in her mind, her actions made perfect sense.

My family always loved and cherished me, and that’s why they were so worried and wanted to cure me. I recall hearing my parents discussing how to do this, and wondered what it was about me that needed correcting. My father once drove me some distance to another town to meet a therapist. The therapist immediately assumed there must be some problem at home, but really there wasn’t.

She moves through life trying not to make any ripples, until she comes across a store about to open with a sign that pulled her in: they’re hiring. As soon as Keiko turns into a convenience store worker, she knew she is reborn.

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A visit to my local Daiso store.

At the store she greets customers with a cheery “Irasshaimase!” She finds joy in making sure that the day’s specials are arranged neatly, ready for their customers to take their fill. Day after day, week after week, up until the months and years roll by, her existence starts to revolve around ensuring that she is a capable convenience store worker. She mimicks the way her co-workers speak, dress and move to blend in, to blend in and deflect any questions about herself.

While Keiko revels in her routine and her role, the people around her find it a little too disconcerting that she’s single, has no boyfriend or kids, that she’s spent close to two decades behind a cash register, arranging rows and shelves at her beloved store.

When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.

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Goods from Daiso.

All this changes as soon as she meets Shiraha, a disgruntled man who attempts to work at the same store but whose beliefs belie his role as a store worker. After a turn of events that sends both Keiko and Shiraha in the graces of the “normal world,” the new challenge they have to face is to engage with the idiosyncrasies of this other world.

I wasn’t expecting to love Mukata’s novel but I did. The tone and the voice of the Furukara is exactly how she acted in the novel, conveying the world through her eyes in a sparse, matter-of-fact manner. In a world that deemed her unnatural because of her desires, actions and decisions, she became good at identifying what it is that made people comfortable–reflection of themselves. She mirrored her co-workers’ mannerisms so that they can relate to her, from the clothes that they wear to their style in speech. Furukura knew that to be a “normal human” is to be engaged with what everyone was thinking, doing or feeling.

She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality–however messy–is far more comprehensible.

The book is a beautiful commentary on conforming to social pressures, at the expense of sacrificing our own desires. What made it harder is that for a woman whose life did not revolve around building a family, her desire to stay as a convenience store worker was something she had to defend, even mask. At the same time, it also challenges the way we structure our own desires, whether they are really manifestations of our own thoughts or they are molded by the boxes we choose to confine ourselves in. Whether it’s the “normal world” or a convenience store, are we really out making our own decisions? Or are we just reflections of the people, places and the world around us?

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Convenience Store Woman (Shop your local indie store) by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Grove Atlantic (176 pages)
June 12, 2018
My rating: ★★★★
Convenience Store Woman

Note: Thank you to the Grove Atlantic team for providing me a copy of this wonderful book. 

Another Future for Puerto Rico (A Book Review for “The Battle for Paradise”)

Book Reviews, Call to Action

Tú sabes, another future is possible.

I finished reading Naomi Klein’s book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (Shop your local indie store) in a day, a slim volume of just 96 pages brimming with hope and resilience.

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The book and the Puerto Rican flag

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island killing many, wrecking homes and property, leaving thousands in the dark for weeks. The official death toll is at 64, although a Harvard University study estimates that about 4,645 died.

Amidst the destruction, Klein finds pockets of hope throughout the many communities she visited in January 2018. After being invited by a PARes–a group of university professors defending public education–to talk about her work on disaster capitalism, she writes about the ways Puerto Ricans have self-organized to help each other out after Maria.

In the small mountain city of Adjuntas lies Casa Pueblo, the community and ecology center that shone a light in the city for days. Literally and metaphorically. It became the community’s only source of power, its solar panels in tact after the storm. Its community-managed plantation also survived, and it was able to sustain its radio station which became the only source of information down power lines and knocked out cell towers.

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A photo from San Francisco’s Parada 22

Klein writes that her visiting Casa Pueblo was like “stepping through a portal into another world, a parallel Puerto Rico where everything worked and the mood brimmed with optimism.” The founder, Alexis Massol-González and his son, Arturo Massol-Deyá, president of Casa Pueblo’s board of directors think of Maria as a teacher.

Massol-González shares his son’s belief that Maria has opened up a window of possibility, one that could yield a fundamental shift to a healthier and more democratic economy–not just for electricity, but also for food, water and other necessities of life.

“We are looking to transform the energy system. Our goal is to adopt a solar energy system and leave behind oil, natural gas, and carbon which are highly polluting.”

Debriefing, with Susan Sontag

Book Reviews

Reading Susan Sontag has always felt like gentle rain coming down on you midday, on a quiet street with no shade in sight, no umbrella on hand.

So you soak all of it in. You let her words seep through your pores, a place where water meets itself.

After reading her diaries and journals, I was eager for more.

And just as I was getting into short stories, Sontag’s own collection materialized — Debriefing: Collected Stories (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) happened.

I was curious: would these stories be different from her journal entries, musings and observations, each a pseudo-short story in itself?

Surprisingly, I settled within each story naturally.

Sontag’s rhythm even in prose is unmistakable, and I sought to find her in each one as I did with her journals.

And there she always was, gleaming in between action or whatever emotion came hurtling out of the page.

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In Pilgrimmage, Sontag writes how two curious high-schoolers, also voracious readers, managed to get themselves invited to their favorite writer’s home. The story is an ode to reading and writing, both ends of the literary spectrum where the writer meets the reader in the pages. But in this particular story, the writer meets the readers in real life in an encounter so surreal it had me sitting on the edge of my seat.

After all, isn’t it every reader’s dream to meet/have coffee or tea with their favorite author?

Then there’s a story that reads like Sontag’s journals, called Project Trip to China wherein she notes a myriad of topics and things coming up for a trip to the country. I love how meticulous she is about this particular topic, as she weaves facts about China and her presuppositions. She writes about her own observations about the political conditions of the country, at a time of Mao Tse-tung’s reign.

Finding An Uncommon Type, with Tom Hanks (A Book Review)

Book Reviews, Fiction

I have a confession to make: I don’t really care much for Tom Hanks the actor, but I am quite impressed by Tom Hanks the writer

34368390When Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks was released, I was immediately intrigued. I usually ignore books by celebrities and dismiss them, with the exception of The Autobiography of Gucci Mane which I reviewed last month. Ok, so maybe my barometer for legit reads is if they get interviewed on KQED which Hanks did, a signal that this was a “real book” as opposed to just a self-promotional ploy.

So when Book of the Month had the book as one of its monthly selections, I knew I had my choice picked.

It wouldn’t be for another two months after that that I would dive into the book, and as always, the timing couldn’t have been perfect. I purposely did not read any reviews or listen to any interviews because I wanted my review to unvarnished, free of influence.

And boy did I love this book.

Each story is anchored with a quiet but resolute vibrance, the kind that emphasizes humanity more than grandiosity (I expected the latter, because hey, he’s a movie star after all). There aren’t any big hooplas, no grand entrances or fire-truck alarms going off that holds your breath captive by the page. Instead, he writes about the many rhythms of daily life, the ones we will have  missed if we weren’t paying close attention.

Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

Book Reviews, Fiction

If 2017 was finally the year that ushered in feminist science fiction fabulism, let 2018 be a stronger contender for more releases of the same kind!

Last year, I read two notable books in this category and reviewed them on the blog: The Power by Naomi Alderman (one of the best books Barack Obama said he read that year) and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. Folks may have casted this book as a dystopian read but come to think of it–a world where women held a tangible, lethal power over men? More would argue that that’s actually utopian.

I remember these books while I was reading Heartland by Ana Simo, a copy that Restless Books sent to me late last year. I didn’t know much about Simo, but after reading that the New Yorker was born and raised in Cuba and participated in early women’s and gay and lesbian rights groups, I felt an instant kinship.

Heartland is the dystopian tale of a queer Latina from Elmira County who loses her ability to write and is only comforted by the fact that she will gain some semblance of her old self by committing murder. A likely but unsuspecting target: Mercy McCabe, who has recently broken up with the love of our narrator’s life, Bebe.

If this plot doesn’t interest you, consider this: how all of these things were executed, down to the would-be murderer’s schemes/thought processes/details are hilarious. Meandering between establishing an identity as a queer woman of color, as a writer, as someone worth remembering, Simo’s prose simultaneously probes and tickles.

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What I’m Reading / Thinking / Feeling this February

#GetLit, Soul + Spirit

Fresh off of a trip from New York City and I’m feeling all sorts of inspired + excited for this year’s opportunities and gifts!

I just wrote a piece on Hella Pinay about making 2018 the year of emergence, along with a couple of book recommendations that I hope can guide and enlighten. You can check out the full piece here, and share with a friend or two.

February is probably one of my favorite months, in anticipation of March (my birth month) where for the past couple of years, a lot of life-changing things have been happening. It’s also usually Chinese New Year (I’m not Chinese but have reverence for the occasion), Black History Month and duh, Valentines Day (which is always a good time to challenge/recreate/celebrate the different ways we love).

I know we’re almost halfway into the month already, but I’ve got a few more literary-ish things I’m hoping to publish in addition to weekly book reviews. I’m reading a bit slower than usual though, and usually I would berate myself for not keeping on track with my reading/publishing schedule but I learned a lot of good but hard lessons last year.

A few things coming up your way is a V-day special, books to celebrate Black History month and this month’s reading of course! I just finished Tom Hanks’s book of short stories An Unncommon Type and unexpectedly loved it. I’m about to dive into another set of short stories by Susan Sontag, so watch out for reviews of both of these. This week also, my review for Ana Simo’s Heartland will be out!

As I continue to open myself up to new experiences and things that make me want to cower in bed and hide, I find myself feeling lighter and expansive at the same time, each day a wave of goodness (even on the bad days). I can say that for the first time in my existence, I feel at peace with what I have, what I’m doing, what I’m feeling. Is this what being in your 30s feel like?!

Navigating a tumultuous political and economic reality can wear even the strongest spirit down, so for the past few months, I’ve been focused on nourishing my mental, emotional and physical health. And it’s worked wonders! Apart from living within the books I devour, I’ve also learned how to truly live in this world–to be ever present. At the end of the day, knowing that everything I chose to say yes and no to feels good in my heart (and gut!) gives me a sense of power and agency I’ve never really felt before.

This, in spite of continued attacks on women from heads of state (Trump & Duterte) — u got a domestic violence apologist/misogynist for your adoptive country with a macho-fascist for your homeland. Talk about being a Filipino-American queer woman at this time!

Still, we resist. We create. We thrive and continue to exist. I am grateful to feel rooted, grounded and centered like never before and it is my wish that every single one feels the same way. We need all of our strength and resilience as we fight to make our way in this planet, as we make room for many more. I love how I’ve been able to connect with so many folks through this Libromance and as always, thank you for supporting me and my blog! 🖤

A Year of Reckoning: Lessons of 2017

Call to Action, Sunday Spotlight

Aaaaand we’re back!

Happy New Year dear friends, readers and fellow literary lovers, from my bookish heart to yours. I know this post is long overdue but the holiday season, along with other end-of-the year matters got the best of me and I haven’t been able to update the blog (and you all!) with what’s been cookin’ and brewin’ at Libromance.

Before diving into a fresh pile of books this new year, I wanted to share a few highlights from the past year. 2017 was my second year of running the blog, and I’ve been able to accomplish so many things — some planned, some unexpected — in a myriad of surprising ways.

In the past year, I was able to publish 44 book reviews which is less than what I initially intended. I had a few consistent streaks, where I was constantly pumping out post after post, keeping with my weekly and monthly editorial. And there were also days when life in the real world got the best of me, that I wasn’t able to sit down and write as much as I wanted to. Earlier last year, I published a list of things I wanted to accomplish called 2017 #ReadingResolutions. I had lofty goals, of which I was only able to accomplish half. In spite of “falling behind,” I was amazed to be given opportunities to publish my book reviews Libromance-style in different places, ones in which I’ve been really lucky to be a part of (Hella Pinay and New Life Quarterly).

With each book review, with each feature, with each reading that leaves my eyes moist with tears come a lot of lessons. These lessons penetrated my own consciousness, and I am grateful for all of these books coupled by experiences to impart the kind of wisdom I need. Here are five things I learned in 2017:

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The past year was a year of reckoning of all sorts for me—as a book blogger, as an activist, as someone trying to make their way in the world, as a student of life. In addition to blogging and pursuing other literary pursuits, I have a 9-5 job that pays the bills, I’m active in the local Filipino community, along with endlessly trying to take care of myself and those I love. With deadlines and commitments always ’round the corner, I’m always on the go go go mode, never stopping for a moment. To catch my breath, to savor what’s in front of me. And when things don’t go as planned, I’m usually the hardest on myself. This year has taught me to be gentle with myself in different ways, specially during stressful moments and in times of crisis. What I’ve discovered is that this gentleness, this kindness in the midst of the worst situations is one of the things I need to help me get back up. It works wonders. Read: the Libromance reviews of The Revolution Starts at HomeOscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance 

#GetLit This Holiday: A Literary Guide to Family Parties

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Note: This post was originally published on HellaPinay.com.

You ready for another Filipino family party?

With the end of 2k17 just around the corner, you know there’s bound to be an endless supply of pancit, lumpia and possibly (hopefully), lechon. Not to mention all the do-do’s as my family calls ‘em: asado (stewed pork or chicken dish), menudo (another stewed pork dish), embutido (the Filipino version of meatloaf). You know, the works.

The food will be plentiful no doubt, slowly settling in the nearest chair or corner as family, friends and relatives trickle in, as Jep Paraiso describes hilariously in Filipino Titas on Thanksgiving/Christmas be like…series. I don’t know about you but I’m still *reeling* from those videos, grateful for the laughter welling deep in my belly. Filipino titas (aunts) can cause quite a ruckus and I find it mildly comforting that his tita impressions are not only spot-on, but almost universal.

But what is most profound to me is that in the midst of his wittiest quips were inestimable kernels of truth, a window to the Filipino consciousness. That in a span of a minute, Paraiso was able to give the world a glimpse of our complexities and idiosyncrasies as a people. I guess there’s nothing quite like an effective use of humor to induce a little self-examination, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

What the videos reveal are issues in our communities rooted in the same things that have continued to oppress us for generations; that what we consider as usual banter is actually harmful, hurtful in ways that have prompted us to toughen up. The last thing you want to think of is a Filipino family party turned into a battlefield, a space where you have to learn how to duck lest an off-color remark is hurled your way.

So what is there to do? Culture cannot change overnight. For as long as our lens of what is good and what is bad as a people is colored by Eurocentric ideals, we remain at the mercy of a plate of pancit and lumpia, dodging that one no-filter tita. But fortunately for us, we have gentle teachers at our disposal, amiable fellows to aid us in our journeys of self-inquiry–books.

Below are five contemporary titles I’ve chosen attuned to things I’ve picked up from the videos. These books have been heavy on my mind this year, and I’ve been constantly recommending them to colleagues, friends, and family members in search of narratives of strength, courage, and integrity. They are the work of queer people and women of color, voices that bring hope and light in these necessary conversations.

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On body-shaming, fat-shaming:

Ever had an experience where the first thing your family members comment on when they see you is your weight? Whether you’ve lost or gained more pounds? It isn’t really the kind of warm welcome you were expecting but as soon as you walk through the door, you can’t help but be subjected to it. When I read Hunger by Roxane Gay this year, I was reminded of the ways not just Filipino families, but our society as a whole, view our bodies and scale them up. Women’s bodies bear the brunt of intense scrutiny the most. The size of our bodies become standards for desirability, or objects of either admiration or ridicule. Hunger is Gay’s personal account of living in her body, interspersed with the many ways she’s struggled and triumphed in a weight-obsessed culture.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)

On anti-blackness:

While Filipinos are known for their hospitality, I was reminded by the videos that there is still an undercurrent of anti-blackness in our communities. Our people have internalized centuries of colonization so deep that White is Right has been ingrained, massaged in our memory. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a haunting, beautiful read about a black family in rural Mississippi, a story of deep love within a family in the face of life’s greatest challenges. How a family ravaged by death, drugs and racism continue beyond their hardest moments to find joy and beauty in each other. It reminded me of the ways Filipino families take care of each other in the midst of the hardest struggles, how we choose and find the world in each other.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017)

On queerness:

Your best friend or roommate forever AKA your partner would probably be comforted with the mention of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, an indispensable read on queerness, family and religion. Set in Ireland, it is the story of a young man living through an era of extreme homophobia, in a country where Catholicism is king. Boyne chronicles the struggle of trying to survive a world that is against you, of trying to live as freely and truthfully as you can. Being Catholic or religious is still a cornerstone of many Filipino families, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a resonant story of navigating tradition and heteronormative norms in its most genuine form.

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Little Fires Everywhere (2017)

On families:

No two families are the same, and while Filipino families have quirks that we’ve all become accustomed to, I wanted to bring up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere which explores the breadth of differences between families. In the book are different kinds of families: a single mother trying to raise her daughter, a mother trying to hold a large family together, childless couples hoping to raise their own, the joys of chosen family. This book is a conscientious tale of mothering, of the struggles of raising a family, even of pregnancy. It magnifies differences, but also bridges them in the pursuit of learning how to love even the hardest part of ourselves.

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Pachinko (2017)

On the role of women:

Bless all titas in the land, to be honest. In spite of the issues I’ve listed here, and how we’ve come to really understand the Filipino psyche, it is without a doubt that women are the bedrock of any family. I thought of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, the story of a Korean woman living at the height of imperial Japan, who has endured many things and whose lineage has always carried the burden of suffering. It is a virtuous story of the woman’s lot, and the ways women carry their families beyond trauma, beyond generations.

These titles are not only great to bookend the year with, but also function as holiday gift recommendations to those who are curious, those who are interested in understanding ourselves, each other, and the world better. After all, we need a little more prodding within so we can be gentler on each other. And instead of trading light-hearted barbs at the next Filipino family party, think of tenderness. It’s the best way to #GetLit.