#GetLit: Labor Day & Pan Dulce

#GetLit

Two book reviews in one week — that’s a first! I guess that’s what happens when your writing can’t keep up with your reading. This week, I published my book reviews for Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel on the blog. Check them out if you’re deciding what book you’re going to read next!

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I’m thinking about so many folks out there affected by Hurricane Harvey, and I’ve been debating how I can best help. One thing’s for sure though — do not donate to Red Cross! After this report from NPR and ProPublica came out, I’m not sure I trust the organization to actually do its job. Instead, check out this list compiled by the Crunk Feminist Collective which features organizations focused on people of color and other marginalized communities.

I know most folks are heading out this weekend since it’s a long way, in commemoration of Labor Day. Don’t forget though that this holiday was only invented after governments around the world decided to take the historical significance of the labor movement away from May 1st, away from any Communist ideology. Instead, we get a random date on the calendar which has been synonymous with picnics and retail sales.

Fret not though, Libromance got something for you: read up on posts around the struggle of workers around the world and get educated.

Speaking of workers, here’s a story that brought me to tears this week: as Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas, I came across an article about four Mexican workers at the El Bolillo Bakery trapped by the heavy rain.

What Alvarado didn’t know was that the four bakers trapped inside the bakery would grow restless.

“They were desperate to get to their families and they couldn’t,” Alvarado said.

So they turned to what they knew best: baking.

For two days, the trapped bakers churned out hundreds of pieces of bread, filling the shelves again with bolillos (a Mexican sandwich bread), kolaches and their signature pan dulce.

You can donate to the workers and their families here directly — a great way to honor workers like Jorge at the bakery this Labor Day.

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Here’s a quick update on my #FinestFiction reading challenge: I am on book no. 8, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire! So far, my top picks are (still) Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’m also thinking of Ali Smith’s Autumn, which I have yet to review. I’ve got about a month until the winner is announced (October 17)!

Me and my #FinestFiction stack. 

Happy Fall reading! 

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

Book Reviews, Fiction

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?

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

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love

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

#GetLit: Book Giveaway

#GetLit

It’s a big week for Libromance!

I launched my first ever book giveaway on the blog — two copies of the book pictured above. August 9 is World Indigenous People’s Day and also National Book Lovers Day, so I thought why not pay homage to both? Head out to this page to check it out and enter — drawing period closes this Sunday, August 13.

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New feature on the blog: an author index! Now you can see which book reviews are on Libromance by author. An obvious fave: Alain de Botton. See for yourself — click “Book Reviews” in the menu!

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I cannot be more elated with the number of advanced reader copies I’ve had within the past weeks, and I recently just got Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing! Watch out for more ARC reviews in the coming months featuring the following I’ve already read (and I’m getting ready to review): Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix and Veronica Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop.

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I loved this piece from the NYT on “mindful reading,” something to think about and remember:

As you turn the pages, notice the quality of light, the color and even the smell of the ink on the page, the way that the spine of your book feels against the palms of your hands. You may find yourself more easily bored or sleepy. Take note: This is you slowing down – the point of this exercise to begin with.

How to be Mindful While Reading (The New York Times)

 

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.”

#FinestFiction: Reading the 2017 Man Booker Longlist

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Since the 2017 Man Booker Prize longlist came out, I’ve been stewing on this thought: so many books, so little time. After my pseudo-dramatic rant on Friday, and after perusing the aisles and shelves of Green Apple Books & Music in San Francisco, I made my decision: this summer, I’ll be reading all of the books on the longlist. 

What is the Man Booker Prize? Here’s a little history:

From the very beginning of what was originally called the Booker Prize there was just one criterion – the prize would be for “the best novel in the opinion of the judges”. And 45 years later that is still a key sentence in the rules.

‘It is a measure of the quality of the original drafting that the main ambitions of the prize have not changed. The aim was to increase the reading of quality fiction and to attract “the intelligent general audience”. The press release announcing the prize elaborated on this: “The real success will be a significant increase in the sales of the winning book… that will to some extent be shared not only by the authors who have been shortlisted, but, in the long run, by authors all over the country.”

Since I started this blog last year, I’ve become more aware of the literary industry in different aspects. Recognition like the Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer and National Book Awards have helped me decide which books to read, and which books to pay attention to. In an ocean of titles, a lone sailor needs all the help she can get.

In addition to classics that I haven’t read, I look to these key events throughout the year to give me an idea of what  to read next along with book club recommendations (thank you, Oprah!) and national bookseller lists (thank you Michiko Kakutani and Pamela Paul!).

Once the winner is announced, oftentimes I find myself wishing I could identify with the judges’ call — whether I agree with their choice or vehemently oppose it. Last year, I attempted to read the shortlist for the National Book Award but only got to two out of five. I had run of time, and my TBR list was overflowing.

So what books will these be? Here’s a quick video:

2017 Man Booker Prize Longlist: 

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

Called the #FinestFiction, I’m happy to say that I’ve read three of the books on the list (links to the book reviews above). That means I have ten books left, and I’m gearing up to read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid next after finishing Magda Szabó’s The Door. Last year’s winner was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout which I also reviewed on the blog. With about a month and half before the shortlist comes out and two months and a half until the announcement of the prize winner, I’m thrilled to discover what the judges have seen in these titles.

baroness20lola20young2c20201720man20booker20prize20chair20of20judges20-20credit20janie20airey2028329_3“Only when we’d finally selected our 13 novels did we fully realise the huge energy, imagination and variety in them as a group.  The longlist showcases a diverse spectrum — not only of voices and literary styles but of protagonists too, in their culture, age and gender.  Nevertheless we found there was a spirit common to all these novels: though their subject matter might be turbulent, their power and range were life-affirming – a tonic for our times.”

–Baroness Lola Young,
Chair of the 2017 Man Booker Prize judges

Hope you can join me in this challenge by reading one, two, three or all of them!

An Intimate Look of How Plants View the World, with Michael Pollan

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

My grandfather was an avid gardener and the house I grew up in the Philippines was surrounded by an orchard of fruits and vegetables, flanked by different kinds of flowers, plants and trees.

A favorite one when I was growing up was a flimsy flower tree by the foot of the stairs that led to our house — it was tall, but light enough for me to shake gently so that my sisters and I can pretend that it was raining (the dew drops filled in). On sunny afternoons, I would give the tree a gentle shake, its flowers falling slowly from its branches and the three of us would sit in wonder, in awe of the falling pink petals.

I was thinking about that tree, and these things in my childhood as I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). The book has brought up a lot of different emotions and memories for me on nature, on food, on my complex history with these things; it even prompted a post on my personal history with food earlier this week.

The Botany of Desire is a book about the plant’s eye-view of the world — specifically the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato — and how each of these things have been shaped by human desires. What seems to be at first a process of domestication, Pollan explores how humans can actually be objects of these plants’ desires for survival.

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Malus Domestica

A is for apple. A is for America(n). How many times have you ever heard of the phrase “as American as apple pie”? The apple has been an essential part of American lexicon — wholesome, healthy and sweet. These attributes, specially sweetness, has elevated the symbol of the fruit, actually a native of Kazakhstan to a symbol that most of us identify with.

A Return to Sacred Land, With Rosario Castellanos

Book Reviews, Fiction

“All moons, all years, all days, all winds, take their course and pass away. Even so all blood reaches its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne.”
— From the Chilam-Balam of Chumayel, an ancient Maya manuscript 

It’s the last night of my trip to Mexico City (Distrito Federal of Mexico), and I was curled up with Rosario Castellanos’s The Nine Guardians (Indiebound) in a little house on Atlixco, in the neighborhood of Condesa.

I didn’t know about Castellanos prior to my trip to the DF, but a little research on the web told me that I needed to be familiar with her work. A few days before my trip, I dropped by Green Apple Books in San Francisco and picked up The Nine Guardians along with a book by Octavio Paz. I needed a little schooling on Mexican literary greatness.

Back in the bedroom in Condesa, I felt myself loosening up a little. The last few chapters had stayed with me so intensely that I started to feel like all the spirits Nana, one of the characters in the book, was referring to were with me in the house.

Set in the state of Chiapas, the book centers around the Argüello family during the presidency of Làzaro Càrdenas. It was during the time of Càrdenas that the Mexican Revolution was “consolidated” and that agrarian reform started taking place.

Told from different viewpoints, the book tackles the onset of agrarian reform from the Mayan organizers who tilled the farms, slaves to mestizo Spanish families or ladinos like the Argüellos.

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A Tzeltal woman in Bachajón (Source)

The story opens from the viewpoint of the family’s eldest daughter, usually accompanied by Nana, her nanny of Mayan ancestry.

Does Nana know I hate her when she combs my hair? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know anything. She’s Indian, she doesn’t wear shoes, and has no other garment under the blue cloth of her tzec. She isn’t ashamed. She says the ground hasn’t any eyes.

The unnamed seven-year-old narrator grows up with Nana, who explains the ways of her people to the curious child, knowing the complications of their own relationship. The wounded, taking care of the master’s child. Nevertheless, Nana stays warm, is tender. A refuge from a life she herself could barely understand.

One day, the family receives unsuspecting news:

“A law has been passed by which proprietors of farms with more than five families of Indians in their service must provide facilities for teaching, by establishing a school and paying the salary of a rural master.”

An Homage to LGBTQ Literature

Sunday Spotlight

I’ve always found a home with books, and it wasn’t until I started reading queer literature that I found a home within myself.

The beginning was with a book called Tibok, a compilation of Filipino-American (even Canadian, I believe) poems, stories, comics and others. I started hunting for gay and lesbian literature then in used bookstore jaunts, because I knew that there were no LGBT lit in the traditional bookstore in my town or even in Manila.

I remember spending hours at book sales while my parents and my sisters shopped for shoes and clothes. Most of the time I wouldn’t find any LGBTQ lit, but I would always walk away with a title that intrigued me.

Two books that brought me significant joy throughout my adolescent years were from used bookstores in Angeles City: The Swashbuckler: A Novel by Lee Lynch and a fiction title about lesbians in rural Montana whose title I’m struggling to remember.

The presence of these books in my life represented a contradiction that many still face today: these books were brought by American soldiers who stayed in the military base nearby. While I was ecstatic with my finds, it also meant that the Philippines was under heavy military subjugation by the United States.

When I moved to the Bay Area in 2004, I found solace in books. I immediately got library cards to the San Mateo County libraries and in San Francisco. I discovered Jeanette Winterson, Rita Mae Brown and other Naiad Press writers. And then I started working at Borders Books & Music, and each day I discovered more and more titles that I wanted to read. The rest is history.

As a queer Filipino immigrant navigating life in the U.S., I’ve been fortunate enough to come across the work of queer writers who’ve saved, taught, inspired and moved me: Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Cherríe Moraga, Nikky Finney and as of late, Juan Miguel Severo, Ocean Luong, r. erica doyle, Saeed Jones and Danez Smith.

This Pride month, I want to honor the work of queer writers who’ve continued to propel me in ways I’ve never imagined. I want to highlight four specific books from queer writers I’ve featured in the blog, and pay homage to their work:

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This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. I read this anthology at a very critical time — I was going through a breakup and it helped me move on in a different direction. Instead of mulling over my breakup, I was inspired to create more, to write more, to understand myself more in different ways.

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities edited by Ching-In Chen, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarinsaha and Jai Dulani. Most of the queer people I know are activists and this book is a meaningful resource on how we love and protect each other amidst difficult and challenging work. I also wrote a review of the book and you can read it here.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. This is one of those books that really make me feel lucky to be alive in this time, because I get to be a witness to the majesty and the importance of his work. I must’ve cried numerous times after reading this, and his pieces will stay etched in my consciousness for life.

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag. I first heard about Sontag through Brainpickings and then through Teju Cole. Reading her journals have taught me so much about myself; her thoughts on every single thing from politics, to being a mother, an artist, the way she sees herself are all revelatory.

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Do you have any LGBTQ book or literature which have influenced or inspired you? Do share in the comments below!

 

Notes on Tyranny, from Timothy D. Snyder

Book Reviews, Call to Action

History can familiarize, and it can warn.

I was making my way through the fog this morning, both literally (hello, Karl the Fog) and mentally when suddenly, I got updates that martial law was declared in the entire island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

My first thoughts were: how could that be when Pres. Duterte was in Russia and what on earth compelled him to declare martial law?

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As news are still developing in my homeland, my mind turned to Timothy D. Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) which I finished last week. It’s a slim book, so handy that you can fit it in your pocket, on resisting tyranny specially in the age of Donald Trump (also a response to the wave of populist movements around the world?).

In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.

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Snyder is a historian well-versed in Eastern Europe history, and the book is abundant with references to Nazi Germany as well as other communist states. Broken down in 20 chapters which can also be read as a manifesto, Snyder uses history and provides practical tips on resisting tyranny with each point:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.