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.”

The Plant Messiah at the Conservatory of Flowers

A Return to the Natural World, with Carlos Magdalena (A Book Review of “The Plant Messiah”)

Book Reviews, Call to Action

You see, plants are our greatest yet most humble servants; they care for us every day, in every way. Without them we would not survive. It is as simple as that.

In return for their generosity, we treat them appallingly.

I’m probably the last person to talk about plants or nature in my circle but in the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly seeking the natural world, listening to an intimate pull towards it.

When I finally read The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Carlos Magdalena, it felt like a culmination of sorts because I’ve been thinking so much about my own relationship to flora and fauna, to a world beyond what human beings have created for ourselves. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded with so much news about catastrophe and destruction and violence (usually man-made) that a return to the natural world feels inevitable, incredibly urgent.

In some ways, reading Magdalena’s account is a lot like reading about my own childhood. Although he was born and raised in Spain, and I, in the country Spain colonized for over three hundred years (the Philippines), there were many moments of nostalgia. While he was growing up in Asturias tending to plants, trees and animals that his whole family nurtured, I spent many afternoons in Apalit helping my grandfather tend to his ducks and chickens, waiting patiently for tomatoes to ripen.

While I’m thousands of miles away from my hometown, I went to the closest place I can go to that reflected a growing intimacy with the natural world, aided by The Plant Messiah: San Francisco’s own Conservatory of Flowers.

The Plant Messiah at the Conservatory of Flowers

What Terrorism Is & Isn’t, with Patrisse Cullors

Book Reviews, Call to Action, Soul + Spirit

“Terrorist” first rang in my ears upon being politicized at 18, a young immigrant from the Philippines trying to make sense of the U.S.

I didn’t know much about geopolitics but this I knew: I was vehemently anti-war and after 9/11, the scale of militarization and violence brought on by the U.S. in the Middle East unsettled me. Suddenly, “terrorist” became synonymous with Muslim.

Power was a concept that always intrigued me and in my mind, it was a huge indicator of who/what gets to label another person, country or entity as the enemy.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve committed countless acts of terror, explicitly or insidiously, towards other countries, or that you’ve orchestrated regime change in your favor across the globe — at the end of the day, whatever your posturing in the geopolitical sphere is, you have the final say.

Last week, a 25 year-old Moro (Muslim) human rights activist from the Philippines was detained and tortured at San Francisco International Airport. Jerome Succor Aba was invited by church and human rights groups in the U.S. to speak, until Customs and Border Protection agents stepped in and robbed him of his rights and humanity.

 

CBP agents accused Aba of being a terrorist, a communist. Twenty-two hours later, after being detained, tortured, held incommunicado and denied access to a lawyer, he was sent back to the Philippines.

I think about all of these things after finishing Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele’s book When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (Shop your local indie bookstore). I think about how the word “terrorist” has been historically used to label people whose actions challenge the status quo. How the term strips the accused of their own struggles for justice, how it erases the context of their suffering in the first place.

In the book, Cullors recounts being called a terrorist in 2016:

There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of that child [Trayvon Martin], said Black Lives Matter.

[…]

The members of our movement are called terrorists.
We — me, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, are called terrorists.
We, the people.
We are not terrorists.
I am not a terrorist.
I am Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac.
I am a survivor.
I am stardust.

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.

A Fiery February Reading List

Sunday Spotlight

Ok–we are headed shortly towards the end of the month so I know this post is hella late but I swear I have really good reasons why I’m posting this just now.

I’m still adjusting to the rhythm of the new year (as in slowing down) and to be completely transparent, I’m just about finishing the last book on the list for January. That’s one, and the other reason is I just the hard copies for almost all of what I intended for this month’s reading list, most notably Tayari Jones’s book An American Marriage from Book of the Month.

Always the ambitious reader, I know I’m not going to be able to read all of these books by the end of the month but I want to show where I want to get started. Just this morning, I was captivated by the light streaming into my bedroom which really reflected the theme of this month’s books. Light, something that we need more of specially during these times, days after the shooting at a Florida high school. Light, in spite of the heaviness we feel when we see how people of color are labeled as opposed to white people committing acts of violence. Light, because the embers of our fiery selves are growing and coming together in the year of the dog (happy Lunar new year!). Light, because the only way we can experience it is by seeing the light in others.

Sunday afternoon light.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
A poetic and powerful memoir about what it means to be a Black woman in America—and the co-founding of a movement that demands justice for all in the land of the free. Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs
A world dominated by America and driven by cheap oil, easy credit, and conspicuous consumption is unraveling before our eyes. In this powerful, deeply humanistic book, Grace Lee Boggs, a legendary figure in the struggle for justice in America, shrewdly assesses the current crisis—political, economical, and environmental—and shows how to create the radical social change we need to confront new realities. A vibrant, inspirational force, Boggs has participated in all of the twentieth century’s major social movements—for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and more. She draws from seven decades of activist experience, and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking, to redefine “revolution” for our times. From her home in Detroit, she reveals how hope and creativity are overcoming despair and decay within the most devastated urban communities. Her book is a manifesto for creating alternative modes of work, politics, and human interaction that will collectively constitute the next American Revolution.

Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward
Where the Line Bleeds is unforgettable for the intense clarity of how the main relationships are rendered: the love but growing tension between the twins; their devotion to the slowly failing grandmother to raised them, and the sense of obligation they feel toward her; and most of all, the alternating pain, bewilderment, anger, and yearning they feel for the parents who abandoned them—their mother for a new life in the big city of Atlanta, and their father for drugs, prison, and even harsher debasements.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

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Are you reading any of these books or have you read any of them? What are you reading this month? Let me know in the comments below!

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! 🖤