The Ways We Choose to Live, with Magda Szabó (A Book Review)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Assuming that someone could vouch for us, and assure her that neither of us were likely to brawl or get drunk, we might perhaps discuss the matter again. I stood there dumbfounded. This was the first time anyone had required references from us. “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen,” she said.

I grew up with Ate Marie, our nanny and household help. My mom had a full-time job with three little girls to take care of. Her mother-in-law, my paternal grandma passed away when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and my maternal grandma, her mother, was abroad, working in the U.S. She needed all the help she could get. When I was about ten, my father found out he was adopted and that his real mother was in London working as a nanny.

A few years ago, I was involved in a campaign for domestic worker’s bill of rights. The campaign involved educational discussions, continuous social media outreach and visits to the state’s capital, Sacramento, in efforts to level up the rights of domestic workers and caregivers.

How I’ve known domestic work my whole life has been this way, from Ate Marie, our household help, my grandmother who was a nanny in London, the Filipinos who become caregivers in the U.S. and around the world, and the countless women who labor each day with their heart and hands.

And then I met Emerence.

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Fall, 1981 by Tamas Galambos

Magda Szabó The Door (Amazon | Indiebound) is the story of Emerence, a Hungarian woman who becomes employed by the narrator and her husband as their household help. The narrator is a writer, married with no child. From the moment she sought Emerence, much of her existence revolved around understanding the older lady’s existence. This was already evident upon their first meeting: she asked for references & remarked that she doesn’t just washes anyone’s dirty linen. She sought out details, asked around, even traveled back to Emerence’s hometown to get a glimpse of who she really was.

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.”

#GetLit: So Many Books, So Little Time

#GetLit

The 2017 Man Booker prize longlist came out this week! I was thrilled to see the work of three authors I’ve reviewed here on the blog:

The Ministry of Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Swing Time by Zadie Smith

If you haven’t read any of these titles, check out my book reviews to get an idea. I loved Whitehead’s book the most, one of the finest novels I’ve read in a really long time. I finished reading Roy’s book a couple of weeks ago and even though I only gave it four stars, it is truly a must-read. I didn’t enjoy Smith’s novel unfortunately, although it was very promising. I still love me some Zadie smith anyways, so best of luck to her, Whitehead, Roy and all of the others on the list.

While I’m mostly rooting for these three, my excitement was short-lived. It was dampened by the fact that there are still so many books out there that I haven’t read and will never be able to read in my lifetime. Ok, I know I’m being dramatic.

I was thinking of reading every single book on the list but then I remembered I have a tall pile of books to be read, and also some books coming in the mail. What’s a bookworm to do? According to this article, the books I will read in my lifetime — provided I live up to 86 — will be about 2,800. That’s not even a fraction of the millions of books out there!

Anyways, I’m finishing up F. Sionil Jose’s book Gagamba and I’ll be moving on to Magda Szabo’s The Door after that. I also posted my book review of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire this week, check it out when you can.

And as if I’m not sad enough about how many books there are that I’ll never get to read, I came across this literary fiction summer sampler. It features excerpts from new books this season, and I’m anticipating receiving one of the books below in the mail. In the meantime, this will suffice.

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Got any reading blues / tips / habits you’d like to share? Leave me a comment below!

July’s Reading List

Sunday Spotlight

I can’t believe it’s the second half of the year already. Where did the first half go?! I hope you’ve been enjoying the long weekend with family and friends, or if you’ve been doing it the way I have — with your current reads.

My excitement for this month’s reading list cannot be contained, so much so that I’m on the second book already because I was that eager to get to actually reading. I’m a little behind too on my goal for this year (54 books) so I figured I could use the downtime to catch up.

The past two weeks have been really heavy on the political side, as I finished reading Lualhati Bautista’s Desaparesidos (book review out this week) and Oscar Lopez Rivera’s Between Torture and Resistance. I’m still thinking about those narratives, of the lives of people like those in Bautista’s novel and OLR’s sacrifice for a cause bigger than himself. It’s easy to get lost in our routines, to see each day and each week like the others past, and then find yourself one day asking where time has gone (I mean, I just started this post with that sentiment).

Between juggling a full-time job, organizing with a grassroots women’s group in the Bay Area and reading and blogging for Libromance, some days feel like a blur.

I need constant reminders to slow down, to make my days wider and freer, to be more spontaneous. I have yet to find that balance, but these past few days have been healing. Between all the things I do, keeping up with my books & looks on the daily and carving out moments for loved ones, I have to remind myself to breathe. To take it all in, with grace and even more joy. That in spite of what’s happening around me, in spite of internal turmoils I may face, there’s alwasy a spark of joy that can be ignited.


This month’s first book is Frida Kahlo: I Paint My Reality which I finished in a day (yesterday). I still have a hangover from my trip to Mexico City, specially Coyoacan, where Frida grew up and spent most of her time. I have yet to write about my trip for the blog but it’s definitely in the works!

Right after, I started Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The only reason why I didn’t start reading Roy’s latest novel is that it still hasn’t arrived and the moment it did, I was ready. After being blown away by The God of Small Things, I tried to greet Roy’s other books with the same vigor. But it wasn’t the same. As I write this, I’ve read about 50 pages of the new novel and so far, it has been worth the wait.

Other titles that I’ll be delving into this month include Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. I’m a fan of the Berkeley native, ever since he came out with books like Food Rules and In Defense of Food. He made me realize how complicated our food has become, and that a return to simplicity (to what our grandmothers actually recognize as food) is warranted.

A friend recommended Magda Szabo’s The Door awhile ago so I thought it’s high time I read it. I really don’t know much about the book but hey, it has a 4.06 rating on Goodreads.

And last but definitely not the least is F. Sionil Jose’s Gagamba. The title is the Filipino word for spider, and it’s a little embarrassing that I still haven’t read any of his work. This will be my first book from the author, a title I picked up when I was in the Philippines in March.

What are you reading this month? Let me know by leaving a comment below. As always, happy reading!

What You Know, What You Don’t: A Story of Marriage by Lauren Groff

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love

“Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely;
you do know someone entirely.”

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Trust Green Apple, a local bookstore which has been my go-to for a decade now, to hand you the next best read just when you needed it. Right there on the corner of a long table of bargain books was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (Amazon | Indiebound) at $7.95. Of course I had to get it.

And what a wonderful decision it was to walk away from the bookstore, holding between my calloused brown fingers a world I was about to submerge in, the world of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder.

I usually balk, roll my eyes, make a face at the mention (even hint) of “chick lit.” Aka beach reads. Aka “light lit” that to this day, I’m still challenging exactly what it comprises of. To be fair though, someone gifted me with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (Amazon | Indiebound) after I’ve repeatedly ignored it or walked past it on shelves and ended up loving it. Absolutely loving it, no matter how problematic it was.

But this was no chick lit as I had originally assumed. I was also slightly comforted by the “National Book Award Finalist” sticker on the cover because I have so much trust in Lisa Lucas. Fortune Smiles (Amazon | Indiebound) by Adam Johnson won that year.

A unity, marriage, made of discrete parts. Lotto was loud and full of light; Mathilde, quiet, watchful.

Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage, told from both their viewpoints. Fates is Lotto’s side while Furies is Mathilde’s. The novel begins with quite possibly the most tender scenes I’ve ever read, just a few moments right after the couple gets married and each is lost in his or her own thoughts. On the beach, the ocean all to themselves. And then it pans out to Lotto’s childhood — from how his parents met, his youth and the eventual death of his gentle giant of a father, Gawain.

After his father’s untimely death, Lotto plunges within himself straight into a dark, deep well. This is where I first started to root for him and his happiness.

He began to live for the sand, the beer, the drugs; he stole his mother’s painkillers to share. His sorrow for losing father went vague during the day, though at night he still woke weeping.

It was through his friends, particularly Chollie (who reminded him of his father) and through Mathilde that he was able to feel at home, with himself again.

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Throughout the first part of the book, it’s easy to be enamored of Lotto just like how every girl in their world seemed to be. From his days in college to his newfound fame as a playwright later on, his was a character that enchanted and captivated you. I don’t know if it’s his profound loneliness that made you want to empathize with him, but even at his lowest he was lovable.

His father’s death had been so sudden, forty-six, too young; and all Lotto wanted was to close his eyes and find his father there, to put his head on his father’s chest and smell him and hear the warm thumpings of his heart. Was that so much to ask?

Reading Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”

Book Reviews, Fiction

When Zadie Smith writes “Nowadays, I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own,” she was writing the essence of my own soul.

I’ve long been a fan of Zadie, although I’ve never actually finished any of her novels. I remember attempting to read NW but alas, to no avail. I felt disconnected with the story, although I relished the pieces she wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker. But when I first heard of her new book Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound), I knew I had a chance to read Zadie in a whole other way, the same way that Roxane Gay said that her life story would be in good hands if Zadie wrote it.

Swing Time (Amazon | Indie Bound) is story of two young brown girls in London, with dreams of making it big as dancers. One is the narrator of the story whose life becomes front and center in the book, while the better dancer, Tracey, evidently disappears from the main narrative only to reappear at crucial points of the protagonist’s life.

Carlos Sanchez

Ballerinas by Carlos Sanchez

It’s not uncommon for me to ride hard for the story’s main characters: I fell in love with Ifemelu and Obinze in Adichie’s Americanah, felt for Cora in Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and celebrated the nameless narrator of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.

With Swing Time, I found it hard to even cheer for the protagonist. I found her lacking in personality, but still eager to read on to see what would anchor my time in her. I never reached that point until the final pages of the book.

A Series of Simple Joys, with Elizabeth Strout

Book Reviews, Fiction

I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton in a span of two days. It was hard to put down, for many good reasons.

Lucy Barton’s story is not grand by any means. She’s laying on a hospital bed in Manhattan for the most part, as she recounts experiences, relationships and various moments in life.

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There aren’t any unexpected plot twists, nor any breathtaking events that unfold. What you have is this instead: the clear voice of a woman, with an unhurried perspective on life.

I’m a fan of books that weave the political with the personal, books that explore spirituality, philosophy, history and literature. Of the most recent books I’ve immersed myself in, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Alain de Botton’s On Love: A Novel.

Lucy’s story wasn’t as wild, or philosophical, or as political as I’m used to but her voice stayed with me for a few days after I finished. She wrote about reading a lot, something I discovered after looking at all the pages I marked and went back to. Just like me, she grew up in the company of books. And just like me, she dreamt of being a writer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my one work was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel alone!

The stark simplicity and honesty of her voice struck me as genuine and whereas in other instances I would be uncomfortable, I was with her.

I say this because as a queer brown immigrant from the Philippines, it’s rare that I am able to find connections with those who enjoy (whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are complicit or not) privileges that have caused the oppression of others.

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The French novelist Marcel Proust would’ve turned 146 years old on July 10th, and Lithub gathered six writers in this article to talk about his genius. I first heard about the writer from Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, which was a compendium of ways of looking and living life, in true Proustian style.

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Most of the writers on the Lithub piece talked about Proust’s book In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way, of which I have an illustrated copy of. de Botton reveled in this book, in spite of its format (with sentences that don’t seem to let you breathe) because just like what other writers have found it: “reading Proust is like reading oneself.” I need to get started with my own copy soon.

When I want to restore my faith in literature, I read Proust.

– Aleksander Hemon

July 12th on the other hand marks the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s 112th birthday. Neruda’s legacy is carried forth by poets, writers and romantics alike, as his poems imbue our lives with wonder and an appreciation for things we overlook. I once marveled at a collection of odes: to socks, onions, apples, salt.

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Two things I love most about him: he was a Communist and an infinite lover of saltwater.

I need the sea because it teaches me.

– Pablo Neruda

In lieu of birthday cakes, I think ice cream on books would suffice:

Last but not the least, another cause for literary celebration: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a 2016 First Novel Prize finalist at the Center for Fiction! I recently finished the book and wrote about its significance, using the lens of historical fiction  to understand the movement for black lives. Good luck, Ms. Gyasi!

#GetLit: Greetings

#GetLit

Nigeria, Philippines, Americanah: Longings & Musings

Book Reviews, Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Student Anti-Vietnam Rally, 1968

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

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

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

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

The Necessity of Memory with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book Reviews, Fiction