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!

#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.

The Great Five from Libromance: Best Fiction Books of 2017

Book Reviews, Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Running a book blog is lots of hard (but pleasurable!) work and one of the things I’m always excited for are end of the year lists, best picks and titles deemed noteworthy usually announced around this time.

I’ve seen a lot of best of the year book lists and here are some of my favorites:

Out of all these lists though, I’m particularly partial to The New York Times best of the year book list, which usually consists of fiction and nonfiction books. Selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review, it is something I look forward to every year.

So when it was finally released on November 30th, I was thrilled to see all five of their listed fiction books as titles I read and reviewed this year on the blog! Five-starred and highly rated, these books are the kind I hope to read for the rest of my life, stories that move and shake and empathize and challenge. I cried throughout most of them, and I’ve probably listed them on numerous lists prior to this post. They are the kind of stories I love reading and I hope to write in the same vein someday.

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The Great Five

Here are *the great five* of 2017, along with excerpts from my book reviews this year:

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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. Read the full review here.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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. It 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. Read the full review here.

Autumn by Ali Smith

This is a novel set in the UK, not a love story but a story about love in many forms. There’s Elisabeth and her mom, living alongside their neighbor, Mr. Daniel Gluck, and the world around them revolving in varying degrees of discovery and reconciliation. Theirs (the main characters’)  was no ordinary friendship, no feudal relationship. They talked about arts, books, ways of looking at the world. The ever-present question, always Gluck’s greeting to the young one was: What you reading? Read the full review here.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This endless work and suffering is what bookends the story, manifested in different characters. Lee portrays all kinds of women in Pachinko, as she lays out layers of complexities. With each generation, she highlights the struggles of Korean women within their respective socio-economic contexts: women who aren’t allowed to work because of their husband’s beliefs, women who are imprisoned in their marriages because of economic and social reasons, women who are fiercely independent, women who long to come home to Korea, women who long to move to America, broken women, heavy-hearted women, happy women, but always, suffering women. Read the full review here.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

This book is something I dove right into where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand. Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips. Read the full review here.

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Have you read any of these books? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Fiending for (More) Fiction

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

After doing my #FinestFiction reading challenge in the summer where I attempted to read the longlist for the Man Book Prize, I was hooked. Not only did I push myself to read out of my usual genres, I also stuck with some books I would’ve otherwise put down already. I learned a lot. And I discovered authors I wouldn’t have read otherwise, like Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid, whose books will be permanently etched in my memory.

In the spirit of that reading challenge, I’m doing another one. More than I actually followed the Man Booker Prize, I’m a huge fan of the National Book Foundation. Headed by Lisa Lucas (!), the NBF is the presenter of the annual National Book Awards. Last year’s NBA fiction titleholder is Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.

This year, I’ve decided that I will be reading the fiction shortlist, a compilation of five mighty books:

Out of this list, I’ve read three so far and I’m slowly making my way through Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing. One of my favorite books this year is nominated — Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I’m currently working on reviews for both Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, two books I also really liked.

The ceremony is on November 15 in New York City, which means I’ve got about two weeks to finish and review the books. If you’re looking for a book to fall in love with, I guarantee any of these because the finalists for the NBA for fiction have always been stellar. In addition to these fiction titles, I’m also reading one book shortlisted for the nonfiction prize (Marsha Gessen’s The Future is History) and another one shortlisted for poetry (Danez Smith’s Do Not Call Us Dead: Poems).

National Book Awards for Fiction shortlist:
Judges are Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Annie Philbrick, Karolina Waclawiak, Jacqueline Woodson (Chair)

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
Haris Abadi is a man in search of a cause. An Arab American with a conflicted past, he is now in Turkey, attempting to cross into Syria and join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But he is robbed before he can make it, and is taken in by Amir, a charismatic Syrian refugee and former revolutionary, and Amir’s wife, Daphne, a sophisticated beauty haunted by grief. Told with compassion and a deft hand, Dark at the Crossing is an exploration of loss, of second chances, and of why we choose to believe—a trenchantly observed novel of raw urgency and power.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
A vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging, The Leavers is the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away—and how one woman learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Which one are you rooting for? 
Tell me in the comments below!

#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?