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.”

Traveling with Che Guevara

Book Reviews, Call to Action

I hopped on a Philippine Airlines flight last May with only one book in my carry on: Ernesto Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Shop your local indie bookstore)Fourteen hours later, I was in Manila with my parents and at 6am, we sped past the early risers of the city. We went straight to my hometown in Pampanga. A couple of hours later, I was headed back again to Manila to fly to Bali with my bestie. On my bag — still Che.

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Che and Alberto (source)

I wanted to bring Che with me as I moved from one part of the world to another, mimicking the way 23-year old Che traveled all over Latin America with his friend, the 29-year old biochemist Alberto Granado, on a break before the last semester of medical school. While our itineraries, intentions and experiences were drastically different, I wanted to capture my own movement with his.

While I was waiting in airports, ready to be drifted from one continent to another on jet planes, Che and his friend relied on a motorcycle they called “La Ponderosa” (or “The Mighty One” which seemed to break down a lot throughout their journey).

The first commandment for every good explorer is that an expedition has two points: the point of departure and the point of arrival. If your attention is to make the second theoretical point coincide with the actual point of arrival, don’t think about the means — because the journey is a virtual space that finishes when it finishes, and there are as many means as there are different ways of “finishing.” That is to say, the means are endless.

Carrying nothing but the clothes on their back and a few essentials, the duo departed from Buenos Aires ready to see their side of the world.

One of my favorite moments is when they came upon the sea, the South Atlantic ocean bordering their home country. Calling it as his confidant, as his friend, Che reveled in the body of water in the same way that I have sentimentalized living by coastal California, passing by the Pacific Ocean on my way to work everyday.

They met many along the way, kind strangers who open up their homes, barns or any dwelling that they can set their sleepy heads on for a few nights. Most offer them food and other necessities, and point them to places where they can get the motorcycle repaired. At other times, they worked odd jobs in return for food and shelter . They also used what they knew as students in the medical field to bring respite to impoverished communities needing medical care.

On their four-month journey, there were many nights spent sleeping under the stars. La Ponderosa would break down in the middle of nowhere and after being exhausted by their feet, they would sleep and settle on the side of roads. They were usually hungry, running out of money. But time and time again, strangers came to their rescue. Most of the people they encountered were peasants who lived humbly. In other places, town officials fawned over their foreignness and offered them all the comforts they needed.

Reading Che’s travel diaries while he and Granado drifted from one town to another was inspiring, diligent repositories of memory. After crossing the border from Argentina to Chile, the duo came upon the town of Chuquicamata. Che’s recollection of what transpired here along with the people he met is probably the most memorable part of the book for me. Turns out, Chuquicamata is not just any town — it’s a copper mine.

There we made friends with a married couple, Chilean workers who were communists. By the light of the single candle illuminating us, drinking mate and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken figure carried a mysterious, tragic air.

The couple, numb with cold, huddling against each other in the desert night, were a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world. They had not one single miserable blanket to cover themselves with, so we gave them one of ours and Alberto and I wrapped the other around us as best as we could. It was one of the coldest times in my life, but also one which made me feel a little more brotherly toward this strange, for me at least, human species.

Imprinted in his memory and slowly marking his consciousness, his diaries reveal a profound understanding of capitalism, of exploitation. He wrote that the country had a capacity for sustaining itself but because of greed and the need for profit, foreign private companies–specifically from the U.S.–has created and enabled the kind of suffering Chilean workers go through daily.

It is in this same vein that Che writes about Peru, as he ascended Macchu Pichu. His sentiment of anti-colonialism becomes stronger, as he sees the destruction of indigenous communities. First ravaged by the Spaniards and their relentless conquest of land, resources and people, he recounts how indigenous communities rose up to defend and protect themselves and their land.

He also gave us the key to the strange ritual observed by our traveling companions earlier in the day. Arriving at the highest point of the mountain the Indian gifts all of his sadness to Pachamama, Mother Earth, in the symbolic form of a stone. These gradually amass to shape the pyramids we had seen. When the Spaniards arrived to conquer the region they immediately tried to destroy such beliefs and abolish such rituals, but without success. So the Spanish monks decided to accept the inevitable, placing a single cross atop each pile of stones. All this took place four centuries ago (as told by Garcilaso de la Vega) and judging by the number of Indians who made the sign of the cross, the religious didn’t make a lot of progress.

I flew back to the Philippines after a few days in Bali, right in the thick of Holy Week. It took us four hours to get to my hometown from Manila, a trip that would’ve usually taken an hour during that time. My friend and I miscalculated the schedule of city-dwellers anticipating a long weekend back at their provinces, as we all sat in the freeway-turned-massive-parking-lot.

My home country was also conquered by Spain and four centuries later, churches and crosses and rosaries became synonymous with being Filipino. After just having spent some time with the Hindus in Ubud, wrapped up in their gentleness and tenderness, I wasn’t prepared for the rituals and traditions observed by my fellow countrymen at that time.

Bali made me wonder what could’ve happened to the Philippines if we weren’t conquered by the Spanish, ravaged by the Japanese and colonized by the Americans (to this day). How Catholicism is at the cornerstone of each institution, the Church heading every aspect of activity. We even had a priest as a governor in my province at one time!

Towards the end of his travels, it became clear that Che’s simultaneously toughened and softened by everything he witnessed. His resolute to free himself and his Latin American kinfolk was evident, as he centered his life’s work borne out of empathy for the struggle and suffering of the many he encountered.

At a celebration in Peru, he made a declaration that he stood by up until his last breath:

I would also like to say something else, unrelated to the theme of this toast. Although our significance means we can’t be spokespeople for such a noble cause, we believe, and after this journey more firmly than ever, that the division of Latin American into unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional. We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan Straits bears notable ethnographical similarities. And so, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of small-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and a united Latin America.

* * *

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The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Erneste Che Guevara
Ocean Press (218 pages)
August 1, 2003 (first published October 1, 1992)
My rating: ★★★★
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)

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.

Multitudes, with Gordon Parks

Art + Creativity, Soul + Spirit

This week’s inspiration: fashion, lifestyle and (most importantly) movement photographer, Gordon Parks.

It wasn’t until I started poring over Volume 26 of the Kinfolk magazine that I found about him, in spite of his magnanimous work behind the lens. Moved by the same current of wanting to document and expose what his own eyes saw, he taught himself how to use a camera he bought from a pawn shop.

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Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

Years, decades later, Parks would be known for his body of work that documented the grit and beauty of black life that reflected his commitment to racial justice. He captured fleeting moments on camera, each a universe on its own. He documented poverty, rural and urban life, revealing the herculean efforts it took to complete seemingly menial tasks.

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Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

At the same time, he also did many portraits and fashion shoots, a testament to his versatility in the craft. Throughout his career, he photographed Muhammad Ali, the Black Panthers, Ralph Ellison, Marilyn Monroe and many more.

I gravitated towards Parks because I found his work as a movement photographer and a fashion photographer compelling. In a time when most of us are encouraged to do one big thing, what he chose to do gave me so much hope. What I loved about him is that he believed in capturing beauty, that beauty is essential to everyday life.

I love that he was engaged in making that happen, and that it didn’t stop him from continuing his work no matter what he was engaged in — whether out in the streets or in a fashion studio.

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I can’t say that I am a former activist at the moment, just because my level of participation isn’t what it used to be. I’m at a point where my activism is constantly evolving, and it is looking more and more different each day. At the same time, I’ve never felt so invigorated in expressing myself through fashion, something I’ve considered superficial for a long time.

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Source: The Gordon Parks Foundation

What I’m slowly realizing is that I’m engaged in a double-sided effort: a spiritual transformation through reading, and constant visual transformation of my body as a means for growth. Thus, my renewed vigor for books and looks or concurrently: #booklook.

These two efforts — literature and fashion, have long been intertwined in my system from a young age. My love for reading books started early on, never forced, a natural inclination.

Fashion, on the other hand was a different story, something that grew out of being a morena in a country where colorism runs deep, a story between my mother and I.

Being the bookish kid with a flair for fashion was hard, because I felt like I was constantly being pulled in opposite directions. Whereas I cherished the world books built for me within, I was also giddy with experimenting with different looks to express my creativity. Eventually, I dismissed the latter and decided to focus on literature.

These days though, I find myself exploring these things again. Both pursuits require money, so I’m eternally grateful for used bookstores (like Green Apple Books in San Francisco) and consignment stores all over the city (Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads). Material considerations aside, I’m grateful to Parks for showing me that it is possible, that we don’t have to compartmentalize the ways we choose to express ourselves.

In the meantime, you can find a combination of these loves on my Instagram account. I’d love to know what you think: have you ever felt like you embrace contradicting things? How’d you struggle with them? 

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

Book Reviews, Fiction

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

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

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

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

And boy did I love this book.

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

Navigating the Heartland, with Ana Simo

Book Reviews, Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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