The Best Books of 2016

Sunday Spotlight

I was talking to a friend the other day, someone who shared my love for literature and I mentioned that I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fiction and nonfiction as of late — that I feel like I should delve into classics a little bit more. She said that there are a lot of contemporary fiction that are good which made my literary heart swell.

And it’s true, most of the releases I had the chance to read this year blew my mind. The New York Times came out with their best books of 2016, two of which I reviewed on the blog. Buzzfeed also came out with their own list, similar to what has been featured in the NYT and on this blog.

Coming up with only five books was hard, but there were a number of considerations. I like to think of Libromance as a living and breathing part of the world, wherein books featured reflect the struggles of our time. Whether these are external factors — political nightmares, increasing state violence, etc. — or internal factors — the need for security, means for survival, our capacity to love — the decision to narrow it down to just five was a meaningful and intentional process.

Libromance’s Best Books of 2016

30555488The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

…the story of Cora, a slave who ran away from a plantation in Georgia through a real-life railroad built underground. She used the railroad three times: one heading towards the Carolinas, the second towards Tennessee and then Indiana. Historically, the “underground railroad” was a network of secret routes and safe houses, established by abolitionists and free slaves to aid black folks to get to free states.

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Known And Strange Things, Teju Cole9780812989786-us__61976-1469673476-600-600

…I usually try to finish a book in a week or two but I stayed with Teju’s new book for about a month, as I processed each essay and its significance differently, in the context of a queer Filipino immigrant experience in the United States.

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9781501134258_custom-201bae6fcf21665b6797b267a2ff34dc2357b50a-s400-c85The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

…the love stories we see and hear about are really only the beginning of those relationships, Alain de Botton argues, in his new book The Course of Love. What happens after the proposal, followed by the wedding, are the lives of two people bound not by romance alone but by the humbling reality of living with another person.

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Homegoing, Yaa Gyasihomegoing_custom-09de3d52d3ab0cf5400e68fb358d53da9c78afe6-s400-c85

…reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at the time of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths was surreal, as if I was looking at the lives of these two black men from a generational perspective, with Gyasi’s historical fiction lens.

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512bu33tf8nlThe Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

…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.

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These books shook, carried, woke me in infinite ways, beyond my own experiences as a queer Pinay immigrant. There were many that didn’t make the list and you can always check those out here. Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments below!

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The value of my book and myself had changed, even if the book remained as invaluable to me as when I wrote it. I had a tremendous passion for this novel. It aimed to destroy the American perspective on the Vietnam war, which influences how most of the world sees the country. My book was to be the Vietnam war novel for everyone who thought they knew what this war was about, as well as for everyone who didn’t want to read a book about an exhausted subject.

– Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Guardian

I read Viet’s book a few months ago, riveted by The Sympathizer’s prose and the sagacity of its characters. It was my first time reading about the Vietnam war, in a perspective that was aligned with my own. At a reading at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Viet expanded my perspective even more as an Asian-American writer, and once as a young refugee in San Jose, California.

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Every moment springs from a moment in the past. Part of the point of my book is being able to look at the legacy of slavery both in Ghana and America and what it has left us, so we can know that the moments we are living in the present, and the racial tension we have today, don’t come out of nowhere. It is all rooted in these things that happened not just hundreds of years ago, but also 20 years ago, and 10 years ago.

– Yaa Gyasi, The Fader

More recently, I delved into Gyasi’s Homegoing, an incredibly powerful read that spans generations of the Trans-Atlantic trade. While I was reading the book, I was also witnessing a recurring wave of police brutality and state violence in the country against black people.

I’m grateful for the work of these two writers and the way they shape, create and tell stories from the past, stories that continue to live.

Stories That Live

Sunday Spotlight

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

The Power of Homegoing, with Yaa Gyasi

Book Reviews, Fiction

Reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at the time of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths was surreal, as if I was looking at the lives of these two black men from a generational perspective, with Gyasi’s historical fiction lens.

Over the weekend, protests across the country and around the world erupted as yet again, the lives of black people were taken by the police. Both deaths were captured on video, making their demise even more infuriating. We were witnesses to the violence wrought by the state and to the brutality of white supremacy.

And still — after Alton, after Philando (and after Tamir, Rekia, Trayvon) — we are still faced with questions like: but don’t #AllLivesMatter?

If there is anything that Gyasi’s book offers, it’s precisely every counter argument and every explanation possible to explain why #AllLivesMatter is problematic. It all goes back to something that Homegoing explores: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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Cue the fireworks, fire up the grills, get the hotdogs and burgers ready. Fourth of July in the U.S. has been synonymous to picnics and cookouts, marking the sweet start of summer.

I remember a few hard facts from my political science classes: that the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain this day, that the United States of America was born and instituted by the Continental Congress, that it is a day for celebrating the country’s independence.

For immigrants like myself, this holiday is a glorious three-day weekend, a welcome respite to the drudgery of the 9 to 5. The same goes for my family and many immigrants; it is a chance to breathe a little longer, prepare for the toiling weeks of labor ahead. The truth is, the holiday reinforces what many come to this country for: to achieve the American Dream. I am reminded of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem:  

The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.

Immigrants in our own land

Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m reading Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, which revolves around the lives of generations of slaves from the Gold Coast — from their childhood to their time of capture, from the dungeons where they were imprisoned and then aboard the ships which sailed to America, from the plantations to a semblance of freedom for a black man and his family in Baltimore. I read about Esi and Ness and Kojo and remember that the struggle for black folks still isn’t over, even after slavery has been abolished. I remember Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd.

The day is not only limited to the U.S., as the fourth of July is “Republic Day” as it is also the same day that the Philippines won independence from being a U.S. colony (July 4, 1945). The history of this holiday is wrought with irony (it is called “Filipino-American Friendship Day”), but I think the late great historian Howard Zinn could not be any more right:

We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, “to civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”

Howard Zinn’s July 4 Wisdom Stands the Test of Time

Last June 30th, the Philippines just inaugurated its newly elected president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. While he is being vilified by the Western media because of his vigilante-style tactics of fighting crime, there are a lot of things worth noting: his cabinet appointments to specific departments (labor, agrarian reform and social welfare) were all from progressive-left and his willingness to resume peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front (Read: 10 Things to Know About the Peace Talks Between the Communists and the Gov’t of the Philippines). I’m hoping that this president won’t be a U.S. puppet unlike his predecessors.

Any talk of independence would not be complete without the history of Native Americans, whose culture and population were decimated upon the arrival of the British and the establishment of the colonies. It seems like the celebration of independence in the Philippines on July 4th (before it was moved back to June 12th) was preceded by what happened in Native American communities:

More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Indian Country: Do American Indians
Celebrate the 4th of July?

The U.S. is currently engaged in three wars, along with missions of militarizing parts of the world where it sees fit. What is imperialism Obama-style? 800 military bases around the world.

While I am a U.S. citizen, aware of the benefits I receive by living in this country, I struggle with all of these contradictions everyday. To live in the belly of the beast and to belong to the Filipino diaspora is a compelling reason enough to act, to understand the political and personal stake.

Just yesterday, Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and writer Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87. May his life, words and work be an inspiration to those of us who refuse to forget, to those of us who live with our histories and to those of us who are committed to the struggle.

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Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016)

 

Sunday Spotlight: Some Meat for the Fourth

Sunday Spotlight