Quickie Review: AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART by Elaine Castillo

Of the novels I’ve read so far in 2020 for Filipino-American History Month, AMERICA IS NOT THE HEART was the one that resonated the most. The Filipino-America these characters inhabit differs from the one in which I came up. But it rings true for all the ways it overlaps with my and my family’s experiences.

The ways Filipinos get by in the aftermath of trauma, whether from the Japanese Occupation during WWII or Martial Law is familiar to me. The stuff they have to go through when the emigrate or help their family members emigrate is familiar. The many secrets, white lies, superstitions, large Filipino social gatherings and the cliques within, the ways class, gender, and education intersect and create tensions that are barely suppressed by utang na loob — maybe too familiar.

The ratio of Ilocano and Pangasinan phrases to Tagalog (the language of my folks) notwithstanding, almost all of us in the diaspora know a Lolo Boy, a Bebot, and a Ka Eddie. We know what gets said about the brothers of a certain family, the doctors tried to make it but couldn’t, the nurses who were the anchors of a family, and the Ate who had more going on under the surface than you might ever suspect if you didn’t know or intensely care enough about to ask.

Quickie Review: PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING by Randy Ribay

If Gina Apostol’s INSURRECTO gives an overview of 120 years of Philippine-American history, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING gives us history’s most contemporary slice.

With President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug war (condemned the world over for its sanction of extrajudicial killing) as a backdrop, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING shows how a young Filipino-American man faces a choice just about all Filipinos in the diaspora face: How do you live your life in the face of the multiple horrors which have touched generations of Filipinos throughout the last century?

This can be a no-win situation. You can choose to leave the family, the barangay, the country and as a result, feel survivor’s guilt layered with whatever guilt trip others might put on you. You can stay, and escape in other ways like hiding parts of yourself, hiding your convictions, hiding your fears and concerns behind “bahala na” while trying — sometimes failing — to avoid being subsumed by the horror.

To read about a 17 year-old Filipino-American taking up this challenge in ways I never could makes him look like Harry Potter to me. Being 30 years older, let me tell you that it would’ve been easier at 17 if to imagine myself being a wizard than someone who goes “back home” and does what the protagonist here does. If “All of the adults are failing us,” as he declares in frustration, I can offer one possible explanation (though not an excuse, by any means). It could be because I didn’t have a book like PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING growing up.

Quickie Review: INSURRECTO by Gina Apostol

This has been sitting on my reading list for too long, so I figured October being Filipino American Heritage Month was as good an excuse as any to get started!

Apostol uses several layers of meta to give us an overview of the century plus of commingled history between the Philippines and the United States, from colonial times to Digong. If I’ve read correctly, I generally seem around the age of the protagonists, so a lot of the contemporary touchstones resonate with me — the Thrilla in Manila, the peccadilloes of older Titos, karaoke murders, Filipino Catholic priests, mah-jongg, San Miguel beer, aswang, shabu and extrajudicial killings. The historical touchstones I expected in a novel called INSURRECTO are all there as well: water cures, juramentados, “Damn Damn Damn the Filipinos,” Colt .45s, krags, arnis, and massacres.

But the best part is how Apostol’s centering of women throughout the narrative(s) sharply illustrate colonization’s effects on both colonizer and colonized as the two main characters try to take a good-faith look at a shared history in which they both have a personal stake. And INSURRECTO does it in a way that interrogates the ideas of “Whose story is this to tell?” and “What’s the ‘proper’ way to tell it?”

Structurally the book might confuse some. I’m not the world’s fastest novel-reader to begin with; it took me just over a week to get through this. Totally worth it, though. I don’t think I’ve ever described a piece of art as a “tour de force” before, but that’s exactly what INSURRECTO is.

It reminds me of the notes-like structure of a Mary Robison novel (expanded to full chapters, of course). I happened on a review somewhere (I lost the link) that speaks of a peculiar pattern with the chapter numbering. I’d missed it, but never went back to verify it. That’s okay. The thing that helped me stay centered despite the shifting casts of characters as remembering Armand Ianucci’s THE THICK OF IT and IN THE LOOP — a TV series and film where the same actors play different characters in a similar setting. I know, you’re probably thinking “WTF are you talking about?” Just read INSURRECTO.

TBR in the Time of Coronavirus

There’s a piece in Alomar’s collection THE TEETH OF THE COMB & OTHER STORIES called “Psychological Barrier” that pretty much encapsules a good 60% of what I talk about in therapy.

Anyway, I recommend the collection!

The other thing I picked up, based on that episode of The Ezra Klein Show I mentioned last week, Jane McAlevey’s NO SHORTCUTS: ORGANIZING FOR POWER IN THE NEW GILDED AGE.

Because dayjob aside, there’s time now… right…?

via GIPHY

David Lehman Reading

Went to a reading at the local indie bookstore Thursday night by poet, writer, and critic David Lehman, whose work I knew mainly through a couple of poetry anthologies. GREAT AMERICAN PROSE POEMS is a book I return to regularly every year or so. But I couldn’t find my copy for him to sign (waaah!).

I’d only heard about the event on Monday, which was shock number one. Shock number two was that I never knew he had an Ithaca connection. Shock number three was his new book ONE HUNDRED AUTOBIOGRAPHIES which, as you can probably glean of the types of things I like reading, is right up my alley. I picked up the ebook and read what I could before Thursday night.

The book is made up of writing he did as he underwent cancer treatment. In this way, its form reminds me of Harvey Pekar’s OUR CANCER YEAR. Interestingly, Pekar’s wife Joyce Brabner was a collaborator, much as Lehman’s partner Stacey Lehman-Harwood was with AUTOBIOGRAPHIES. I was only to about the 12th or 13th section by the reading, but I got a kick out of hearing a legend read out loud what I’d just read a few nights before.

#Weeknotes S02 E05

Unlike Anderson .Paak, I’ve never had The Best Teef in the Game. I had a minor dental emergency this week. Parts of a back molar around a filling I’ve had since I was a child started falling off. No pain or anything, but it did bring me to a dentist for the first time in, well, a long while. I’ll have to go back in a couple of weeks, but in all likelihood it’s just due to the inevitable bone loss that comes with age. No cavities! (I generally don’t get cavities, not since I had those fillings when I was a child.)

The tooth will likely have to be extracted. If it does, I’m going to ask to keep it as a shank. Maybe tie it to the end of a pole, like a spear.

Oh well, at least my back is doing better!

I’ve been tapped to be part of a task force at work that I really can’t talk about. Not “I’d tell you but I’d have to kill you” top secret, but I’d rather not be another angle someone looking for more information thinks they might be able (inappropriately) pursue. That’ll make my next week interesting.

WRITING PROGRESS
Longest Writing Chain This Week: 2 days, but 4 days overall!

Not really a lot of a lot of progress on revisions for Short Story 01, but I’ve worked a lot developing a couple of fresh ideas. Better than being stuck, I guess.

ROTTING MY BRAIN
I wanted to like the film 1917, I really did. Just wasn’t for me, though. I didn’t really glean anything that I hadn’t already seen in BLACKADDER GOES FOURTH, the DOCTOR WHO episodes “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood”, and series two of DOWNTON ABBEY.

Caught up a little bit more with THE EXPANSE. I’m 3 episodes away from Season 3. I’m still a little taken aback at the show’s plot scope and intricacy!

FEEDING MY HEAD
Kit Reed’s STORY FIRST: THE WRITER AS INSIDER is, in the first three chapters, a pretty succinct distillation of the sort of writing truths that most other writing books tend to start talking about halfway in. I’d only ever met Kit Reed in passing before she left us, but I did see her do a few convention panels. So I can actually hear her voice in my mind as I read…

I should say at the outset that if any of you are going to make it in show biz, that is, if any of you are going to write fiction that pleases anybody besides yourself and possibly your most doting relative, you are going to have to develop the habit of rewriting.

So yes, stuff I’ve seen before (i.e. rewriting) with nuggets that are new-to-me sprinkled in (i.e. writing as show biz).

THOUGHT OF THE WEEK

(Okay, maybe having Crumb actually would open one up to demonic possession….)

IN THE WILD
Fjallraven Kanken No. 2 backpack I love it when retail therapy dovetails with actual, practical need. I decided I needed a lighter load to carry on days when I have chiropractic appointments after work. It wouldn’t be bad if I had a car, but I’m a bus/walking person, which you can be in the town I live in.

I still needed a smaller, lighter back for my Ultraportable EDC-In-Exile but slightly bigger than the STM bag I was using, that was simple enough that I don’t leave essentials behind when I need my full loadout, yet something that would still be kind to my back while I’m going to a chiropractor twice a week.

I’ve had my eye on this particular Fjällräven Kånken No. 2 bag for awhile, and decided I had nothing to lose by trying it out. It’s been a week and so far it fits the bill completely. I’m still not giving up my Filson, though!

Quickie Review // DEAR AMERICA: NOTES OF AN UNDOCUMENTED CITIZEN by Jose Antonio Vargas

It’s interesting–and perhaps a little narcissistic?–to think I see parts of my story, and the stories of other Filipino immigrants and children of immigrants I know, even the ones who didn’t go through what Vargas is experiencing now. The themes Vargas uses to categorize his experiences living, in his words, as an undocumented citizen in the U.S. are: Lying, Passing, and Hiding. I look at some of my family’s and others’ stories of adapting to life in these United States (not only the ones who were tago ng tago, but them too), and see those there elements in them, as well.

Surely this was unintentional, but Vargas’s book caused me to wonder if there are rites of passages that Filipino immigrants and/or their children must go through. Or rather, are fated to go through. Odd looks for bringing a lunch to school that wasn’t PB&J? Fucking up the rules of an American sport on the first go-round? Confusion about how everything is “Black and White,” when you saw how some Filipinos and other Brown folks talked stuff about both?

Other parts of Vargas’s story that I can’t relate to directly still had some resonance with my life, but the ones that didn’t had value as well. Vargas offers some education to anyone not familiar with immigration issues. The book certainly filled some gaps in my own knowledge. Vargas spells out why undocumented immigrants can’t “just get legal,” and has numbers on how much undocumented immigrants give, rather than take, economically. He illustrates how the Black struggle, and Black literature especially, informed his own thinking on the dynamics of White power and privilege that affected his life. And he draws a pretty straight line about how Asians benefited from a foundation in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, through the 1965 Voting Rights Act and up to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. That knowledge, that history alone is worth the cover price.

Backlog Catch-Up // “Knock” by Fredric Brown

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

This is a day late and I’m cheating a bit this week because this pick isn’t all that random.

From my list of Items From the Nerd Canon I’ve Missed But Dread Admitting Lest I Lose My Nerd Credentials, this classic short story I haven’t gotten around to reading before now, despite having owned FROM THESE ASHES for quite awhile.

This piece is renowned for having one of the shortest stories in sci-fi. You’ve probably seen this reference before…

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…

With the way it’s been presented out of context sometimes, you’d think that was the entire story. What follows after this quote is, for the time in which it was written (1948), a short subversive tale about a scientist avenging the planet Earth in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Subversive because Brown knows all the questions you’ll ask yourself at the start – What does “last man on Earth” mean? Where’s the emphasis, on last or on man? – and he toys with them. Subversive because Brown takes some jabs at some Golden Age of Sci-Fi tropes. This isn’t the story of a stereotypical pulp scientist action hero smashing the aliens with technical ingenuity and  inevitably getting the last woman on earth in the end. It’s about a quiet, homely brainiac who wins with his brainiac knowledge combined with psychological manipulation, and leaves it entirely to the last woman on earth to make the choice to repopulate the planet with him… you know, or not… whatever…

And in that case, maybe it’s not all that subversive at least by today’s standards. But I would still call it an early baby step toward progress.

Backlog Catch-Up // “Riya’s Foundling” by Algis Budrys

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

Judith Merril, the editor of this anthology, employs Fredric Brown (one of my personal favorites) to introduce it by posing questions about the qualities which define “human.” Merril divides the stories into three sections. The first section — which contains Budrys’s story — juxtaposes humans against extra-terrestrials.

A lonely little boy with dimension-folding and other powers, transports himself to the dimension of a lonely female with powers of her own and whose nature is pitted against the boy’s desire to return home. And as the reader tries to parse the strange details and qualities of both characters and of each of their worlds, one doesn’t immediately expect to be confronted with such an array of heart-tugging, almost heartbreaking, emotions in such a small space as this story occupies.

Maybe my next reach into my reading backlog shouldn’t be so random — I know I have some more Merril (i.e. her writing), Brown, and Budrys around here somewhere…

Backlog Catch-Up // “Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

“Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont
From THE HUNGER AND OTHER STORIES (1959, Bantam)

This is the story of one Mr. Aorta — See, already that sounds like the beginning of a Rod Serling TWILIGHT ZONE intro, which is fitting given Beaumont’s relationship to that show as well as the tone of this piece. First published in F&SF in 1957, it’s a cautionary tale of a lazy man’s petty dreams of avarice coming true thanks to some magic dirt. The wonder of Beaumont’s writing is that while you know Mr. Aorta is headed for a not-so-happy ending, Beaumont’s dreams go a step beyond what you expect.