White Teeth delves into family history and dynamics: an unlikely friendship between two men, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, and how this brought their families together. It explores what it’s like to be a person of color in London from the 70s to the 90s (though I am guessing even until today). It is the kind of book I’d recommend to readers who are more invested in characters than the plot, those who want to understand why people-are-that-way and who do not mind the lack of action in a book.
It took me a bit longer than usual to sort out my feelings about White Teeth.
I read this book based on a recommendation by someone in my professional network. This was one of three fiction books in a list of ten books, so I felt that the book would at least expand my reading horizons. It did; I have no regrets.
It could just be me, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado. I liked the way the writer incorporated different forms of media and literature, all of which eventually made sense as the story developed, into one cohesive work, but I was just … okay with it. It’s not a very long book, but it took me a while to finish. (This doesn’t mean I have nothing to say though. I have a bunch.)
Because I like my history, let’s first talk about the title, Ilustrado.
For context, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for 333 years (I am not making this number up) from 1565 to 1898. The word “Ilustrado” referred to people from the Philippines who obtained their education abroad, in Mother Spain. This exposed them to liberal ideas, and they came back seeking to reform Spanish colonial rule (to turn the Philippines into a Spanish province instead of just a colony). Think: Jose Rizal and Plaridel.
But why use a word so old that it was used in history books?
It’s been a long time coming, but I finally decided to read this book. I have a bad habit of purchasing books despite the size of my to-be-read pile, which never seems to stop growing. It should be no surprise that I bought Dinner at the Center of the Earth way back in 2017 despite only reading it in 2019.
I first encountered Nathan Englander’s writing when I read The Twenty-Seventh Man back in college. I liked the short story so much that I bought For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Since then, I never forgot the name. Come 2017, I found out that Green Apple Books on the Park was hosting a reading by Nathan Englander; I made it my mission to attend the event. After the reading, I shamelessly asked him to sign a book and to take a picture with me as I embarrassed myself with my fangirling. It was worth it.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth goes back and forth between 2002 and 2014, chronicling the experiences of several characters and how they were affected by the Gaza conflict. The book was more about personal experiences than the conflict itself, so it was quite easy to follow the story despite knowing very little of the conflict.
There are several characters involved, and throughout the story, all of their actions had been tied to the orders of the General (most clearly demonstrated by Prisoner Z’s imprisonment). It only took twelve years and some horrific events, but, by the end of the book, the characters have taken back control over their own lives. I felt a certain satisfaction that it ended in the characters’ own terms, even the General’s.
There’s a quite the history to go through before we even get to that point though. The chapters switch off across different characters at different moments in their lives, and at first, this comes off as choppy. The story gets a bit confusing to follow, mainly because the story lines and identities turn around pretty quickly, but don’t let that discourage you from reading on. Eventually, everything comes together as we learn more about the characters, and it’s all worth it.
During my last trip to the Philippines (with only one night shared here), I went to the bookstore to line up find my next read. Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata (translation: Amapola in 65 Chapters) was one of two books I bought for myself. I may not be down to zip line, let alone sky dive, but I will (try to) read anything. In the same way I support independent bookstores, I like to venture into Philippine literature and look for local writers I can rave about.
This book was okay. So okay that I was not sure if I should even post about it, but I should really push myself to be more comfortable stating my opinion. So here it is: I wasn’t sold.
I love the way Philippine culture is so entwined with the supernatural and the way this book has manananggals in its fictional society but also portrays them in an almost realistic way: that they are not accepted in society even if some of them are good and do not eat humans. Of course, the book cleans manananggals up to make them less gruesome. There’s even a divide between manananggals that eat humans and the ones that don’t, and the manananggals are described as more human-looking (albeit the long and powerful tongue and the body split in half) in the book.
The other thing that makes Philippine culture so interesting is its subcultures. In this book, the Becky (LGBT) culture is featured because the main character, Amapola, is a gay impersonator/entertainer at a bar. (Here’s a quick Philippine Star blurb from way back to give you a rundown on the subculture.) There’s no denying that Beckys have forged their way into the mainstream and have influenced trends in society. Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata is riddled with Becky to the point that I was flabbergasted—I had no idea what they were saying sometimes.
Although the supernatural creatures and the subcultures were amusing to read about, that was about it for the book. The story line was okay, and while I loved reading about Lola Sepa’s love affair with Andres Bonifacio (Andy, per my high school History teacher), I didn’t really like Amapola and the rest of the characters—except Nanay Angie because she has a heart made of gold. I wasn’t a fan of the savior plot, and the Grandiosa vs Montero subplot wasn’t very surprising.
To summarize: cultural depiction great, story line meh.
Ricky Lee is great at creating a picture. This isn’t surprising, as he’s written a lot of films. The tone of the book was incredibly entertaining, and I laughed a lot while reading, but I felt that it lacked a certain art to it. It reminded me very much of the hilarious romantic comedies I would watch during the MMFF, which I have also found to be formulaic money-makers. I know this book is supposed to be satirical, and while I can see it, it doesn’t cause a stir.
Reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was a whirlwind of emotions. To tell the truth, I was ready to stop reading the book sometime in chapter four. I was getting tired of Eleanor’s attitude towards other people and things, and while there were some funny thoughts here and there, it was unsustainable. A whole book of that? No thanks. And then I find out there is more to her sterile personality, ahem, plot twist, and I was hooked. Good thing I decided to read one more chapter; otherwise, I would have missed out on possibly one of my favorite reads in a long time ever.
I loved getting to know Eleanor as she maneuvered through her newly found social life. Somehow I found myself relating to her a little, with her quirks and all. From why-can’t-people-write-properly to I-can’t-believe-I-blew-this-out-of-proportion, I could see a little of myself in her, and I think, you do you, Eleanor! You are so brave. You do not cower behind the fear of social stigma. How to be like you po? (Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is: you don’t want that for yourself. It’s just refreshing to see someone else be different.)
Be warned though: this book is not a light read. It’s a quick read, but it’s definitely not light. I consumed this book in two or three sittings, but I was on an emotional roller coaster in which I almost shed some tears. Gail Honeyman was not afraid to take her readers’ hearts and clench them so tightly that they might feel the pain of a lifelong loneliness and denial. No, Eleanor Oliphant is not fine, and it took her the better part of 30 years to realize this. It’s okay, Eleanor, let it all out.
As for me, well, I’m going to have myself a little cry, but don’t let that stop you from picking up the book.