Golden Moments, 18-31 March 2018

The idea for this post is shamelessly ripped off from inspired by the wonderful holdsuponhappiness. Her blog is one I constantly come back to: cozy, cheering, and charming. Golden Moments is a series on her blog that I take pleasure in; stories of recent events and little items that make her daily life happier and brighter.

Sometimes, I am hesitant to write more lighthearted content. Part of me isn’t sure it’s “me” (the Internet would type me as someone with “zero chill”) and part of me doesn’t think it would be interesting for readers. Yet evaluating the little nuggets of gold that brighten your day is surprisingly effective self-care. Looking at the photographs I compiled for this post made me smile and a little happier.

Warning: this is an unusually photo-laden post.

March 18

I mentioned in my last post that I went to Manila, Philippines on a short vacation in early February. One of my favorite cafes in Metro Manila so far is Wildflour, a cozy/contemporary brunch spot. Last time I was there, I had a thick wedge of sourdough with homemade ricotta, strawberry jam, and granola on top. With a cup of coffee, it was breakfast heaven.

wildflour

On March 18, I replicated the dish. I mean, come on. It’s so simple a toddler can do it. I did, rightfully, substituted the strawberry jam with raspberry. The extra tartness provided by raspberry jam provided a sharper and tastier contrast against ricotta. My less-photogenic version below:

wildflour wannabe

It’s a really good breakfast option to keep in mind, by the way. Requires no effort, but feels slightly more special than regular toast or cereal.

March 20

charcoal

My baby brother sent me this photo. Yes, with the heart eyes emoji. That black and charcoal business bag was my birthday gift to him. He loves it. It is now his daily office bag, his gym bag, his travel bag; he takes it everywhere. I’ve seen him take it everywhere, too.

His delight is hard won. My big sister instinct told me he would love it. Also, a proper business bag was a genuine gap in his list of possessions – making it a practical present. But I was nearly dissuaded from the purchase by my mother, who told me he wouldn’t use it, he was too much of a backpack loyalist.

Considering the happy outcome, however, three cheers for big sister instincts!

March 23

ricotta omelet

Behold my omelet folding skills! I really am honestly proud of this minor talent. Do you know how many wonkily shaped omelets I had to cook to get to this level? Actually, you don’t really want to know.

This is a simple ricotta and spinach omelet, by the way. No sense in wasting leftover ricotta.

March 24

senja di jakarta

Senja di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta in English translation) is an Indonesian classic and I enjoyed it far more than I expected, considering how Mochtar Lubis’ other famous novel Harimau! Harimau! left me indifferent. Lubis to me was our answer to Hemingway. Their writing style and chosen themes are similar. I have enough thoughts about Senja di Jakarta to write a review, so it will come… eventually!

March 27

oggo

This big baby is a living, breathing antidepressant. He whines a lot, roughs around, gets dirty all the time, bites, licks like a maniac, is unbelievably naughty, and is possibly the most spoiled dog that ever lived. But I forgive him every time. He is so loving and affectionate and he never fails to make me feel loved – by endless licking and constantly parking his big bum on my lap and giving me puppy eyes. I am so weak, guys. Help me!

March 31

goggles

I’ve always been terrible at physical activity. P.E. was consistently my worst subject throughout school. Compounding my lack of natural talent was indifference. I find running on a treadmill and most gym activities so boring, yet competitive sports like soccer are a nightmare of planning and effort. I tried yoga and found it boring as well.

pool

I’ve found my sport, though – it’s swimming. I took swimming lessons as a little girl for a few years and mastered the basics, but it is only now that I’ve developed a genuine appreciation for it. You can go hard and fast if you want to or follow a relaxed pace when you need it. Swimming helps you focus on the present (otherwise, you’ll start swallowing the pool water) and it’s an individual sport – no logistical faffing or interacting with a bunch of people you don’t know well.


It’s funny that only one of the Golden Moments above features a book. This is, after all, a blog focused on literature. But it makes sense for a Golden Moments blog post to feature various facets of the blogger’s life. The blogger’s blog may specialize in literature/beauty/sports/current events/whatever, but that’s not the lone element of the blogger’s life. And thank goodness for that. My life would be much poorer without a spectrum of interests.

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A Retrospective

I’ve been privileged to see many historical and cultural landmarks, yet this random building with the most gorgeous Art Deco detailing in Makati, Philippines might be my favorite piece of architecture

Last December, my family had a big trip together for Christmas and 2018 New Year. It was a serious affair: aunt, uncle, cousins, grandparents, cousin’s wife, and cousin’s boyfriend. My uncle, who enjoys a reading hobby, had a peek at the unread books thrown into my suitcase while I was rifling through.

“Do you still read a lot? What good books have you finished this year?” he asked, smiling and pointing at his current read – a Wilbur Smith novel. I know he’s a fan, so it was probably Smith’s latest release.

I sighed. “To be honest, I haven’t been reading much this year. I’ve been too busy with work. That’s why I’m bringing, like, three books in my suitcase. I just want to read this trip.”

“It’s good you are still reading physical books,” said my uncle. “When we moved to the new place, I organized all my books, then brought the ones I didn’t want anymore to the local used bookstores. No one would buy my books. The owners all kept saying the same thing, that no one is buying books anymore. ‘Bookstores are closing left and right, so we can’t afford to buy these.’”

“It’s sad to see bookstores die out in my lifetime. I know, I know. On with the times. Doesn’t make it less sad, though,” he said.


Last month, I went to Manila, Philippines for a short vacation. I enjoyed the company of a dear friend from college. We lost touch for a few years, but have now reconnected and I am much happier for it. She, like me, is a voracious reader.

Haha, make that was. I asked her what she was currently reading and she responded that ever since she subscribed to Netflix, she has pretty much stopped reading. She wants to, though. She keeps buying new books to motivate her, but distractions are plenty.

(Haha, that sounds familiar)

I haven’t succumbed to a Netflix subscription. I know its availability will whittle down what leisure time I have for reading. We have so many content options these days: Netflix, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, apps, and aggregators. Choice is a good thing, but I see fewer people engrossed in doorstopper physical books.

Like my uncle, I feel a bit wrong-footed about this. Rationally, I know it comes back to reading and content consumption. But it does make me nostalgic, mostly for the simplicity of childhood.

Damn. And I’m not even that old. Oh well. On with the times.


I’m a bit sad to have missed February’s Persephone Readathon, which I was alerted to by holdsuponhappiness’Instagram post. I completely missed the deadline to contribute, but two of my reads in 2018 made me feel cozy, comforted, and happy – what the best Persephones do.

One is a Persephone; it’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. For some reason. I’ve been picking it up and reading it for the past 3 years. And I always hanker for it around February/March. I suppose Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is like Pride and Prejudice in the way they make you smile and hope for a happy ending. It’s the right novel to savor during the early year doldrums.

The other novel is The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, a novel that feels very Persephone Books to me. Utterly British in tone and setting, it’s cozy, charming, and well-plotted yet immersive. Plus, who can hate a novel when read at a cute creperie?

Photo Taken at Café Breton at Greenbelt Mall, Makati

One of the photographic evidence of last month’s Manila trip. I love this crepe café. If you ever go, get the crepes with butter, sugar, and lemon. Sometimes nothing beats the simplest option.


In 2017, I read the following books:

  1. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (reread)
  2. Kubah by Ahmad Tohari
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  4. Matilda by Roald Dahl (reread)
  5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
  6. Perfection by Debbie Lee
  7. Shelter by Jung Yun
  8. When I Carried You in My Belly by Thrity Umrigar
  9. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  10. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  11. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (reread)
  12. Green Tea by Sheridan J. Le Fanu (Penguin Little Black Classics)
  13. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh
  14. Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  15. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
  16. Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
  17. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  18. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  19. Eating by Nigella Lawson (Vintage Minis)
  20. Strangers by Taichi Yamada
  21. Destination Moon (Tintin #16) by Herge
  22. Explorers on the Moon (Tintin #17) by Herge
  23. You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt

For a passionate bibliophile, 23 books is a poor annual sum. That’s fewer than 2 per month. It’s in the past, though, and I’d rather move forward. Reading and writing are my dearest passions. Why poison them with pressure? Let pressure stay at work.

Funny thing is, I’m reading more so far this year. I’ve completed 6 books and am well into several others. I think at this time last year I was struggling through my first read.

Maybe I’m reading more because I’m being more relaxed and following wants rather than only shoulds? Maybe I’m finally achieving work-life balance? Who knows? It’s working.


This has been a meandering post, hasn’t it?

It has taken writing this far for me to realize the point of this point. I think 2018 will be a good year for me, whatever the inevitable challenges. My twenties have been marked by a lot of struggling then learning priceless lessons on how to cope with whatever life throws at you. There’s precious little time left in my twenties. 2018 will be a good year because I will make it a good year. Let’s see how successful I am come December!

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

the god of small things

Oh, look! A novel I had planned to review last year because 2017 marked its 20th birthday. What? It’s January 2018, now? Whoops. Oh well.

The God of Small Things wasn’t the best fiction I read in 2017. That minor honor goes to Shelter by Jung Yun, which I have yet to review (as well as nearly all my 2017 reads). But I couldn’t get it out of my head months after finishing it.

The God of Small Things focuses on a trope I have always loved and Roy built a family saga around it. The trope in question? A noble house in decay.

Roy chose a fascinating period in the decline of an esteemed house. The God of Small Things wasn’t written in chronological order, but as our mind figures out the story’s linear timeline, we realize that the story enters at a point where the house is already in decay and losing prestige. The current generation is simultaneously in denial and attempting to stave away the inevitable.

So we turn the pages awaiting a climax, after which the house loses all standing, good name, and even its income.


The God of Small Things starts with church rites. Sophie Mol, the nine-year-old half-British and half-Indian daughter of family heir Chacko, is dead. We know that Ammu, Chacko’s sister, and her twin children Rahel and Esthra were somehow seen as responsible for Sophie’s death. They were ostracized and pointed at during the funeral.

We are then launched into stories of various family members: the current clan and the older generation. Their backgrounds and most revealing anecdotes are told, creating fully realized characters. No one in this sprawling family is likable. In fact, the whole pack seriously needed copious therapy. All I see, page after page, is delusion, hypocrisy, petty drama, incompetence, and recklessness.

But then, is it a surprise if the man who built the family name was odious? A violent husband and an abusive father, but toadying towards the colonialists, his family cannot escape his clutches long after his death.

Decay and suffocation are themes that infuse The God of Small Things. When the timeline starts, Kerala, where the novel is set, was verdant and beautiful. When twin daughter Rahel returned as an adult woman, her hometown has become a tourist trap where water no longer supports life. The fish are dead and belly-up. The house falls, the land polluted. There is decay and there is inertia, the sense that everything stays the same, yet rot inevitably infests. There are fathers with great hopes for their sons but sons grow up to be menial men with mediocre jobs and class stays unchanged.


The prose of The God of Small Things is famously divisive. It took me a while to finally take the plunge and read as I feared the novel required complete focus, with a dense writing style and a tangled family tree. Nah. Everything’s easy to follow.

The poetic flourishes of The God of Small Things reads childlike and excited to my eyes, rather than esoteric. Makes sense. While we are given an omnipresent view of nearly all the family members, a sizable chunk of the novel’s voice is heard from the twins Rahel and Esthra – children when the story begins, devastated adults at the novel’s end.

Overall, I took pleasure in Roy’s writing style, but the prose can and does cross the realm of being irritatingly overwritten. The God of Small Things is deeply descriptive, lyrical, and lush. Roy turned her pen and her senses to describe absolutely everything. The season’s overripe mangoes get half-a-page worth of writing. It does get tiresome and The God of Small Things isn’t even a long novel. My edition is around 340 pages, but 40 pages of the book’s excessive detail could have been easily cut to produce a stronger novel: beautifully written and focused.

(Because dear god, sometimes I thought: right, can we get on with the actual story? Please?)


Despite my quibbles with the writing style, The God of Small Things is a rich novel, full of themes to unpack and beautiful imagery. A small note about the plot and climax, thought. Both are predictable. I guessed what happened to catalyze events into overdrive not even a quarter into reading the book. But no matter – I don’t think Roy was ever invested in the mystery either, it’s the themes, characters, and overall story that are emphasized.

Here’s a question: why hasn’t the BBC commissioned a miniseries on The God of Small Things? I mean, it’s got the stereotypical themes: class, colonialism, and more class. That alone should have gotten the agents talking.

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Image courtesy of Goodreads

The inclusion of Stay with Me in the 2017 Baileys Women’s for Fiction Prize shortlist likely heightened my expectations for a highbrow literary novel, as that is the genre most often nominated for visible awards. Upon finishing the novel, however, I was slightly in dismay.

I’m sure many bibliophiles have had the experience of finishing a book and thinking ‘well, that was enjoyable. Don’t think it was particularly accomplished, though.’ If you are anything like me, the thought would be followed by a bit of guilt. No one wants to be a snob. You want to be discerning, but most definitely not a snob. Let’s hope this is a discerning review.


We begin Stay with Me with Yejide and Akin, who have been married a few years. They are a loving and happy Nigerian couple, with a modern relationship dynamic. Both work and contribute to the family finances. Their early interactions were marked by respect and reasonable discussions. #relationshipgoals basically, as the kiddos say these days.

That is, until the fateful day Yejide opens her front door to family relatives and a young woman claiming to be Akin’s second wife.

Polygamy was always something Yejide and Akin rejected. Both came from polygamous families and, Yejide especially, suffered from it. However, Akin’s family is extending immense pressure for them to have a baby. Yejide has no choice but deal with the new woman’s arrival into her household.


This is where most synopses of Stay with Me end, which was probably why I expected the novel to be a domestic drama dealing with the repercussions of polygamy while providing insights on family dynamics and the larger Nigerian culture. But Stay with Me isn’t that type of family drama. This is a very action-based novel; plot twists are abundant here – I think most reviewers stop describing the plot at the second wife’s arrival to avoid spoiling the story for potential readers. I respect the discretion and have done the same.

Suffice to say that the twists and turns in Stay with Me are relentless. They really are too much for any couple to bear, no matter how loving or happy. If your life is a constant struggle against challenges, without hope, sooner or later you’ll get exhausted, or even want to give up.

I’m reasonably sure Adebayo plotted these dramatic turns and reveals as catalysts to show Yejide and Akin’s humanity. The near soap-opera plotting should be secondary to Yejide and Akin as characters. However, for Stay with Me to work, its two elements of excessive drama and authentic humanity needed to balance each other out – unfortunately, the elements never quite cohere together.

Sure, there were moments of authenticity in Stay with Me. A near violent argument between Yejide and Akin seemed to be happening too early in the novel, until you realize that when trust is lost and words have been treated like weapons, a loving relationship degenerates in no time.

If Stay with Me had more scenes highlighting emotional devastation and relationship cracks while paring down the gothic drama, I would love the novel so much more. My favorite line came from a rare moment of contemplation, when Akin reflected on unforeseen consequences:

[A]ll the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.

Stay with Me isn’t winning any prizes for poetic prose, but that disarmingly simple line is so honest and true. Life is a cocktail of variables we have no control over. All we can do is do the best we can and be the best person we can, no matter how much things hurt sometimes.


If I were to say Stay with Me is a great novel to take on a red eye flight, is that backhanded praise? In no way do I advocate reading only esoteric writing. My favorite reads are books that beautifully balance the accessible and the meaty. Alas, while I am sure that was the author’s intention – Stay with Me ended up lacking enough meat to carry the raucous surface.

Despite all my caveats, I await Adebayo’s next fiction endeavor with interest. Adobayo is young, not even 30, and Stay with Me is her debut. I think she set out to write my favorite type of novel, where the readable and the thoughtful blends seamlessly together, but fell a bit short. But Stay with Me displays potential and I am optimistic she has the chops to perfect her craft.

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Skim (Goodreads)

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Suicide, depression, love, sexuality, crushes, cliques of popular, manipulative peers – the whole gamut of teen life is explored in this literary graphic masterpiece.

The above is the blurb for young adult graphic novel Skim. A bold claim, to be sure. But is it accurate?

I agree with the blurb – to an extent. Skim never delves deeply into any of the promised themes. They are all within the pages, all there, but don’t expect a thorough investigation.

My evaluation doesn’t sound promising but I think it was the right approach for the story. Whenever suicide, depression, or falling in love touches our lives – whether directly or through others, whether as teenagers or as adults who should know better, we are left with far more questions than answers. Worse than that, our sense of self and established beliefs are often shaken.


The year is 1993. “Skim” is the nickname of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a Canadian high school student with estranged parents. She lives with her mother, but the relationship is distant. She is into tarot cards, Wicca, and astrology. She’s starting to have differences with her best friend Lisa. She’s obviously a misfit at school. And she’s falling in love for the first time.

Yet her story is essentially a subplot. Katie Matthews is one of the popular girls, whose outgoing and athletic ex-boyfriend committed suicide. The overarching narrative of Skim centers on the aftermath of this boy’s suicide.

The students at Skim’s high school don’t know Katie’s ex-boyfriend (they go to different schools), but everyone has a response. From insensitivity to charging forward with ignorance (teenagers, eh?) to eye rolling at the random hysteria, everyone has a response. And in fact, what Skim does excellently is capture the voice and reactions of teenagers. A lot of stupid ideas are executed with (most likely) good intentions.

Skim herself is wonderfully realized. She is the way teen misfits usually are. Smarter, sharper, and wiser than the expectations of those around her, but not as wise and smart as she wishes she is.

I so love the page where the concerned but bungling school counselor pulled Skim into her office. Girls like Skim, with their gothic ways and “depressing stimuli”, are “very fragile.” In other words, girls like Skim are more prone to suicide.

To which Skim snarkily thinks: “Truthfully I am always a little depressed but that is just because I am sixteen and everyone is stupid […] I doubt it has anything to do with being a goth.” Oh, and “John Reddear was on the volleyball team and he was the one who committed suicide.” I chuckled. Then cringed. Skim’s inner thoughts were close to those of my teenage self, though I was never a goth and always a humanities nerd.


So ends my adventures into Groundwood Books’ graphic novels. I’ve read four so far (I’ve also read A Year without Mom, Harvey, and Jane, the Fox, and Me). While all the graphic novels share quiet, slice-of-life stories of innocence’s transition into realization after one central event, Skim is far and above my favorite. It’s the grittiest one I’ve read, which makes sense as the other three are targeted at much younger audiences.

Despite my reluctance to read young adult fiction as I often find the characters’ interests too shallow and juvenile, Skim is a winner. Sensitive topics are treated unflinchingly (though never deeply) yet with restraint and understanding. The characters and their reactions ring genuine, especially those of Skim and Katie.


I know there’s very little chance anyone from Groundwood Books would read this, but it is thanks to them that I could read these graphic novels. During the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, their representatives very kindly let me take the books I was interested in off their stand free of charge as they didn’t want to take them back to Canada. It sounds like a win-win situation, but the reps were generous. Other publishers got rid of their books by selling them at a discount. Yet one of the Groundwood reps said she is more than happy if someone took the books to a welcoming home.

Of course, the publishing world is a business like any other. Its main concern is making money and profit. But stories like the one I experienced reminds me that book lovers are united in something wonderful Loving books is often a personal matter, but the community created is tangible and passionate.

Life

I wanted to give this post a more creative title. Or at least something more specific. A basic “Life Update” would do, or “Life, Currently.” Yet weirdly, that one word, “Life”, says it all.

Life hasn’t been OK, basically. Sometimes I’m willing to go into details, but not today.

Last week’s stress-fueled and tear-fueled mini book haul

I mean, the photo caption above says it all. But while circumstances and recent events have been dire, I know with a bizarre certainty that while I’m not OK now, I will be OK. And you know what? That’s the nature of my life.

It’s certainly not the life I expected or wanted, but I’ve come to accept it.

Let me clarify – that sounds ungrateful.

What I mean is, my life has been a total roller coaster when I had always expected stability and monotony. Funnily enough, I remember praying a prayer of gratitude, in which I was thankful for my flat and solid life mere months before the dramatic ups and downs began.

I know I’ll be OK because I’ve been through other hardships and I’ve learned that things will eventually be OK. I was telling all this to my best friend earlier this week and she sent a message saying, “You would never be happy with a monotonous life. You are so full of life!”

So there we go. Life, in all its challenges and beauty and victories and discontents.

An anonymous blessing

This is one of my very favorite purchases from my New York trip in May. I am astonished that the words on a tourist-shop card, of all things, have managed to encapsulate the story of my life. I am simultaneously annoyed that I didn’t come up with such perfection.

My life has had everything: happiness, trials, successes, times when I had to be extra strong and determined, moments where I had to take a leap of faith. I just have to take this life as a compliment and a challenge because I can handle it.


Reading, sadly, has had a diminished role in my life this year (and last year, ugh!). Yet I keep buying books at an alarming rate. It’s almost as if my wallet is doing all the work in maintaining the central role of good books and content in my life.

I am trying harder than ever to jump start my reading. Currently I am in the middle of 5 books, but Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo has kept me turning the pages most. Of the reading pile, it’s the last book I’ve started, but it will likely be the first book I finish.

Finally, I also want to jump start non work-related writing. No promises, but I aim to upload two more posts this month. And just try to write an introductory segment to a fiction project. Wish me luck!

Breaking a Six-Month Hiatus, En Route to the USA

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Umm, hi there. Where to start?

Books! Let’s talk books!

2017 has been a year of paltry reading. I’ve only read 6 books so far, three of them (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Roald Dahl’s Matilda) rereads. The rereads are deliberate; these are comforting, easy to speed through, and they inject some much-needed joy to my days.

Quite sad that my own personal writing has been minimal so far this year too. Not just this blog, but I also wanted (and still want) to tackle one of the two big fiction ideas that has been knocking about in my imagination since college.

Putting aside reading and personal writing were done in favor of my day job, for which I have poured all my efforts, energy, and heart. Man, 2017 has been a roller-coaster year for my career. I work for a high-stress, high-pressure company, which demands more and more from us each passing day. My supervisor told me everyone can see my skills. Indeed, I recently got a promotion and each quarter, more responsibilities are heaved my way.

So that’s good. But I do notice that this stressful and draining office environment often breeds insensitivity. Maybe that just my idealism talking, but I can fully see that some people will eventually refuse to be pushed further and harder without positivity to balance out the pressure.

Anyway, let’s move on from apocalyptic thoughts.

***

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I’m on leave from the office at the moment and Shelter by Jung Yun is my airplane novel of choice.

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Look at this photo! I’m halfway through after only 3 hours. I’m a pretty slow reader but it’s been demoralizing to see that I’m only sixty pages into a book a month after I’ve started just because I’m so busy these days.

I will write a full-length review of Shelter eventually. It’s really good so far, very gripping and compulsive. I am forgoing on-air entertainment to keep turning the pages.

Shelter is a very dramatic novel, almost excessively so, which knocks it down a bit in my eyes. But such a compelling page-turner is the perfect novel to feel like an incurable book lover all over again. And the novel raises some fascinating points on family and parenthood.

More on the themes in a proper review later! For now, I’m back on the blogosphere – and very happy to be back!