LAST YEAR’S BEST READS

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Writing about books in this pandemic might be a futile idea, a recap of my favorite ones last year feels like it happened a long time ago. It’s crazy how much things have changed in a span of a few months. Posting this contradicts the times we’re living in. I’m writing this intro to serve as a disclaimer that I know we’re in a bundled up mess right now, that we’re facing so much uncertainty as we go through our “new normal” (accepting this term is quire challenging too). I guess that’s what reading has been for me these days – a coping mechanism, something that has helped me maintain my sanity.

Aside from missing a few places on the outside world, talking face to face with my constant hoomans, I also missed writing about books. I browsed though my old journals, and saw that I constantly did this back in 2017. It helped me remember better what thoughts and feelings went through me as I go through novels. I’m hoping that I would be able to go back this year, so maybe this post is my restart button. I aimed to include five books on the list, but if we’re going to talk about books that I can rave about endlessly, these four made the cut.


THE LONELY CITY by Olivia Laing

This landed on my list after I read an article on Brain Pickings. A line struck me so much that it inspired me to create an artwork out of it, even before I was able to fully read the book. I sought a copy during the first months of my dorm life. The dedication page states, “If you’re lonely this one’s for you.” I guess I was (sometimes I still am). It was my first time to live with friends in the city. I was new to the system, despite my introvert hesitations, it was a better option compared to commuting back and forth for almost 7 hours a day. Being surrounded with people almost all the time made me seek refuge in any quiet corner I could find.

Drawn to the title because of this newness, I initially thought that it would be filled with Laing’s personal essays (it’s quite obvious that I didn’t read the blurb and just went ahead to buy it). Instead we went through the life stories of different artists, how the circumstances in the city has mixed with their lives, further shaping their works, and with each turn we see their loneliness mirroring our own. Some parts were so heartbreaking that I can’t help but pencil in sad faces in the margins.

If you’re into art, this might be an interesting read for you. Out of all the artists, I was most drawn to Edward Hopper’s artworks. I was already familiar with Nighthawks since this is usually used in various magazine and internet articles, but as I searched online I also found his other works, such as Morning Sun and Automat, that I suddenly felt connected to (although I can’t say the same for his character though). Laing also brought to light a lot of researches; people who are interested in the sciences might be interested to dive into this.

As I went through my underlined lines made me think that I should put this on my re-read list to fully digest it. Maybe we could say the same about loneliness too; to understand it you must fully accept it.


WALONG DIWATA NG PAGKAHULOG by Edgar Calabia Samar

After so many times of saying “I’ll come back for you”, I finally gave in and bought a copy of this new edition (I patiently waited because the Filipino version went out of stock for some time). This was recommended to me by first manager at work, a great advocate of local literature and has influenced me to explore the Filipiniana section. I’m guilty that I don’t have much local books, which made me decide to start building up and this novel was my starting point. Just like how I fell in love with Korea through KDramas, how I become fond of Japan because of anime, I thought that deepening my love for our own culture can also be done through reading Filipino Literature.

It’s weird to write a review in English while I read through my favorite lines in my native language. It’s like I’m shifting between two personalities. But I guess that’s the difference when you explore novels written in the language of the country you’re born it – it gives more depth to the words. This novel came to me when I also felt a bit lost in the path that I am in. Just like the protagonist (who happens to carry the same name with me) Daniel, I was crossing the line between reality and dreams (minus the mythical creatures). Most of the books I love give way to my frustrations with words, and how writing is like bleeding for me. Yet it’s another answer to why we still try to write, why we love the spine and pages that makes up a story we fall into over and over and over again.

If you’re looking for a good place to start reading Filipino novels, this is a great one. There’s an English translation available too, entitled Eight Muses of the Fall, but if you’re a Filipino I hope you would choose to read the one published in our mother tongue.


THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I was on my usual Booksale visit when I spotted this on the lower shelves. The author was familiar because a friend has mentioned it to me (we exchange list of books we’re searching for). I texted him to ask if he already has a copy of it, as it turns out he already found one the previous week, but he still encouraged me to buy it for myself with the promise that the story and author is actually great. Because I’m weak for books, I obliged. After all, a Zafon book priced at 50 pesos is such a steal (a brand new copy costs around 800 pesos, imagine that!) Thanks to this incident, another author has been added on my beloved list. As soon as I went out of the store, I started reading the first pages while I pass dinner time in the nearby fast food chain. After 7 pages I was already submerged in the world that Zafon has created.

If Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog encouraged me to push through my attempts in writing, The Shadow of the Wind embraced me with reassurance that despite the digital shift, it would always be worth it to stick on loving physical books. This is actually the second book in the trilogy, but as my friend puts it the characters are in the same universe but each book can stand on its own. I’ll let Zafon speak more for this one, “I could try to tell you the story, but it would be like describing a cathedral by saying it’s a pile of stones ending in a spine…In my schoolboy reveries, we were always two fugitives riding in the spine of a book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams.”

If you ever come across this novel on second hand bookstores, please don’t hesitate to buy it and give it a home. Let its magic unfold before you; don’t let it go down the cemetery of forgotten books.


THE MOMENT by Douglas Kennedy

Someone I deeply admire (who happens to be a KPop idol) has unexpectedly put this on my list. It’s another rabbit hole that I gladly fell into, once he posted on his instagram story that this book gave him tears, which made me even more curious. I’ve been seeing Kennedy’s books every now and then on Booksale. One or two titles would sprout out from the stack, I usually take that as a sign that sooner or later a copy of my desired title would come, so I waited patiently. Those who frequent second hand bookstores know the thrill of finding books you’ve been searching for a long time, or the surprise of finding copies of the ones on your long to-be-read-list, it’s a definite cheap thrill for book lovers. I know they would get me when I almost squealed out loud when I saw this one (the last time this happened was when a copy of Atonement finally showed up). I don’t know what to expect out of this one, since there’s no hint of familiarity with the author’s work and it’s mainly a result of my fangurling feels. But it landed on this list because it’s surprisingly great (sorry, I need to find new adjectives soon).

The love story might be the usual trap for hopeless romantics, but Kennedy’s words paint it in an unusual way. He was also able to capture the existential crisis that still haunts me sometimes, and the sad part of my soul I’ve been carrying with me, while perfectly putting in a dialogue how this sadness is necessary for artists to face the blank canvas. I’ve come to accept life’s heaviness in a new light. This novel might have a different impact to those who have witnessed the history of Berlin wall, those who have visited the place and have walked its street. While those who have gone through divorce (their own or their parents), and those who have dealt with their own childhood trauma will have a sense of familiarity to the pain that Kennedy talks about through his characters.

Once again, I am introduced to a new author I’ve come to love, and maybe this will be my own moment would be with me long after I’ve outgrown KPop (if that would ever happen). Long after I’ve moved on from my admiration from him.

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I hope I was able to give justice to these books even just a bit. If you’ve ever read this books (or will do in the future), I’ll be a glad listener of your thoughts! Stay safe and let’s continue to live through this.

BIBLIOPHILE PROBLEMS

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Stage I: Booksale

This word never fails to excite a bibliophile. It makes me wonder when did I start to love this place? My memory might fail me but my bookshelf is now a proof that it has given me joy within the pages upon pages I’ve managed to take home with me. After all, who can resist great titles if the come at such an affordable price? So far that only happened when I don’t have an extra budget with me. I humored a friend by saying that Booksale is a blackhole for a wallet, but at the same time a source of happiness for our heart and soul.

It’s an indescribable experience when you find a book that is included in your “must-read-list”, and will only cost you half of its original price. These books have the same soul – same content – but have gone through a different journey. Oftentimes, that’s what makes them more special. I can’t help but say a breath of thanks for whomever decided to give it up for it to land on my hands.

Stage II: Tsundoku

It springs to mind whenever I see the pile of books that have started to get taller, stacking up on one another in my shelf. I can’t help but ask sometimes, how did they get so many? (clue: see stage one.) They bring both comfort and frustration; comfort in knowing that I found these treasures, frustration that I haven’t been reading as much as I want to or as fast as I want to. My usual line when buying yet another book goes like this: I can’t help it! These books come to me. They called me. They need a new home.

Stage III: The End

“I still continue to buy books – there’s no electronic substitute for them; but as soon as I’ve finished a book, I let it go, I give it to someone else, or to the public library. My intention is not to save forests or to be generous. I simply believe that a book has its own journey to make and not be condemned to being stuck on a shelf” – Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

These lines from Coelho’s essay: Of Books and Libraries convinced me years ago to give some of my books away. It has now been a yearly tradition to purge my shelf of titles that I would never open again, or books that didn’t resonate with me.

Once I met up with a book seller to get a second-hand copy of Bird by Bird, and he asked me if I was a writer to be interested with it. I replied that I aspire to be one, and shyly added that for now my words are contained in a small personal space. He then told me that this is one of the best writing books out there and the copy I was buying was his own. It made curious and asked, if this was a great book why was he selling it? “Nothing.  Just to avoid being attached to material things,” was his quick reply.

I don’t think I’ll ever come up to that point of letting even the greatest books go. But I’ll continue to free some that are meant to land on someone else’s hands. Who knows? Maybe it’s the right book they’ve been waiting to come.

The end is really not the end. It’s a slow realization that these stages aren’t problems after all, it’s just a cycle of giving back and receiving these wonders once again.

FOR ALL THE GIRLS WITHIN US

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On a page torn from a notebook was the trademark cursive handwriting of my mother, allowing words to flow on each line. Holding the promise of my name:

It seems you’re a mixture of both. Sometimes angelic, sometimes a menace. Maybe you can do your own research when you grow up. I may have always love the name, but not as much as I love you. Happy 5th birthday! With love always, Nanay.

It was the oldest letter that I have, my 5-year-old-self wouldn’t have understood the depth of it but now this is one of the closest thing that I hold dearly in my heart. In just a few sentences, Nanay told me what my name meant but more than that – what I mean to her. I guess letters will never lose its charms because they contain stories, the contain the heart of the sender, and they capture that of the receiver. It’s a simple way of saying that you value a person that much to put your thoughts in paper. And if this is the case Isa Garcia must have thought about girls or women in all shapes, status, or stages in life long enough to have written letters bounded by a spine strong enough to hold her hopes, fears, and dreams. With this we know that her book not only contains her words, but also her heart.


Two of my favorite postcards from the set

I was just a few pages through it but I already found myself nodding with agreement with Rica’s foreword; that “I am still that letter and stationery girl at heart. I am still the same person who delights in writing and putting my intimate thoughts in a card.”

It brought into memory the giddy 90’s girl in me who will stack papers of all shapes and scents just so I can swap them or exchange letters with friends. Some of those with the best designs were even kept in clear portfolios because they were too beautiful to be written at. Looking through the postcards included in this book was like relieving those days. That’s why even if OMF Lit already gave us a free copy of the e-book, I insisted that I’ll buy the physical copy. It was partly because of the postcards, and partly because I am no stranger to Isa’s writing.

I have been a reader of her words back when she was still posting on her Everyday, Isa blog. I was quite sad when she wrote her last entry for that platform and said that she would stop blogging (that was years ago, but she’s definitely back now). Her writings did not fail to tug my heart strings. There were moments when it would feel like you are talking to a long-time friend, or a soul sister who knows you well. Some words, phrases, paragraphs even would catch be by surprise because it was the reassurance that I needed at that moment. And her book is no different from that.

It’s the letter I wish my younger self was able to read to know that she is not defined by her flaws or insecurities. It’s what I hope I told my too idealistic teenage self when it comes to love and expectations. It’s the gift of words I wanted to give those who truly need it – both for the good days and the bad. And now it is the reminder that I will keep on repeating to myself for the days that I also need to hear them. It’s for the girl in me who is terrified to jump, who likes to run away from pain, who finds herself alone, and yet reminded of the beauty of solitude and vulnerability. It’s for the girl in me who never stops dreaming of romance, and at the same time the girl who believes that the truth is important. It’s for all the girls that I have been and still am. Found: Letters on Love, Life, and God are words that makes you remember of your true identity, words that shows you that there’s a safe place to be, words that welcomes you and makes you embrace yourself through life’s different seasons.

TINY STORY NO. 1: STRANGER THAN FICTION

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“You should stop reading fiction books and start reading these titles.” Mother said as she pointed to the stack of books in her workstation, bearing titles like Talent Is Not Enough, The Path to Wealth, and more business like words that doesn’t fascinate me enough to pay 10 seconds of attention.

“It’s different for everybody. My inspiration isn’t rooted in those kind of genres.” I quipped. Cutting the conversation short, just in case it would just turn into another argument or debate that I might be forced to engaged in.

I tend to put my thoughts in a back burner until I’m sure that they’re good enough to be served. The rest of the words here might be what I hold back during that day.

The truth is, I can’t imagine a world – or a life – without fiction books. How can I? When at a young age I was able to visit Wonderland and Oz? I fell down the rabbit hole and followed the yellow brick road that led me to the joys of reading. After meeting the characters from these worlds, it has been a never ending journey through different stories.  Nothing melt my heart more when I landed on the Sahara desert and met the Little Prince, up to this day I am one of the people who believes that he would return (or maybe he’s laughing with us through the stars). I can go on and on, but I just refuse to deprive myself of the escape that Narnia, Middle-earth, and London Below can provide. Don’t deny that you’re still waiting for your acceptance letter at Hogwarts.

It’s not just about the worlds, it’s also more of the comfort of words. The unexplainable experience of being soaked of endless feelings, of not wanting a story to end, of crying because you’re favorite character has died, of holding them close to your heart just like how you would a family or a friend. Sometimes they even help makes sense of this life we’re living in. There’s so much that these pages can contain.

So if my mother, would come around and ask me to give it up once again. My answer would always be a resounding no. Fiction is forever.

Tiny Stories is inspired by the book curated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (bearing the same title) that says: The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories. This is my attempt to compile mine, something to push me to write even if there’s not a lot of words for me to grasp.

 

QUARTER ONE READS

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Reactivating my Goodreads account has pushed me to lower the stack of books that has already gathered dust in the bookshelf. To say that my to-be-read pile is out of control seems like an understatement. The nerd in me would express this in a simple equation that the books I read is indirectly proportional to the books I buy. At the start of the year, I had an agreement with a friend that I would only buy a book every three months (and if I end up breaking this rule I need to buy her one too, so far I only failed once). Ah, the extreme measures that I must do just to control my impulse buying and hoarding tendencies.

The books I pick up to read are based on my “mood”; some sort of gut feel that the story would match my emotions or whatever I’m currently going through in life. Here’s the chosen ones for the first quarter of the year and some of my thoughts about it:


I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Rating: ★★★★★

“I don’t move because my cowardice tramples me, even as I try to lift my spirit from its knees. It only keels over. It sways off to the side and hits the earth with a silent, bitten thud. It looks up at the stars. They’re stars that dribble across the sky. Go, I tell myself again, and this time, I walk on.”

I did not to set my expectations high for this book. The Book Thief was the first book of Zusak that I was able to read (and it was a brilliant one), and it became an unspoken role for me not to compare two books that came from the same author. They might be penned by the same man but the characters are still different.

At first, it seems just like a simple story, but as I progress with every page the characters gain more depth than before. The storyline thickened into something that you needed to see its end. Reading this made me realize that Markus Zusak is one great storyteller. He can turn simple stories into something that is more amazing than expected. He stitches simple words but does not fail to make it sound poetic.


Girl in the Mirror by Cecilia Ahern
Rating: ★✰✰✰✰

When I give a 1/5 rating to a book, it simply means that it did not make an impact on me. The type of book that you don’t need to spend money on, just borrow it in the library, can easily give away to friends, sell in second hand books. You get the idea. This book was one of them.


The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

Rating: ★★★✰✰

“It’s like reading a map of the future, and she wonders if there are such telltale signs on everyone, hidden clues to the people they’ll one day become.”

Reading this made me realize that my heart has a soft spot for YA novels that are under chick lit. It still made me feel the giddiness of being young and in love. Back when being an adult hasn’t hit you yet and your life was just this lump of teenage problems mixed with a little bit of bliss. Novels like this serve as a good break after reading a heavy classic.


Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Rating: ★★★★✰

“At the same time, we held back. Because she was different. Different. We had no one to compare her to, no one to measure her against. She was unknown territory. Unsafe. We were afraid to get too close.”

I’ve seen this being included in a lot of Top 10 lists from other bookworms, so when I saw it last year in a second hand book sale I did not hesitate to buy it. There’s not much to lose for the price of 25 pesos.

And there’s nothing to regret as well as I’ve come to know why a lot of people have fallen in love with Stargirl. It may be aimed for a younger audience, but my 23-year-old self was still able to connect with the characters. It may be printed with large letters but the words formed out of them speak volumes about identity, love, and connectedness. Stargirl makes you realize that you can choose to be yourself even if the world wants to conform you in another way.


To All the Boys I Loved Before by Jenny Han

Rating: ★✰✰✰✰

With its popularity, I was convinced to read this book. The cover seems promising, and as my friend said to me she bought this copy because the blurb enticed her. Apparently, it was a letdown for the both of us. Can I just say that I’m glad that I wasn’t the one who bought it? Haha! The story was bland, and the plot needed some saving.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Rating: ★★★✰✰

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”

For an art aficionado like me, the first part of the book would be a delight. Wilde continuously ingest how art can be viewed through the art of the artist and how the muse can play a huge part in it. I underlined a lot of words that connected to art, as well as some phrases that came out like line from a poem. It became a struggle for me to finish this because the theme got darker and darker as the novel progressed.

If ever you’ve read this books or maybe interested in reading this (hope I didn’t spoil you) , feel free to share your thoughts on the comments below. 🙂