Wrapped Up in Books.

I’m many things, but a New Years resolutionist I am most certainly not.  That said, I am trying to be a bit more positive-minded, as opposed to my regular the-glass-isn’t-just-half-empty-but-also-about-to-fall-off-the-table-and-smash-into-a-million-pieces-on-the-floor mentality.  So rather than lamenting how I spent barely any time last year on writing posts, I’m instead going to focus on the fact that I spent a good amount reading books. And since I know there’s no way I’d be able to write proper-length posts on all of them, but I’ll give some simple summaries of each, along with my opinions.  Since I started recording what I read last year in April, that’s where I’ll begin.  I’ll keep writing these bookish posts and finish with the last book I read this month.

April

  • Winston had just died, and all I wanted to do when I got back to Boston from New York was reread the beautifully-written novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, about the titular geisha’s life before, during and after World War II.  I found the following apropos passage on grief, which I then emailed to my mother: “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
  • Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl has been renamed For You, Mom. Finally for paperback, which is not unusual but still something that surprises me.  Something else that surprises me is that I don’t remember much of this memoir.  This is incredibly odd for me, as I have a remarkable memory.  I’m sure the writing is fantastic, as Ms. Reichl’s always is.
  • I do remember The Report by Jessica Francis Kane quite clearly, as I am fascinated by World War II and found this debut novel about a tragedy in the Bethnal Green tube station/air raid shelter to be ridiculously and enviously well-written.
  • A Polish emigrant and a New York adolescent are the sad and cynical narrators of Nicole Krauss‘s The History of Love.  Strange as it is to say, I didn’t care either way about the plot, but since I loved Leo the Pole so much, I managed to overlook everything else.
  • I’ve been obsessed with Suzanne Collins‘s Hunger Games trilogy for a while, and reread The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay for the first time in April.  It held up.
  • While I did enjoy Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education — which was made into the multi-nominated film with a star-making performance by Carey Mulligan — I wonder if part of the reason why I flew through it was because it was so short or because I was on a plane en route to Asia and therefore trapped.  Regardless, Ms. Barber is a perfectly fine writer who recounts her life in the heyday of 1960s England in a refreshing, straightforward way.
  • Ugh, I did not like An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray, a hardback book club read that I lugged from Massachusetts to Manila, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and back again.  Protagonist Charles Hythloday plays at being a nobly-born country aristocrat outside Dublin; when he’s forced to eke out a living, it was no surprise to me that this insipid loon struggles to find a place for himself in troubled modern-day Ireland.  There’s another storyline involving explosives and actresses, but I can’t be bothered to go into it.
  • Another novel I brought along on my Asia trip was The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, which set me down a path of kidnapping, violence and crime — in my readings, that is.  Mr. Gautreaux’s book is the truly compelling story not just of abduction, but also of redemption and revenge.  Oh, and there are riverboats.
  • I finished reading Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America (by Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews) in Siem Reap, and that night in my hotel room I used the dodgy Internet connection to Wikipedia Adam Walsh’s 1981 kidnapping.  From there I read about Ottis Toole, Henry Lee Lucas, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and pretty much every other serial killer I could think of until I was too freaked out to open the door for room service.
Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle + Sebastian.
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Sunday Sunday.

Keith and I just spent three weeks in Southeast Asia; during that time we were in Manila, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Siem Reap, Boracay and Hong Kong.  It was a lot of fun, but man — that’s a lot of stops to make when you’re something like fifteen time zones away from home, especially when you squeeze in additional Manila breaks between Siem Reap and Boracay, and then again Boracay and Hong Kong.  Even though we went to some pretty awesome places, the highlight of the trip — for me, anyway — was staying at my grandmother’s house.

The last time I was at my grandmother’s was five years ago, but before that it had been ten.  We used to visit with far more frequency, but traveling 8500+ miles gets more difficult when there are things like jobs and vacation time to consider.

My grandmother lives in the Makati portion of Manila, in a neighborhood called Bel-Air; she’s lived in the same house my whole life, on Solar Street.  I always thought that bit was particularly cool, not only as it’s alliterative but especially as other streets in the neighborhood have names like Galaxy, Jupiter, Aquarius, Asteroid, Polaris… Filipinos love a theme.

There’s something so pleasing about going back to a place from your childhood and finding it to be as you had last left it.  Of course there have been changes, the most notably the fact that my grandfather wasn’t there — he died in 2008 — but I was still so surprised and comforted that so much of it was the same.  Much of that feeling was because the entire upstairs of the house is literally as I remember it; my grandmother is quite fit, even at 83, but she has little reason to go to the second floor and lives almost exclusively on the ground level.  Still, the bedrooms I’d slept in as a child have the same décor as they did in the eighties; the same mini-fridge full of mango juice stands at the top of the stairs; the glass case on the landing still houses my grandmother’s playing card collection (from when airlines used to give out decks as part of the in-flight entertainment).

When I used to travel to the Philippines as a kid, I’d arrive during summer vacation in August or July. Those are the months of the American summer; in the Philippines, the season runs from mid-March through May, so my many cousins (there are almost thirty of us) were in school during the week.  The house in Bel-Air would be filled with family on Saturdays and Sundays.  The aunts and uncles — my titas and titos — would arrive, with my cousins and their yayas in tow.  Food would have been laid out on the long credenza in the dining room, fresh mangoes sliced onto platters, drinks lined up next to the bar sink… all waiting to be consumed.

My favorites were, and are, calamares cooked in their own ink.  And pan de sal, always pan de sal, with or without butter.

The eating takes all day, and when we show signs of slowing, the meriendas comes out.  In another word: snacks.  Snacks like peanuts boiled in their shells, sapin-sapin (sticky rice and coconut cake), ensaymadas (sweet rolls covered in grated cheese and granulated sugar), hopia (mung bean cakes) and chicharróns.

Merienda time is also mahjong time, when four of my aunts settle a card table in the air conditioning, lining up the tiles and engaging in a genteel form of trash talking over the swish and click of tiles sliding across the table and colliding into one another.  The game lasts all day, often into the night.  The aunts and grandmothers take turns at the table while the grandkids run a lopsided triangular loop from the TV to the park across the street to the meriendas and the husbands sit in the dining room with newspapers and coffee.

Not much has changed, except the kids that now watch a sleek flatscreen TV are my cousins’ children, the great-grandchildren, and the husbands now tap iPads alongside their sons instead of flapping newspaper pages alone.  The meals may vary from week to week depending on moods and trends in food, but the essence is still the same.  Sunday is still the busiest day of the seven.  I may not know what I’ll be up to in a few days, but I can definitely tell you what’s going on half a world away.  And if we were there, I know I’d be sitting on the sofa underneath the 3-D TV, iPad in hand, while Keith and my aunts swirl the mahjong tiles in the middle of the table, making the little ivory tablets swish and click, swish and click.  I can hear it in my head from here, a little whisper of what was, what is, what will be.

Sunday Sunday” by Blur.
Makati skyline image from mvdelrosario217’s flickr photostream.

Been So Long.

I’ve just gotten back to Manila from a trip to Hanoi and Siem Reap, and tomorrow morning I’m off yet again, this time to Boracay.  The thing about traveling, particularly in this part of the world, is that there is incredibly intermittent internet access.  I’ve got lots to share, I swear I do, and pictures to go along with my stories, but it will all have to wait.  I just wanted to write a quick note to let you know I’m still here, and I’m thinking of you.

Been So Long” by Saint Etienne.

Holiday in Cambodia.

 I think I’m going to see how many song titles or lyrics I can match up the subjects of my posts.

Last month, I mentioned I had a few exciting things coming up.  One of those exciting things involved renewing my passport and applying for visas, because that’s what an American like me has to do in order to enter Vietnam.  Americans like me need visas to enter Cambodia too, but we can do that at the border, apparently.  We don’t need them for either Hong Kong or the Philippines though.

Basically, this is my roundabout way of saying I’m going to Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong and the Philippines — though not in that order.  First we’ll go to my grandmother’s in Manila, and maybe to my uncle’s weekend house in Tagaytay for an Easter lechón.  A few days later, we’ll fly to Hanoi before heading to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.  When we return to the Philippines, Keith and I will spend a couple nights in Boracay, return once more to Manila for a big family party, and then we’ll fly to Hong Kong for a quick visit before heading home.

If that paragraph reads as being a little too whirlwindy, that’s because it is.  Whirlwindy.  I plan on taking a decent amount of pictures, spraying myself with an almost-toxic amount of DEET and eating as much street food as possible.  But not balut.  I draw the line at hard-boiled partially-developed bird embryos.  There are just some things a girl simply can’t do.

 “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys.