A Widow for One Year by John Irving

I violently hated this novel in its first 300 or so pages and only came to tolerate (and even mildly like) the story as it wrapped up its final threads. I state this at the very beginning in order to establish that I am emphatically not the target audience for this novel, but it doesn’t mean that John Irving’s brand of fiction will not work for you. My sister is an Irving fan, and she was the one who convinced me to give him a try. However, the novel that she likes (Hotel New Hampshire) apparently has sad stuff in it so I tried this one instead.

A Widow for One Year follows novelist Ruth Cole during three seminal periods of her life, from a summer in 1958 with her mother’s affair and subsequent disappearance that unmoored her as a five-year old, a trip to Amsterdam decades later when she becomes witness to a crime, to her life as a widow and mother years later. Revolving around her is a solar system of characters that often interact with chaotic results. These include Ted Cole, philandering father and successful children’s lit author, Eddie O’Hare, mediocre novelist who lives his entire adult life in love with Ruth’s absent mother Marion, and a well-read Dutch cop who ends up falling in love with Ruth.

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Naermyth by Karen Francisco

It’s a little weird, writing this post months after having read the book and having given my copy away, but my personal need to chronicle my reading life is compelling me, so here we go.

Naermyth by Karen Francisco is a take on post-apocalyptic YA that combines the tropes of the genre with uniquely Filipino references. In this world, the creatures of mythology suddenly emerge and lay waste to most of civilization. In the Philippines, these are the creatures parents used to invoke to strike fear into children’s hearts, such as the aswang, sigben, and the manananggal. Only pockets of surviving and resisting bands of humanity continue to exist, including a fort in Manila that is protected by the so-called Shepherds.

The Shepherds venture to the aswang-infested territories of Manila to find surviving humans and lead them to relative safety. One of the most efficient and competent aswang-killers among this ragtag group is a girl that answers to the name Aegis. One day, she finds an unconscious man who is about to be attacked by aswangs and saves him, only to find out that this man has absolutely no recollection that the end of the civilization has occurred.

So far so good, right? I was initially interested in reading this book because of the premise. A sustained novel of this genre from a Filipino author has been a long time coming. I was ready to experience some intricate worldbuilding, a spunky heroine, and copious amount of Filipino mythology thrown in. All requisite boxes are checked. However, I found no pleasure in reading it because the first person point of view, the dialogue, and the plot twists struck me as utterly unconvincing.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My personal assessment of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad changes each time I think back on it. Sometimes I think it’s a trifling thing, made up of airy stories that don’t really have any staying power beyond the act of reading them. Other times certain passages simply haunt me. I change my mind even further whenever I read other people’s reviews of it, especially since time and winning the Pulitzer seems to have turned some people into dismissing Goon Squad and its importance. But after hearing Slate’s Audio Book Club Podcast discussing the book I think that I can comfortably put a stake in the ground: I love this book.

The buzz surrounding this novel originally came from its stylistic inventiveness and subject matter. It is series of loosely interconnected short stories that track the lives of several individuals across space and time. Many of them, like Benny and Sasha, are heavily involved in the music industry while others are more tenuously so. People pop up and disappear all throughout, turning the entire novel into a treasure hunt of sorts as you try to discover what happens to characters that you care about. Time is the goon that the title refers to, a shadowy figure that roughs you up and beats you down when you least expect it.

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Blue Angel, White Shadow by Charlson Ong

Nostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines’ most renowned novelists, Charlson Ong. With references to Marlene Dietrich, John Coltrane, Old Binondo, World War II, dogfights and summary executions, his foray into the mystery genre results in a symphony about the constant push and pull between the old and the new, the artful and the brutal.

The story begins with an iconic noir image: the beautiful woman in a red dress. Rather than a seductive shift, however, singer Laurice Saldiaga was wearing a red cheongsam when she died in the upstairs apartment of the Blue Angel, a decrepit jazz bar in the middle of Chinatown. A Hokkien-speaking mestizo policeman named Cyrus Ledesma is brought into the investigation because of its delicate nature, even as he comes to terms with his own dodgy past. He encounters a list of people with motives and opportunities to kill Laurice. The implication even goes as high up as the Mayor of Manila himself, Lagdameo Go-Lopez.

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Tongues on Fire by Conrado de Quiros

Conrado de Quiros is among the country’s most articulate and widely-read political voices. His weekly column called There’s the Rub consistently causes pundits and politicians to either lionize him or accuse him of persecution. To put his influence in perspective, he is one of the very first people who called for Noynoy Aquino to run for the presidency, writing “Noynoy for president” in August 2010, following the death and funeral of Former President Corazon Aquino. Noynoy was not even contemplating the bid at this point, but the phenomenal outpouring of grief during Cory’s funeral and the call of people such as de Quiros snowballed into a movement and eventually became the state of Philippine politics today.

Tongues on Fire do not contain materials from his columns but are either speeches or longer essays that are not necessarily political in nature. However, many of the pieces allude to different administrations–from Marcos to Macapagal-Arroyo–and the scandals and indignities to which they have subjected the country. De Quiros is a political animal and it shows, with even speeches about the Boy Scouts of the Philippines containing jibes about corruption. In one essay (“A real book”), he talks about well-meaning friends and usiseros telling him that his talents can be better showcased in other ways, since writing about Philippine politics is an ultimately doomed endeavor. He blithely tells them to get lost.

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Stiff by Mary Roach

In my quest to read more non-fiction this year, I went ahead and bought this book which I’ve been hearing about for a long time. As someone who gorges on police procedurals on a regular basis (let me tell you about my feelings for Idris Elba’s Luther one of these days), the subject matter is right up my alley.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a series of long form essays by journalist Mary Roach that tackles the adventurous (after)lives of corpses that are used for scientific research. From the long-standing and ghoulish tradition of bodysnatching for medical schools to the relatively recent educational facility called the “body farm,” Roach examines not only the mechanics of corpse-related experimentation, but also the ethical and practical implications of doing such work.

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Emma, Jane Austen

Tai: Why should I listen to you, anyway? You’re a virgin who can’t drive.
Cher: That was way harsh, Tai.

I wonder how many people begin Emma with the movie Clueless as their point of reference. This revelation pegs me as an irredeemable child of the 90’s, it’s true, but the contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel by director Amy Heckerling provided a level of accessibility that would’ve never existed had I entered the text cold. The lives of gentlefolk in a small English countryside is hardly something I can relate to, but conjuring up images of a young Alicia Silverstone traipsing around Beverly Hills prepared my expectations for a ridiculous, over-the-top romantic plot peppered with insight and comedy. While I loved the movie as a young kid, the novel itself is a surprise as an adult, the humor so fresh and razor-sharp two centuries after its first publication.

Emma Woodhouse is the darling of Highbury, heiress of her father’s estate, and–in her own mind–an unparalleled matchmaker. She’s young, rich and precocious, certain that she will never marry and therefore committed to pairing off the people she loves in a tidy fashion. Everybody in town defers to her except for the gentleman George Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law. He is constantly unimpressed with Emma’s insights about romance because underneath her seemingly altruistic intentions lies the heart of a spoiled young girl.

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