The In-Betweens

Ever feel like life just gets the best of you and you can’t process things – except during the so-called ‘in between’ moments? I have been feeling that way since 2018, to be honest.

But the days and months leading up to April-May 2020 were such a long and thankless slog. I’m generally an easy person to ‘read,’ so this long slog also showed up in what I thought and wrote about life and work and everything else.

It was also reflected in what I read and how I understood them; I had limited capacity in every sense. There was always something to handle ASAP: deadlines, work bullshit, family politics and more bullshit, graduate school, moving apartments, home repairs, taxes and financials, long-term depression and anxiety attacks, a volcanic eruption, and the ongoing physical/financial/mental toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So I read in between, only what and when I could, and in situations far from ideal. It could happen in the bathroom in the mornings; or in a busy laundromat on weeknights, knocking off a chapter or two while elbowing a jackass wanting to use the dryer ahead of me. Maybe I’d read a bit on quiet Sunday mornings or while in line at banks or government agencies, during tuition payments, or after another tough day at work.

These days, with all physical contact and socialization gone except for those we live with, it doesn’t happen at all. I’m so frazzled, I can’t go forward more than one or two pages. (Maybe this is the reason.)

So it was a surprise to me that I finished seven books pre-lockdown! Never mind that they’re all relatively thin and short, or that I had originally meant for them to be part of other reading sprees. Any kind of progress is better than having none at all.

It’s been a while since I finished more than half of them, so bear with me. 🙂

If you have a sarcastic/angsty and foul-mouthed sense of humor, attended an all-girls Catholic school in the Philippines (or even a co-ed Catholic school in the Philippines), and know all too well about the ‘crime’ of being yourself in your youth… read UGH Volume 1 by Julienne Dadivas, the self-proclaimed Batang Bruha ng Antipolo. I forgot how many times I laughed because those were my exact sentiments while growing up, because that happened to me or someone else I know, or because it was just darkly funny.

Also, be proud of every person who survived Catholic school. Seriously. That shit can get dark real quick.

You can get your copy of UGH Volume 1 through Haliya Publishing or any of the comics and zine markets in Metro Manila. That is, once MECQ‘s lifted and comics events and order shipping resume. I got mine at last year’s Komura; Book Fair.

Another book I got during that fair turned out to be a really good read. People in Panic is a short-story collection by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon, the same writer of the three-story zine A Corpse, A Party, and a No-Good Nobody.

The story concepts are brilliant, the writing style and tone consistent, and the twists and turns unpredictable. I particularly liked The Head for that disembodied male alien head and his ‘act of goodwill,’ I Bet You Think This Story’s About You for its skewering of writers’ fragile egos and the Philippine national workshop culture, Eggs for showing a teacher’s frustration, and Hunters for getting the deceit of MLM recruitment right. Yaya and Ride have to be read to be understood why I felt so sad afterward.

(It was also nice to see a familiar reading from my 2016 fiction workshop class, Frozen Delight).

Not sure if People in Panic is or will be available in bookstores or online. Best to check out its official Facebook page for details.

It took me some time to start reading Laurel Fantauzzo’s The First Impulse, partly because I still can’t accept that someone I met in my youth was brutally murdered a decade ago.

I attended the same university as one of the book’s main subjects, film critic (and champion of Filipino cinema) Alexis Tioseco. I think we talked only once, in a Theology class for undergrads around 2003 or 2004 – and he asked me and another person if we knew what the 11th commandment was. He honestly thought there were more than 10; and since I was spacing out at the time from an extra-bad hangover, I just said sorry, I didn’t know.

Then we both realized our mistake, laughed out loud, and that was that.

Next thing I knew, it was late 2009; and he and his girlfriend were on the news for being murdered in their own home as they walked into a robbery in progress.

Fantauzzo mixes accounts of Alexis and Nika Bohinc’s lives and final days (and how their loved ones coped in the years after their deaths) with her own experience as an ‘ethnically ambiguous’ individual and her efforts to make sense out of this particular ill-fated story. And if it took me a while to get started, the same thing happened as I tried to finish it. It was difficult to separate myself from it (this crime happened to people my age and shared common friends with, and in the city I live in); and the case was solved only two years ago, I think.

But the book fills in a lot of blanks and gives you another look at what went on beyond the sensational news headlines and long official investigation. It also reinforces the fact that we never really know when our time comes, so enjoy your life while you can and while you have it. Tough advice to follow these days, but we need to try.

I forgot who said this to me, but there are some writers who have such a distinctive voice and point of view, you’ll know it was them behind the pen (or laptop keyboard) before you even check the byline. Sometimes, you don’t even have to check it – you know.

For me, this is true for writers like Katrina Stuart Santiago, who published this (relatively hard to find) two-book collection of newspaper and online columns with the Ateneo de Naga University Press in 2018. She doesn’t mince words or apologize for what she says; her words are her words, her thoughts are her thoughts, she owns them and you can agree to disagree. The challenge is for you to contribute something of value to the conversation, and think beyond it.

Aside from seeing her old columns back in print, it’s worth noting that some of the columns in Rebellions: Notes on Independence and Romances: Variations on Love are her original submitted versions, or revised versions. Basically, they’re in the forms the writer intended them to be read before copy editors swooped in and killed entire paragraphs’ worth of darlings to make the word count.

As someone who painstakingly wrote profiles and longform pieces only to have overzealous editors chop them up into barely passable articles with loathsome typos and entire contexts lost… yeah, I totally get why Stuart Santiago and her publishers did this. The copy is also open to interpretation, sometimes more than the content and context.

Speaking of longform writing – if you’re picking up these two short collections, I really liked the Nora Aunor and Francis Magalona profiles in Rebellions, as well as “The price of independence” for its honest look at independent publishing in the Philippines. For Romances, check out “The Love Team as Pinoy Invention: Where Love is Capital” and “Power of Two” for analyses on Filipino celebrity couplings, and “Simplifying the Overwrought” for Stuart Santiago’s review of Arnold Arre’s Halina Filipina – and how male graphic-novel writers can capture romance from other angles.

I got my copies of Rebellions and Romances from Mt. Cloud Bookshop back in August 2019. I saw the books posted on their Instagram feed and ordered it there, then it was shipped to me within the week.

There are two books that I read during these mad months that I wish I had a better mental retention of or focused more on: Wilfredo Pascual’s Kilometer Zero: Personal Essays (which I also got from Mt. Cloud) and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I read both books in environments not at all suitable for reading and reflection: the former in between deadlines and machine cycles at the laundromat; and 80% of the latter during an unplanned six-hour layover from Bangkok to Manila.

It’s much like what happened with me and Marvel 1602: I need to read them again, with undivided attention this time.

Here’s what I do remember. Kilometer Zero has always been suggested reading for me in graduate school, and I remember saying I now get why. Pascual deftly balances his interesting travel destinations and stories with his own stories of home, love, family, and other people – all in that lyrical and non-linear style favored by the current crop of Filipino creative nonfiction writers. I can’t quite describe it, so my apologies, but it’s a distinct style you will appreciate if you’re tired of standard-format travel and life stories.

I particularly loved “Terminus” and “Penumbra.” Nora Aunor makes another lengthy appearance via “Devotion II,” an in-depth and heartfelt look at her super-loyal fandom’s side.

Convenience Store Woman has long been on my to-buy list, so I was really happy when a former colleague gifted a paperback copy back in January. What struck me the most about the novel is that Keiko is a woman who has always found happiness and fulfillment in a simple job and being left alone to do what she damn well pleases – yet everyone says she is “odd,” incomplete, and unhappy. Other reviewers even see psychopathy in her, although admittedly some of the passages and dialogue seem to be made to read as such.

Her isolation from family and society is also played to comic effect. But this is also the reality for an entire generation or two worldwide, and not just in Japan.

And I haven’t been that stressed out by a male book character since Shiraha. I can only hope that character has no living human counterpart right now… or ever.

Today’s my 68th day in self-imposed quarantine, and I’m still working my way through these books:

…as well as two other books gifted during the 2019 holidays:

Wish me luck! And as overused as these words have been even before the pandemic: stay alive and safe; stay indoors; wash your hands like a government official; and see you when this is all over, with all of us happy, healthy, and vaccinated.

Until then, and for some solace, keep reading. 😄️