This is Alvar’s first book. She is a is a Filipino-American writer based in New York. Writing about ordinary Filipinos in Philippines and around the world, leading normal but extraordinary lives, this collection of short stories is a tour de force. Alvar has an incredible eye to detail and an uncanny ability to delve into topics that few would. She won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, awarded to exceptional debut novel, in 2016. Must read for everyone, especially anyone who has ever moved to different country.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
Rating: 4 out of 5.
This very readable historical fiction, maintaining a solemnity and carefreeness with equal magnitude, flowing like a mammoth river. We discover the various nooks, corners, and turns of this river at a dis-contiguous narrative and each discovery is a joy. Allende is an avid storyteller and she writes without too much frill. Her characters are real though tend to be a bit enigmatic. Highly recommend.
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane
Rating: 1 out of 5.
I mainly selected this collection of short stories as a) This is set in Montana, “Big Sky Country” and I wanted to read something based in the state, b) McGuan is extolled by all sundry as a classical exponent of Montana’s literary scene. Boy, was I disappointed. Maybe because McGuane at 81 is past the point of giving any fucks about what these stories are trying to tell. There are ample signs of literary genius – astute observation, incredible word plays – but most of them taper off to either the improbable or the stretched or the unreal or, the worst, lazy abrupt endings. Not recommend.
The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (translated to English by Charlotte Collins)
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Wells is German and the name of the original book is “Vom Ende der Einsamkeit”. The story revolves around three siblings whose parents die before they turn teenagers. This catastrophic event shapes their lives and their relationships, among each other and with the world. Bitter sweet novel but Wells is determined to tug at each individual, sinewy strings in your heart. Read only if you have the emotional equilibrium to withstand that.
March 11, 2020 was a seminal moment in professional sports.
Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19.
I did not know about Gobert’s existence prior to that day. I knew about the Utah Jazz team. I wasn’t really into basketball and NBA.
It was what happened after the positive test.
The NBA shutdown its league on Mar 11. The NHL suspended its league on Mar 12. The English Premier League stopped on Mar 13. The summer Olympics to be held in Tokyo were postponed to 2021 and so was the UEFA Euro competition. Professional sports, and viewing it on TV, came a grinding, screeching halt across the globe.
And life for Brinda and me was not the same anymore.
We have always been a sports watching family. Ok, let’s rephrase that last sentence a bit.
I was the primary individual who followed and watched most sports. My list (in descending order of preference): Soccer, Football, Cricket, Baseball, Basketball, (Ice) Hockey, Golf. I can, and have, spent hours watching sports on TV.
Vivian’s only watches when the Green Bay Packers play.
Brinda, till before the pandemic, was just more of a football “tolerator” and sometime soccer watcher. She didn’t mind snuggling up with me from time to time but didn’t really have the patience to sit through and follow the game.
But all changed when we lost any and all sports for over 3 months. The English Premier League started back on Jun 17, one of the earliest to restart. Sports in the US had to wait for almost another month to get back into the fields and courts. MLB started on Jul 23, NBA started on Jul 30, NHL on Aug 1. (NFL season starts in the fall and they did on Sep 10, without delay, though the there was no pre-season games).
When sports started back up again, it was a veritable smorgasbord of offering. We had days, and nights, of 3-4 major sports being played at the same time. Brinda really got into sports. We would watch baseball or basketball, and sometimes hockey, almost every evening. She’d keep asking me which games were on for later in the day!
And when football started, Brinda really got into it. Besides the ones featuring Vikings and Packers, she started watching all the other games with me. She was looking forward to Sunday night and Monday night games (also to do with the fact that she could watch TV in the evenings!). After much deliberations she settled on Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers as her two favourite teams – both have a big cat as their logo and teal in their uniform!
She now know all the 32 NFL teams and their names!
Managed to read quite a few books last year, after a number of years of very little to almost no reading.
Here’s the details, my rating, and quick blurb on why I liked it. Most of these books have featured in “best books of the year” from various publications such NYT, Atlantic, Washington Post, and Guardian. So, all of these books are supposed to be good books, in the literary sense, but not all were best sellers.
Set in NOLA about a dysfunctional family with manipulative and abusive father, who on his deathbed unleashes even more chaos. Short-ish novel. Sharp, short, staccato sentences. Like the style, which at times might seem pointless and meandering. Recommend read for older adults.
Patchett is one of my favorites authors (read State of Wonder, if you haven’t!) though this novel doesn’t live up to her standard and is way longer than it needed to be, with an unsatisfying ending. Follows the life a young woman for a decade and half. The main protagonist is strong and defiant but I couldn’t find the source of the cold heartedness.
A blitheringly long novel combining ancient Greek mythology, fantasy, and hedonism of today, this novel is critically acclaimed by all. I ploughed through it but the actions of Antiochus still rattles me.
A collection of short stories, with either characters or setting in, you guessed it, Florida. Groff has an observant eye and a great, individualistic writing hand. The last story though, way too long and without point. Recommend read.
A fascinating novel marrying astro-physics, English literature, and subtle but deep sense of loss – one of most mentally invigorating books I’ve read in a long time. Recommend read for adults, especially, young women who think science is not for them.
A collection of (not short) stories, spanning generations in USSR/Russia, specifically, the almost comical hell-scape of Kirovsk – a mining town in Siberia – bound together by a motley crew of characters, and their lineage. Marra has a unique and uncanny knack of often flipping innocuous sentences into visceral epithets of real life drudgery.
(I started this book in 2020 but finished it in the first week of 2021)
There were some books that I started but couldn’t quite get into, even after plowing on for about 50 pages or so. All of these are very critically acclaimed as well. Just that it didn’t jive with me, with reasons ranging from from style of writing that I couldn’t care less for to grandiose novel that I didn’t quite want to delve into.
These are: The Sellout by Paul Beatty, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
January 20 this year was sweet. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, closing the chapter on the worst presidency in the history of this country.
It was a bit sweeter at our household. You see, this is the first inauguration that Brinda actually knows anything about. She will most likely remember this well. As it so happens, with the pandemic still on, her school was in distance learning mode on Inauguration day. So, not only was she aware of what going on, unlike other years where she probably would have been in school, she was at home and watching it live on TV!
And what a sight to behold. The first female Vice President. The first Indian-American, Black VP. Multiple glass ceilings not just broken, but demolished in a hammer blow.
A lot of emotions swelled up in me and I think the enormity and solemnity of the moment will remain with Brinda, even though she does not understand the magnitude of the event right now.
I had wanted to write after the last series win in Australia in 2018-19 but did not get around to it. That was a monumental achievement: India’s first ever Test win in Australia. I did not think another overseas win would surpass the peak from 2 years ago. But this series, with the odds stacked overwhelmingly in favour of the hosts, turned out to be an even better series, and a more satisfying win.
Due to the time difference and the fact the series played right over the holiday season, I was able to watch most of the days for the 4 matches. Games started at 5:30 pm my local time and test cricket was in prime-time! Vivian and Brinda were also there with me, at least till their bedtimes!
After the first test atrocity of Adelaide, where India’s 2nd innings folded for 36, and Kohli set to depart, I would have settled for a 0-4 whitewash, sans further such humiliation.
Rahane’s magical century lifted the team to a memorable win in Melbourne. That was the turning point. The team started to get some sort of belief in themselves, with Captain Cool leading the way.
The sleight of hand at Sydney where team India escaped a draw, with valiant efforts by the bruised and battered duo of Ashwin and Vihari, paved to way to the grand finale.
Boom at Brisbane. Glorious Gabba. Call it what you may. Where India had never won and Australia had not lost since 1988, a 32-match unbeaten streak. India had a severely depleted squad due to injuries. I was telling my friends that I’ll be happy if India took the match into the fourth day!
Consider this: India’s first choice fast bowlers of Bumrah, Shami, Ishant, Umesh were all gone. Both the top spinners, Ashwin and Jadeja, were gone too.
The 11 had the following bowlers: Md. Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan, and Washington Sundar.
Together, they had played an aggregate of 4 tests before the Gabba game and had taken 6 wickets between them. Australia’s bowlers boasted numbers of 246 matches and 1,033 wickets.
A big a chasm as you’ll ever find in the history of sports, not just cricket.
India’s young ones were not scarred like teams of past by the inevitable capitulation to Australia, in Australia. Except for Rahane, Pujara, and Pant, most of the batsmen and the bowlers were not only playing in Australia for the first time, but playing test cricket for the first time! (read about the backstories of the young guns at the end of this post)*
India’s second, or even third, string players were better equipped to deal with the conditions. The more A team games have seemingly helped to deepen the pool of players who are on the verge of taking the next step.
India’s bowlers, collectively, were actually better than their Australian counterparts, both in terms of bowling and batting!
Here are some stats to support point #3.
Australia used 10 top-7 batsmen (including wicket keeper) in the series. In all they scored 1,659 runs. They used only 4 bowlers in the entire series and they scored 255 runs.
Similarly, India used 10 top-6 batsmen in the series. Top-6 as they played 5 bowlers in all the matches. Together the batsmen (and wicketkeeper) scored 1,446 runs. In contrast to Australia though, India employed 10 bowlers in the series. Together they contributed 370 runs.
Australia’s recognized batsmen scored more runs than India’s top order but India’s bowlers scored more runs than Australia’s bowlers. That was a crucial difference. The Indian bowlers almost made up for the runs deficit by the batsmen. Also, Australia’s top order score was bolstered by mainly Smith and Labuschagne but for India there were 4 almost equal contributors (Pant, Pujara, Rahane, Gill).
Here’s the interesting part, bowling.
The 4 Australian specialist bowlers took 58 wickets. Green was the allrounder but failed to pick any wickets in 44 overs.
India 10 Indian bowlers took 65 wickets.
Obviously, to win 2-1 the bowlers need to take more wickets than the other team. Right.
Here’s where it gets intersting.
Cummins and Hazelwood account for 38 wickets with averages of 20 and 19 respectively. Fantastic.
Starc and Lyon got 20 and averaged over 40 and 55. Pathetic.
Whereas, India’s top 5 bowlers took 50 wickets with averages of all less than 30.
This is where the war was won. India’s overall bowling attack was, simply put, better than Australia’s attack.
So, the Indian bowlers not only scored runs they were just better bowlers as well.
T Natarajan is the son of a loom worker who had no money for luxuries like cricket gear and shoes. For many years, Natarajan had to think a hundred times before investing in new shoes. His mother cried when she saw him representing India on TV. His wife gave birth to their daughter when Natarajan was playing IPL in UAE. He hasn’t even seen her yet because he went straight to Australia in a bio bubble.
Shardul Thakur battled obesity to play for Mumbai and thereafter IPL. No less than Sachin Tendulkar advised him to lose weight for a great cricketing career ahead of him.
Md. Siraj rose to become India’s new ball bowler despite being born to a poor rickshaw driver. His father died and he couldn’t perform his last rites as he was in Australia on national duty.
Washington Sundar’s father – Sundar, was a talented cricketer who was sponsored by his rich neighbour throughout his local cricketing life. The neigbour’s name was Washington. The man passed away just before Sundar’s second son was born. Sundar named his son Washington as a tribute to his benefactor.
Navdeep Saini’s father was a government driver and could not afford expensive cricket coaching for his son. So Saini played exhibition matches on tennis ball at Rs.300 a match to fund his dreams.
For about 3 weeks at the end of this summer, I got to see a lot of different vistas of rural Minnesota. Working for Census 2020, I drove literally few thousand miles deep into the heartland.
Well, hello world!
It’s been some time since I actually wrote a post about, you know, my life. Let’s see. Got my masters degree that landed a job that enabled (mandated!) me to fly back and forth, on a weekly basis. Left that job. Took up teaching/tutoring. Also making myself involved deeply into issues that is close to my heart: education, sports coaching, community involvement, grass roots politics, social issues.
Mostly caught up. Right then.
I applied for the Census job in the beginning of 2020. Then the pandemic happened and everything was quiet for months. Radio silence. At the end of July got notified that the work would start by August. And so it began. My role in the Census was that of an enumerator: basically, a part of a few hundred thousand people who knock on doors of as yet unresponsive addresses throughout the country; to reach, count, and get demographic information of every single person living in the country.
Initially, I was going out to apartment complexes in my city. This is where I, being a POC, had a lot to offer. Just my mere appearance made a lot of the folks – folks who are reticent to talk about themselves for the fear of being hauled off to local law enforcement agencies or federal immigration services – a bit relaxed so that we could complete the Census survey. I knew that the work is important with real long term implications but I was not really digging it.
By mid-September most of the urban areas were done. Then started a period of about 3 weeks where I really enjoyed the work. I volunteered, and then was given list of addresses in southern Minnesota. Starting from the Red Wing and Winona to the East, Rochester and Owatonna to the South, to Belle Plain and New Prague to the West – I covered a big swath of area and a lot of miles.
These were the best days of late summer! Driving through winding rural roads, encountering surprising vistas at different curves in the road, talking to people I would have otherwise had no chance to meeting.
The cornfields (acres and acres of them), the lakes (this is of course the land of 10-thousand lakes, Minnesota speak for 11,842), the clear blue skies, the sunsets, the cottony clouds, the gently rolling hills, the livestock. I could do this job for a long time. As it happened, the Census work wrapped up by mid October and we are done for 10 more years.
I wanted to get a post in for posterity’s sake with all the information I collected and curated while planning this trip. Or to help someone plan their own trip.
If you search on the internet, there are hundreds of site on things to do in Iceland. My go-to site was I heart Reykjavik. The main person behind the blog, Auður, started off as a blogger on Iceland and in a few years turned it into a full fledged business. She has been offering thoughtful insights on the good, and bad, stuff about Iceland. The hidden gem you absolutely should visit or the tourist trap you must avoid.
The blog/business now has partnerships with various agencies in Iceland that offer the entire spectrum of activities in Iceland. The activities range from guided day trips to driving around the country for weeks, from watching the Northern Lights to trekking in an active volcano, and everything in between.
We decided that we will not do any self driving on this trip. A friend of mine actually drove around the whole country, Iceland Ring Road, for a week.
This is what we did.
We reached Reykajvik (KEF) early in the morning on Monday, on a direct Delta flight from MSP. Round trip prices were about $300 per person, which is a real steal! Flight time is about 6 hours. There’s a back story about our onward journey, see end*.
For our entire duration we were put up in an AirBnb apartment in west of Reykjavik we had booked months before our trip. It was wonderful! The location of the place, the condition, the neighbourhood (even had a Dominoes pizza across the street!) was perfect. A family lives there and it is only available for a few days a year. We just got lucky.
On Monday we took the private walking tour with I Heart Reykjavik. I liked it but at times Brinda was bored. They go through a lot of the history behind the city. Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes, dressed for the weather (which could mean different things at different times of the day/day of the year!), carry a backpack with a water bottle, snacks, warm hat, gloves, change of clothes.
After the walking tour, we went on a whale watching tour. This was Brinda’s favourite part of the whole Iceland trip! I loved it as well. You get to cozy up in body hugging, warm wet-suits and watch whales. Success rate is pretty high. We saw dolphins and whale. There’s stuff to order and eat off on the boat.
On Tuesday, we went for the Snæfellsnes tour. The Snæfellsnes peninsula is almost a microcosm of Iceland, providing views of yellow (uncommon in Iceland) and black beaches, mountains, fjords, waterfalls, lava caves. This was my favourite part of the trip. Keep in mind this is a 13-hours day trip, with a lot of walking. Brinda was really tired by the end, but was she was a complete trooper for the whole day with great energy. We lucked out as our guide for the day was the best on our entire trip.
On Wednesday, we went on the Golden Circle tour, possibly the most well known attraction in Iceland. The Golden Circle consists of the Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gullfoss, and the Secret Lagoon (which isn’t a secret!) geothermal pool. This was possibly Vivian’s favourite part of the trip.
On Thursday we stayed in Reykjavik for the whole day. We went to one of the big public pool Vesturbæjarlaug and spent a couple of hours in the warm waters. You really have to experience it! Sitting in an open air pool when temperatures are 30 degrees Fahrenheit. In the evening we went to the downtown area to celebrate our wedding anniversary and had a sumptuous 3-course dinner, one of my best ever, at Nostra.
On Friday we went on the South Shore Minibus Adventure. Another gem with glaciers, volcanoes (even Eyjafjallajökull, the one that caused month long disruption to flights all over the world a couple of years ago), waterfalls, basalt rocks, beaches.
Be prepared for any kind of weather. We went in August, and had temperatures ranging from 37 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit.
Everything is expensive in Iceland. A burger from a fast food joint could cost you $15 (USD) depending on where you are. It would be best if you planned for meal options – home made sandwiches, deli meat – or at least snacks, with you. For the most part we did not, and we probably would try to do it a little differently next time.
Sea food and lamb are the most common meal options
If you intend to do any kind of walking, get appropriate clothing. Outdoor walking pants, shoes, jackets. Woolen socks, warm hat, gloves.
Depending on the time of the year of your visit, you could have between 4 hours and 22 hours of sunlight in a day.
Icelandic people are generally friendly and almost everyone knows English. Talk freely to your guides and build rapport. They’ll have gems of wisdom.
Renting cars and going about on your schedule could be a great option. Keep in mind that rentals are expensive (when compared to the US), gas is expensive, and you’ll be driving around in country the size of Colorado, with a population of 300,000. Meaning, there will large swathes of region where you won’t see any living humans.
Get a mobile SIM from the airport when you land. For a family, you might consider at least 2 SIMS. Mobile, text, data all included packs.
Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. Try to have a card handy that does not charge international transaction fees. Bill in ISK (Icelandic Krona) and charge will be automatically converted to USD. When booking tours through I Heart Reykjavik, or any other sites for that matter, make sure you are using a card that does not charge international fees.
Public pools – You really must go and enjoy the numerous the geo-thermal pools in Iceland. Reykjavik has a lot of public ones. You still have to pay though. Keep in mind this, and this is extremely important – you, everyone, is expected to shower totally naked with soap, then put on swim suits, and then enter the pool. No exceptions!
Read up on as much as you can on I Heart Reykjavik. It is a treasure cove of information.
Enjoy and take in all the awe inspiring vistas, panoramas, and the incredible landscapes!
When 3 of us reached the airport on Sunday night to start our journey, Brinda and my passport self cleared. Vivian’s asked to see an agent. The agent looked at her passport and said, “You won’t be able to travel today.” Her passport expired the next month, and Iceland needs US passport holders to have at least 3 months validity. We made the executive decision that Brinda and I would fly out that night. Vivian spent the whole day on Monday in downtown Minneapolis getting an expedited passport and took the same flight Monday night, one day later. She missed out on the activities on Monday and Tuesday.
I had the one of the most interesting and heart warming, but also heart wrenching, conversation with the passenger sitting next to me on the flight back from ORD couple of weeks ago.
For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call my fellow passenger “John”. John is a 65-years old white Minnesotan who owns his company where he is the only employee. He works as a specialist mechanic going around the country, and sometimes internationally, fixing a certain kind of expensive machine used in steel plants.
John has two daughters, both around 40-years old. The mother of John’s daughters, his first wife, left him after 20 years of marriage. John grew up in St. Paul and currently lives on an acreage in Pine City.
On a work trip to visit a steel plant in Shanghai in 2011, John had renal failure. He had been seeing an endocrinologist here in Minnesota but they had not realized how the weather in Shanghai would exacerbated it. By chance, his endocrinologist is Chinese-American and once he was able to get hold of his doctor in Minnesota and let the doctors in Shanghai talk over his condition, he was in good hands. He remained the Shanghai hospital for 11 days.
During his time in the hospital John was assigned a personal care giver. Let’s call her “Jia”. Jia took care of John almost single-handedly. She cooked 3 meals for John everyday. After being released from hospital Jia was with John for a couple of more weeks, nursing him back to health. I suppose you know where this is going. Yes, they fell in love.
Jia is 50-years old. She grew up in a city (I couldn’t catch the name) 2 hours east of Shanghai. She had an arranged marriage when she was pretty young. Her first husband was abusive, what seemed in every sense of the word. They were divorced after a few years of marriage but not without some complications regarding paperwork that will affect the story in a bit. After her divorced she came back to her parents place, and with her sister, raised their little brother.
John and Jia had a court house wedding in Shanghai in 2013.
Jia knew almost no English and John knew almost no Chinese when they met. Even now they possibly know about 50 words in the other language. They video chat every day, where an app translates their spoken words in real time. They use an instant messaging app called WeChat, that translate written words, to keep in touch throughout the day.
John and Jia live apart. He lives in Minnesota and she in China but not for lack of trying. John’s medical conditions – and he has a few, including the renal one – won’t allow him to live in hot and humid climate for long. John goes to China twice a year. Since their wedding in 2013 they’ve been trying to get Jia over to the US. Unsuccessfully.
There are three things working against Jia. She doesn’t speak English, she doesn’t own property in China, and her divorce papers weren’t in order. John has attended three different interviews with Jia at USCIS in Shanghai. They have lawyers in both countries trying to wade through the legal quagmire. Earlier this year the issue about the divorce papers was settled. The fact that Jia doesn’t own property seems to have been put to rest, I’m not entirely sure how. The only thing is the lack of English speaking skills. I don’t know what the plan on that front.
I wish John and Jia the best of luck in their endearing journey to find love. Cheers!