Sunday, March 23, 2014

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio


Old traditions tragicomically bump into the shiny new American culture

I enjoyed this book of weird heartfelt stories of Filipinos trying to make sense of modern values, a different American world. The quirkily sad characters inwardly debate whether perhaps these new values might be superior. In any case, they are reluctantly attracted to them. The most impressive thing about this book was the pellucid prose and the moral unwillingness to look away from unpleasantness and loss. All of the stories have an underlay of satire and the details are wonderful and moving.

The opening story Monstress was strong, a story about a minor Filipino movie star who come to America to star in a budget monster movie. The Brothers is narrated by a man with a transgender brother who has violated all the conservative standards of his immigrant family. By the end of the story, the man, with the help of his brother’s friend, Raquel, begins to make choices for himself. Felix Starro was about a young man and his grandfather, a flimflam team who “heal” gullible immigrants. On a trip to San Francisco, the grandson plans to con the old man, take all the money and begin a new life in America with his girlfriend. I also loved Help, about an airport security guard trying to avenge the honor of Imelda Marcos by beating up the Beatles. I wasn’t crazy about Save the I-Hotel about two old Filipino guys, one with a crush on the other. It felt too didactic and there were no surprises. The View from Culion was another beautiful story about a leper colony in the Phillipines. Betrayal is a theme in this particular story, although I wonder if it was a crutch leaned on too much in order to wrap this and some of the other stories up. Overall a very impressive debut.

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