Book Review: In the Country by Mia Alvar

I don’t do book reviews.  At all.

But Charlie, you say, aren’t you an avid reader?  Yes.  Yes, I am.  That doesn’t mean that I like putting my feelings and thoughts to the blank page/screen when I’ve finished reading a book.

But somehow, I made an exception for this book.

First and foremost, a bit of disclosure:  I am a first generation Filipino-American.  It colors the way I read this book.

In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar

I don’t remember how this book came on my radar.  But once I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read it right away.  The problem, of course, was there was a wait-list at my public library.  That’s okay.  It’s the summer and I had my summer reading challenge do (by the way, I may not have read 20 books from my childhood, but there’s still several weeks left in the summer.)

So, this book is short stories by a Filipina who grew up in Bahrain and New York City.  Several of her stories take place in Bahrain and highlights the types of jobs Filipinos had/have overseas.  (Hint, they are domestic workers.  Another disclosure, one of my favorite aunts was one in the 80’s and 90’s in the Middle East. I have no idea if she liked it.)  The theme of class is overwhelming in this book, how could it not be?  (See?  I told you, my background would color my reading.)

In my favorite story, “A Contract Overseas,” the unnamed narrator’s brother gets a job in Saudi Arabia to help his family financially back in the Philippines.  With no father mentioned, Andoy must help his mother, sister, and pregnant girlfriend.  At first all is well, but Andoy’s flirtatious nature ends in disaster.  Not an uncommon story but with Alvar’s writing, the reader knows exactly what will happen to her family if something isn’t done.

Also, if you did not know, the Philippines is a predominately Catholic country and from what I heard it’s really the only Christian country in all of Asia.  I don’t know if this is true; I haven’t done the research.  Catholicism also is a significant theme throughout the book.  I also have to be quite honest about it; I am very jaded about Catholicism in general…okay, about religion in all.  But that’s for another post.

Reading these stories brought back many distinct memories of when I visited the Philippines.  I grew up in a place where the Filipino community was severally lacking – we seem to tend to stick to the coasts.  I have no idea if this is my notion or if this is fact.  It just seems like it to me.  Reading the stories made me aware of how much my life differed from most of the characters in the book.  It also made me realize how alike I am to them.  I can’t speak for any other Filipino but sometimes I feel very different and alone here.  Other times, I can blend in.  The characters in each story must learn to adapt in some way or be crushed by their circumstances. We seem to be a hardy sort of people…even if we are too humble to say so.

But I digress.

I highly recommend you read this book and if you do, let me know what you think of it.  Now, I have to go  dig up my Jessica Hagedorn books.  (By the way, this is exactly why I don’t write book reviews.  I bring too much of me into them and not enough of the book, if that makes sense.)


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