The Crazy Lady and Her Books

I have only read exactly one book by Ernest Hemingway. And it was under the strangest of circumstances. (Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but it was stranger than the usual.)

I grew up with a lot of books, and then some more. Some of the old ones were handed down from my grandmother, who had a BA in English and also loved books (but, I believe probably not as much as I do). It was from her collection that I read a bunch of old plays, including the Barretts of Wimpole Street and Private Lives, and the biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (Incidentally, my grandmother was also famously known as the Jackie O of Cotabato City. Apparently, my old folks were a classy, influential lot. Dear Lord, I wonder what happened to us.)

We also had a bunch of illustrated kids’ science books and complete set of The New Book of Knowledge which is not so new anymore. I absolutely devoured them as a child, and I will forever maintain that TNBK is the best set of encyclopediae I have ever read. Of course, it was written specifically for young folk and so even the most drab of science subjects were told like a story. We later bought a set of adult Grolier ones, and I found those absolutely boring.

Then there were the Nancy Boys and the Hardy Drew books. I’ve always loved a good mystery novel. Then the Sweet Valley ones, which I now cringe at. I read Anne of Green Gables. Later, I would read some of the other Anne books. I fell in love with the entire Harry Potter series. And then with the Earthsea Cycle.

I had a hankering to read the so-called classics. I read a couple of books by Austen and the Bronte sisters. I thoroughly enjoyed stories by Mark Twain. And then I got into the historical fiction genre, of which Empress Orchid is my absolute favorite. Actually, nothing I’ve read in the genre can quite compare.

After reading about that gem of Chinese historical fiction, I wanted to expand on books written by non-white writers. I read Life of Pi (ignorantly not knowing at the time that Yann Martel is white and Canadian). I read The Last Time I Saw Mother. I also have Eating Fire, Drinking Water, but I haven’t finished that one yet. I read Like Water for Chocolate, which will forever grace my memory as the book that mended my heart. I read this intriguing book about a bunch of ladies (and a gay gentleman) crossing the Mexican border into the United States in search of one of the ladies’ father and some other men. I forgot what it was called, and it’s probably buried somewhere in the boxes or cabinets full of books at home.

I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes Novels and Stories, as well as some of the stories in the selections in The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes. When I discovered the BBC Sherlock series, I was therefore elated. I read the Song of Ice and Fire series, to which the Game of Thrones book belongs. I swear, George R.R. Martin deserves a good bitchslap for the agony he put us through. But only after he finishes the last book in the series. I read and enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but haven’t quite gotten to the rest of that series. I also read Sophie Kinsella books, as a guilty pleasure or for when I just want a heartwarming laugh.

And in between those, a lot of books about cooking, a lot of books about arts and crafts, a lot of books on medicine, several issues of National Geographic and countless, countless other stories I don’t remember at the moment. Oh, and there were those odd ones that my parents randomly bought in book sales.

The Ernest Hemingway book belonged to the latter group. But it was shoved in a far off space somewhere and forgotten.

Until one day when I was in high school or college, my mother noticed that the double-decker bed was wobbly. She found the oldest, most unused-looking book she could find. She then promptly shoved The Old Man and the Sea under the leg of the bed.

I protested, of course. It’s a good book!

Nobody ever reads it anyway, my mother countered.

I insisted on rescuing it. I had never read it, but surely any storybook deserves more dignity than that!

(That is not true, of course. I have most recently read a romance novel that I wanted to tear apart because the characters were poorly written and the story was just stupid. It still exists, though, but only because I have reserved it. It will be burned in a Ritual of Cleansing from Bad Writing.)

But anyway, I loved stories. And at the time it seemed that no story deserved to be shoved under the leg of a bed, forever to be dented and unread.

The Old Man and the Sea was then replaced by a phonebook. And it must be proof of how unsociable I am that I had chosen to save a book than have my friends’ numbers handy. Of course, since I already had a cellphone at the time, phonebooks to me were obsolete. But even so, the story was my priority.

Now that I had it, I had to justify its rescue by actually reading it.

So this is the context in which I read the Old Man and the Sea. Not as a required reading in an English class. Not as a literary obligation just because he got the Nobel Prize in Literature (a fact I only found out just now, after a quick google). To me, it is a gorgeous story although perhaps not to be taken literally. It is of a struggle, of persistence, of bad luck and, finally, of amazement.

But I’m not babbling about books to give you a review of this book. I’m babbling to tell you that I’ve only read exactly one book by Ernest Hemingway, but he is starting to become one of my favorite writers if only for his quips about writing. Allow me to share:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

The first draft of anything is shit

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.

When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.

As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.

In order to write about life first you must live it.

Write hard and clear about what hurts.

It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.

All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.

The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.

I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.

I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.

Write drunk; edit sober.

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

If you’ve ever written anything before in your life, all of the above is just too real.

I’ve read probably literally a ton of books in my life. And I probably will continue to read a ton more. Now that I have to do a lot of writing myself, there is a newfound appreciation for all these things that I have read. I never before realized the massive effort it takes to take a stranger into a completely different world and making them feel it acutely.

On top of my pinboard, I have written a quote not by Hemingway (whose quips are a recent discovery) but by Joseph Heller: Every writer I know has trouble writing.

It’s so nice to know I’m not alone.

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