The Patron Saints of Nothing- Randy Ribay

Some categories of reading challenge prompts are easier to fill than others. I’m usually able to settle on a book fairly quickly, but for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, the prompt to read a bildungsroman (that’s a coming-of-age novel) had so many good choices that it was a little tough to pick! I finally settled on Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (Kokila, 2019) because of its timely focus on Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that involves heinous extrajudicial killings of addicts and dealers. The stories I’ve read about this in the news are almost too terrible to contemplate, and I knew that this was a subject I needed to read more about, however painful.

Jay, a Filipino-American high school senior, is lacking some serious motivation for life, but everything is thrown up into the air when he learns that his cousin and childhood friend Jun has been killed in the Philippines as part of the country’s war on drugs. Shocked and devastated, even though he lost touch with Jun a few years back, Jay travels to the Philippines to visit family and learn the truth about what happened to Jun. Their family, however, is keeping things under wraps, and in order to learn the truth, Jay’s going to have to do a little digging.

But his digging reveals more questions and uncomfortable truths, along with angering his smug, self-righteous uncle even more. Along with coming to terms with who his cousin really was, Jay finally finds the connection to his homeland that he never felt before, and the connection to his Filipino family that he’s been missing all his life.

Randy Ribay has absolutely crafted a painful coming-of-age novel that speaks to current world events. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a novel set in the Philippines before, so that part of the story was especially fascinating for me to read. And setting the characters right smack in the middle of the devastating effects of Duterte’s anti-drug policies is a bold move for a YA novel, but it works, and it sheds some light on a subject that hasn’t gotten nearly enough media attention around the world.

Ribay raises some interesting points here, questions that Jay ponders and others that are merely inferred. Do universal truths about how to treat your fellow human, truths that transcend culture and location and history, exist? Is it brave or foolish to stand up for what’s right when the vast majority are against you and the consequences very well may be fatal? How far should you be willing to go to expose the truth? Does being addicted to drugs mean the rest of your life, all of your accomplishments and who you are as a person, is worthless? He also paints complex, realistic characters who are deeply flawed but not without redeeming qualities, even at their worst.

This is a deeply sad novel, but its conclusion is not without hope, though, given the current state of *gestures broadly at everything*, I left feeling a little less optimistic. Jay comes to conclusions that, while they wouldn’t be the path I chose, made sense to him. I so much enjoy YA that tackles heavy current events like this, and Patron Saints of Nothing does a really excellent job at shining a light on a situation everyone- not just teenagers- needs to be aware of.

Visit Randy Ribay’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing- Adam P. Frankel

The New Books shelf strikes again! I’ve got a pile of reading challenge books waiting for me, but my library has a decorate-it-yourself felt snowman over by the New Books shelf, and so while I was waiting for my daughter to perfect her indoor Olaf, I foolishly turned around to examine the new books, and that’s when my eyes fell on The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing by Adam P. Frankel (Harper, 2019). A quick scan of the inside flap let me know that the book was, as I had inspected, about a family’s grappling with trauma after the Holocaust, and that was all I needed for it to go into my pile.

I knew better than to keep looking at that shelf, though. That New Books shelf is dangerous to my reading load!

Every family has its own secrets, but Adam Frankel’s family always seemed to have more than most. His grandparents survived the Holocaust and came to live in America, but how much of their trauma did they pass on to their children? How much through genetics, how much through behavior patterns? And how much of that trauma has reached Adam in the third generation? Often raising more questions than answers, Adam, a former Obama speechwriter, goes searching for answers and finds more than he initially bargained for. Suddenly, Adam’s not only looking for answers about all those family secrets, he’s tasked with keeping them, too- big secrets, the kind that are difficult, maybe impossible, to forgive.

Despite its absolutely heavy and often tragic storyline, The Survivors is a fascinating read, one that delves deeply into the question of epigenetics and what the effects of trauma are for subsequent generations. Were his grandparents’ experiences in concentration camps responsible for his mother’s mental illness or her inability to cope with stress? What do genetics really mean, anyway? I didn’t read the inside flap in its entirety and so the narrative took a turn I wasn’t expecting, one that brought to mind shades of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance. Adam’s entire identity is brought into question, and his grappling with his sense of self and family history is intense, and intensely painful. That he was contending with so many issues while still successfully performing his duties as part of President Obama’s speechwriting team is impressive.

Fans of family sagas, family secrets, family history, and memoirs that wrestle with identity and the author’s place in the family story will find much to appreciate here. Although the tone is often heavy, Mr. Frankel’s writing style moves the story forward at a pace that never lingers too long on tragedy. This is a story of pain and secrets, of shining a light on that which has been hidden, and of having the bravery to ask questions and deal with the answers. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to not only write this story, but to put it out for the world to read. That’s a level of self-examination and honesty that I aspire to.

Beautifully written and well-researched, The Survivors would make an excellent book club selection, as there are so many layers to this story that it would encourage a great discussion (it feels a little terrible to say that, as this is someone’s life, but this is a book and a story that deserves to be read and remembered). There are mentions of violence and death- there are very few happy Holocaust memoirs, after all- and some mentions of sexual situations, but nothing is graphic, so this would be an appropriate and intriguing group read.

Memoirs that include revelations about paternity seem to be prevalent lately (this is my third in three months, along with Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance, as previously mentioned, and Sarah Valentine’s When I Was White); I don’t think that that’s a publishing trend so much as a coincidence and a sign of the times, with genetic testing kits being so readily available and trendy. I’m sure there will be more memoirs along these lines, but Adam Frankel’s traumatic family history and his writing talent, honed from years in the blood-stained battleground of modern-day politics, absolutely make this book stand out.

Visit Adam P. Frankel’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.