March’s book: Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco

This month, we concentrated on Asian literature. We had a number of great recommendations but the book we’re reading this month is:

Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco


It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River—taken from the world is the controversial lion of Philippine literature. Gone, too, is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families. Miguel, his student and only remaining friend, sets out for Manila to investigate. 

To understand the death, Miguel scours the life, piecing together Salvador’s story through his poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga of four generations, tracing 150 years of Philippine history forged under the Spanish, the Americans, and the Filipinos themselves. Finally, we are surprised to learn that this story belongs to young Miguel as much as to his lost mentor, and we are treated to an unhindered view of a society caught between reckless decay and hopeful progress.

Exuberant and wise, wildly funny and deeply moving, Ilustrado explores the hidden truths that haunt every family. It is a daring and inventive debut by a new writer of astonishing talent.


Other books on the list this month: 

  • Shanghai girls by Lisa See
  • Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami
  • The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
  • Ilustrado: A Novel by Miguel Syjuco
  • Witness the Night: A Novel by Kishwar Desai
  • When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.



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February’s meeting

In a shocking turn of events, this month was a relatively sober book club. Well, for one person, at least. However, the lack of wine imbibed by the benevolent dictator didn’t dampen the fun. It simply means that my notes are, for once, readable. Whether they make sense or not… we shall see.

This week, we welcomed two new members to the group – Laura and Marta – who quickly got stuck in and offered some great insights into the novel.

Not everyone had an opportunity to finish the book this month, but, we were assured, they didn’t mind about spoilers (which is just as well otherwise the conversation might have been a tad stifled). Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine rocketed into the position of our 2nd favourite book (since we started keeping score), nestled behind Alias Grace and scoring a very respectable 8.3. In fact, the lowest score given to this book was 7. Those who didn’t like the book as much told the group “it’s not a book I’d normally read and I don’t know how to feel about it” and “there were too many loose ends. The ‘romance’ was too much of a stretch.”

Some felt the book was “relatable – not in the sense of abuse and fire, but in the sense of loneliness, of being different, of conforming, of companionship in unexpected places.” The book was “touching”, said one, “it makes you realise that when you open up to the world, the world gives back to you.” Others found the book “eye-opening” and felt it was nice to see “an adult discover life through kindness”.

Naturally, we had to start the conversation with Eleanor. We talked about what our first impressions of her were. How would we treat her if she was in our office? There was a discussion about whether age had to do anything with how judgemental one is. Some people felt that older people were more likely to forgive Eleanor’s flaws as they were more forgiving of their own quirks. Others believed age has nothing to do with being mean – Eleanor wasn’t someone you’d go out of the way to be friends with, but she wasn’t someone who you’d make fun of, either. Some believed that it was older people who were more likely to pass judgement – younger people tending to be a little more liberal in their views and accepting of differences.

Was Eleanor on the spectrum at all? While a couple of the group felt initially, she might be, after discussion, it was clear that while Eleanor had her own ways of doing things, she couldn’t be classified on the autism spectrum – there were too many characteristics shown in the novel which were too unlikely for someone with this form of disorder. While she was uncomfortable with changes in her routine, she actively sought them out once she had made her mind up to. She could happily function in a busy office space and have conversations with strangers. So yes, she was a little odd, but that was only to be expected with her upbringing.

Or was it? We moved the conversation on to that of nature or nurture. Did Eleanor’s childhood make her the way she was, or was she born like that? The group was split. Some felt because Eleanor was able to change in the middle of the novel, while she started in a bad situation it wasn’t in her nature to change, it was too easy to stay where she was. Others pointed out that other children in similar situations behave very differently to Eleanor – she was a really good student at school and functioned well but just couldn’t open up her heart. Some felt that the abuse suffered at the hands of her mother was too much and was bound to have an impact on her personality.

**SPOILER ALERT: if you’ve not read the book, stop reading this post now**

The conversation moved to the twist at the end. Some clever clogs members of the group realised that she had lost her sister early on and realised that she wasn’t really talking to her mother (the giveaway was the fact the phone never rings, apparently). There was a long discussion about the mother and her voice. One member even admitted that she had been “kinder to my children this week because of the book” (pizzas all round!). Did Eleanor realise that her conversations with her mother weren’t real? After conversations with her psychiatrist she makes a conscious decision to “hang up” and stop talking to her mother so maybe it was a later realisation?

We all agreed this book wasn’t a love story. It’s not about Raymond saving Eleanor. It’s about Eleanor saving herself.

Raymond is a friend. A good friend. But a friend. We don’t want it to be a love story – we don’t want them to get together. It seems Raymond agreed with us as he got visibly uncomfortable when Eleanor talks about her man (referring to the musician). Talking about the musician, there were some cracking stories about how we used to follow boys around when we were 13/14/15. It seems Eleanor was at the same stage, just 20 years too late.

We rounded off our session discussing the difference between being alone and being lonely. Can people make decisions to feel a certain way? Can you be happy and lonely? It was a long, interesting, in-depth conversation. Instead of going through it all again, here are some interesting links for you:


And with that, my big book of notes in closed until next month. See you all then!