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What I Read in January 2023: On Time- and Place-Traveling

Brac Island, Split, Croatia

Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Mohsin Hamid, Carmen Maria Machado, Tracy K. Smith, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Little Gems on the Internet

I aimed for fifty books read last year. I only read 20. I still considered it as an achievement of sort, considering the personal turmoil I had adapting to a new country.

Before coming to Munich, I really thought it would be hard to find English books to read. Just like in Vietnam. Good literature was somewhat hard to find in Hanoi. If you did find the kind of writers you wanted to read, they were quite expensive compared to Vietnamese literature. Vietnam has an admirable reading culture, so most writers, from Coetzee to John Green, are translated to Vietnamese. Embarrassingly, I came and left Vietnam without a solid grasp of the language.

Here in Munich, I get my English books from four places. Mainly the Munich Readery, Amazon, the free book stand in the park ( a common culture in Germany), and the neighborhood Oxfam sometimes has a title or two for a very affordable price.

This year, I aim for fifty. Again.

I don’t have demanding requirements for the kind of books I read, I try to balance between what’s popular, my usuals, and I-trust-the-names-in-the-blurb.

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold | Novel

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café that has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time and travel to the future.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold book review

In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-traveling offer, to: confront the man who left them for a career in the US, receives a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.

But the journey into the past and the future comes with risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the seat, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold.

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time, knowing the present circumstance would never change?

At first, I found the language somewhat uncomfortable: a staccato of short statements; the characters seem theatrical, the descriptions of their actions painfully simple and instructional. I found them all off, like puppets waiting to be moved, so I flipped to the back and read the little note in the jacket. The book wasn’t originally a novel. It was a play.

Now everything made total sense.

I knew nothing about the writer. I picked the book since it seems popular, and honestly, the cat on the cover got me. *There’s no cat in the novel, and they got the color of the chairs wrong.*

With that new knowledge, I shouldered on and continued reading. There is nothing much to say that hasn’t been noted in the synopsis.

It’s quite straightforward and somewhat didactic by nature. And it’s not my cup of tea. Thank you very much.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West | Novel

Mohsin Hamid is one of my usuals. I fell in love with his wit, intellect, and language one sweaty June day in my cramped studio in Hippodromo, many years ago. I consumed The Reluctant Fundamentalist in one go and forgot my oatmeal breakfast on the table. How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia, the title was a sort of a reply and funny retort to America’s obsessions with self-help literature was one of the earlier books I read while living in Hanoi.

Mohsin has a certain formula in his fiction: politics, political musings, and love. There are always lovers or love interests in his works. Exit West follows this pattern and much more.

Before the coffee gets cold is time-traveling, Exist West is place-traveling. This is my kind of magic realism, a modern tale on the refugee crisis, migrations, and the overall chaotic state of many countries.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Photo by the author

Exit West tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, who meet and fall in love as their country, Pakistan, breaks out in a civil war. After discovering that magic doors are popping up throughout their city that could transport them to a different country, the couple decides to leave their home and forge a new life together.

Saeed and Nadia are very human, smart, and relatable. I highly recommend this book.

“We are all migrants through time.”

“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body & Other Parties | Short Stories

Short review: I love, love, love, love this book. It’s a gem. It made me giggle. It gave me goosebumps. It made me scream out of frustration. Above all else, it made me sigh with contentment with its beautiful crunchy language.

It made me look for fresh, crisp metaphors in my everyday life here in Munich. It made me observe with all my senses, not just my eyes.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body & Other Parties | Short Stories
Photo by the author

It’s genre-bender. It’s genre-fluid. It’s queer literature on its finest. It seamlessly, effortlessly blend magic realism, sci fi, horror, fantasy, and crime thriller. So this is queer literature! I’m here for it! Think Black Mirror but way better.

Her metaphors are soooo satisfying! Like ggrrrrr, I want to munch on them.

Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water | Poetry

A poet friend once shared that he read poetry books from cover to cover. Not randomly. Poets design the flow and the arc of their works. I’d never read poetry that way until last year. I’m that embarrassing poetry reader who only reads the “best ones” and the most relatable ones from the collection. Read some of my favorite poems read in the past years here.

Tracy K. Smith is an American poet and educator. She served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She has published four collections of poetry, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her Life on Mars (I bought it already and will read it after this).

Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water | Poetry
Photo by the author

I know she’s political, and I know this collection will touch, no, more like dabble, in black lives and black experience. There are some that work better than others.

And admittedly, it is actually a lot harder to read ten poems on a row about slavery and war. Poetry, by nature, is already a difficult genre for many. On top of this intimidation, two heavyweight issues were mixed. I found myself internally gasping for air, while staring at the light snow slicing through the air outside. It’s too much. She might be dabbling, but I’m drowning.

As a reader and poet myself, admittedly not as good as her, I always have a certain affinity for voice-driven poems. Like this one

Fort Bliss, Tex. March 9th 1867

My dear sister I write you this letter to let you no
I am well I ask of you in this letter to go and take
my boy from my wif as sh is not doing write by him
take him and keep him until I come home if sh is
not willing to gave him up go and shoe this letter it is
my rccust for you to have him I doe not want her
to have my child with another man I would lik
for my child to be raised well I will be hom next fall
if I live a solder stand a bad chanc but if god spars me
I will be home

But admittedly, it’s her love/longing poems that hook me.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders | Creative Nonfiction

As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climes of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplanted — no matter how awkward the fit or forbidding the landscape — she was able to turn to our world’s fierce and funny creatures for guidance.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders | Creative Nonfiction
Photo by the author

“What the peacock can do,” she tells us, “is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.” The axolotl teaches us to smile, even in the face of unkindness; the touch-me-not plant shows us how to shake off unwanted advances; the narwhal demonstrates how to survive in hostile environments. Even in the strange and the unlovely, Nezhukumatathil finds beauty and kinship. For it is this way with wonder: it requires that we are curious enough to look past the distractions to fully appreciate the world’s gifts.

Warm, lyrical, and gorgeously illustrated by Fumi Nakamura, World of Wonders is a book of sustenance and joy.

I didn’t buy this book. Ambros did during our trip to Friedrichshafen. There was a Ravensbuch, across our hote, and I bought Siri Hustvedt’s Mothers, Fathers, and Others and Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse, while he picked this up. I started reading this when he said the author is actually half-Filipino, and she writes about plants and animals from a poet’s perspective. That got me.

This is a beautiful, necessary book.

I’m a believer in intersectionalities. This book condenses poetry, environmental issues, motherhood, being brown in white America, and racism. What holds them all together? Random plants and animals Aimee encountered in her life as a professor, as a scientist, as a poet, and later on, as a mother.

This was the book I cuddled to bed. I loved these mini-essays that I bought the book in German and gifted it to Ambros’ mom, who shares the same passion for plants.

Essays on the Internet I enjoyed reading

Toronto poet Lee Suksi aimed to ignite real connections by asking thought-provoking questions instead of engaging in the often tedious small talk. This is what they discovered.

The Monster in My Home Was a Meter, and It Decided Whether I Ate and Slept”is a poignant essay on growing up poor in Britain. The opening line “I grew up in a string of dilapidated slum rentals, project housing and homeless hostels. I grew up with a monster in most of those homes. Small but cruel, it could be found under the stairs, sometimes in the kitchen. You had to feed it with coins, later with cards and keys, or be punished.” is already hauntingly beautiful.

An amazing portrait of the Golden Gays in the Philippines, written by Hannah Reyes-Morales, a Filipino photojournalist.

I never thought there is such a thing called truffle war until I read this essay on dog poisoning and territory-keeping happening in Italy.

I enjoyed reading this essay on Pamela Anderson, and I gotta quote a particular line on agency. “We forget sometimes, when we talk about the idea of agency, that it’s as much about the stories we tell ourselves as it is about the actions we take. It’s not just about what happened to us; it’s about the role we feel we played in what happened. It’s the difference between posing for Playboy and a stolen sex tape. It’s why hearing someone recount your life to you can make you feel sick, while telling your own story, in your own words.

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After four years of living in Hanoi, Vietnam, I hauled my life in two huge luggage and two adorable furry cat-kids Miya and Zaki and moved to Munich, Germany. Find me on for my life in Munich (under construction) and for my SEOd travels, digital nomad resources, and reading life.

Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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