New book offers rich stories of life – Lee Cataluna reviews "In the Company of Strangers"

New book offers rich stories of life
by Lee Cataluna, Advertiser Columnist
Friday, December 4, 2009

Late one night, Michelle Cruz Skinner wrote about a guy she didn’t actually know but could imagine speaking his manifesto. His funny, pointed, self-involved rant came to her whole. The piece "Ten-Fold Path," where a young man talks about race, culture, desire and identity in such a pitch-perfect voice, is one of 16 stories in her new book, "In the Company of Strangers."

"So, you two wander around the booths, eventually buying a Coke each and stopping at a few booths selling "Born-Again Pinoy" and "100% Filipino" T-shirts, genuine-made-in-the-Philippines woven bracelets, and wood carvings of carabaos and gigantic fork and spoon sets. You vowed years ago that someday, when you had your own house, you would sure as hell not mount some gigantic fork and spoon set on the wall of your dining room. No carabaos either."

"One of my students asked if I listen to guys talk," Skinner said. "I said a lot of them talk loudly, oblivious to everyone around them, so I can’t help but hear what they say."

Skinner, a teacher at Punahou, was born in Manila and raised primarily in Olongapo City in the Philippines. She has published two other books, "Balikbayan" and "Mango Seasons," which was nominated for the 1996 Philippine National Book Award. Her new book, published by Bamboo Ridge Press (which, to disclose, has published some of my work), contains both fiction and memoir, including a piece called "Paper," where Skinner describes the significance of books and documents in her childhood in the Philippines.

"When I write letters to friends in Olongapo, I never put my name in the place for return address on the envelope. In my files is a birth certificate for a hospital that no longer exists, my medical records from a base that’s no longer a base, my parents’ marriage certificate although the marriage ended long ago."

The stories are rich and disarming, as in a piece called "Parenting," which describes that middle-age tipping point when your children don’t need you as much but your elderly parents need you more.

The book’s cover depicts Filipino politicians and popular figures as caricatures on milk-can labels. Skinner met the artist, Dindo Llana, at a book reading last year.

"As soon as I saw the picture with the six cans clustered together, I knew it was what I wanted for the cover. All the faces just looked right for the book. The writing on the pieces also echoed a sense of humor and understanding that appealed to me and which I’d tried to capture in my writing," Skinner said.

A reading and reception for "In the Company of Strangers" will be held at the University of Hawaiʻi-Manoa Art Auditorium Tuesday at 7 p.m. The reading is free and open to the public.

Reach Lee Cataluna at [email protected].

Source: Honolulu Advertiser

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