By DOM GALEON
Images by KEVIN ESPIRITU
Video by JULES VIVAS
Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind. —Jeffrey Eugenides
It was my first time at the MacArthur Suite of the Manila Hotel. If you like history as much as I do, you would know why this was quite a big deal. The MacArthur Suite, the entire top floor of the Manila Hotel, was once the home of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines.
But this was only the first treat that evening. I was there because I got invited to be part for one night of a book club, which was no ordinary book club, mind you. It was an extra one. A very extra one. How and why they call it that, I have no idea, really. But this Very Extra Book Club has members who are some of the most interesting people you could ever meet today—Rajo Laurel, Stephanie Zubiri, Marielle Santos-Po, Farah Mae Sy, Rocio Olbes-Ressano, Pauline Suaco-Juan, Isabelle Daza, Jae de Veyra Pickrell, and Manila Bulletin Lifestyle editor AA Patawaran. That evening, however, Belle and Rocio couldn’t make it so it was down to just seven members, plus little extra me, with Jules Vivas and Kevin Espiritu to document things.
Like any of the Very Extra Book Club’s sessions, so I was told, there was to be a theme for the evening’s dinner,a surf-and-turf affair graciously prepared by no less than the Manila Hotel executive chef Konrad Walter, following the book to be discussed that evening, Middlesex by Greek-American author Jeffrey Eugenides.
The theme was androgyny, in keeping with the struggles of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book’s narrator, Callie/Cal, who, as the book’s very first sentence—“I was born twice: first, as a baby, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”—immediately revealed, provided the viewpoint from which the immigrant saga of a Greek family trying to find their footing on American soil was told.
The Manila Hotel style director Rachy Cuna found the theme intriguing, which inspired him to give the MacArthur Suite an androgynous touch with his mix of orchids, spray-painted in black, and decorative leaves, dipped in gold. Even the selection of fine wines, a gift from Jet Quirante of Cork Wine Bar & Shop, was on point, the virile plum flavors and concentrated tannins of the 2015 Brulieres de Beychevelle Haut Medoc and the hints of citrus and white flowers, along with the vivacious notes of honey and dried fruits, in the 2017 Albert Bichot Horizon Chardonnay from Languedoc.
With all these, everything was set for a lengthy discussion of a rather interesting book over a hearty meal of lobsters and tenderloins shared among extra interesting people. The Very Extra Book Club, as I later learned, would meet every two months to discuss one or two books, depending on the length of the text. Each of the members take charge of a session and a book. That evening, it was AA’s turn. He was the one who suggested Middlesex. As soon as the discussions started, which was guided by some questions printed on made-to-look-old parchment, with burns here and there just for the added antique Greek scroll effect, it became clear to me that there was nothing extra about this book club—save perhaps that each of its members are extra inquisitive and intuitive, mixing awe and irreverence, incredulity and worldly wisdom when it came to interpreting the text. It reminded me of my years as a Humanities major in college, whenever we had to tackle a novel for one of the many literature classes we were required to digest and dissect like it had all the secrets to understanding the human condition.
In short, it was surprisingly pleasant, endearingly engaging, with extra hints of detail here and there that, because of the delicate nature of book and those of personal experiences and epiphanies shared by those at that table that evening, I cannot really share in this little, extra write up. Sorry, guys. I promised to keep some things off the record. But one thing I could tell you is that, just by observing the members discuss and clash a few times, it felt like I had already read the book. At the very least, it made me curious to read it. I couldn’t also help but share some thoughts—very extra thoughts that, if you were to be strict about it, shouldn’t really count because I have yet to read the book.
In any case, they were all generous enough to allow me to participate, and that was fun. Farah, who was my seat mate, would even take time to explain some scenes in the book for me whenever it was necessary for the discussion.
And the questions continued, the discussions seemed unending. Did Cal approach love and attraction as Callie would? Do you think Jeffrey Eugenides gave a fair portrayal of intersexuality? How well do you understand the other sex or sexes? Was the book deserving of its Pulitzer? And so on.
After all the questions were asked and everyone answered them, or at least tried to—because that is one of the joys of discussing literature, there is almost always more than one answer—it was time to call it an evening. Before the night ended, our discussion dinner was graced by Manila Bulletin president Dr. Emilio C. Yap III who joined us for some post-dinner photos at the historic venue.
On to the next extra book for another very extra book discussion! I was told it was going to be another sexy one, the 2018 bestseller The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.
Tags: AA Patawaran, book, club, Dom Galeon, Douglas MacArthur, Dr. Emilio C Yap III, Farah Mae Sy, Jae de Veyra Pickrell, Jeffrey Eugenes, Konrad Walter, Manila Hotel, Marielle Santos-Po, Middlesex, Pauline Suaco-Juan, Philippines, Rajo Laurel, Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi, The Very Extra Book Club