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A time to read: Writers and their quarantine book picks

By Susan A. De Guzman Published Oct 26, 2020 5:20 am

Writers, perhaps more than most other people, are quite used to self-isolation. Their profession, after all, naturally requires them to be by themselves to focus on crafting their literary works—for hours, days, weeks, even months on end.

The imposed quarantine due to COVID-19, at its strictest level, may have curtailed their other activities such as teaching classes, handling workshops and meeting colleagues that required face-to-face interaction. But having to stay at home, thankfully, has provided them immense amounts of time not just to practice their vocation but to indulge in another preoccupation that goes hand in hand with writing—what else but reading.

We sought six writers—award-winners all, and among the most prolific in their respective genres—to talk about some of the titles that have riveted their attention during this pandemic.

The materials they have absorbed are quite eclectic—audio books heard during long lines at the supermarket, old favorites that serve as a source of enduring inspiration, new releases that engage the senses and motivate them to keep going. Reading, for them, has been a source of immense comfort and helped save their sanity during these unsettling times.

Below, we share these authors’ notes on their quarantine reads and an update on what they’ve been busy with lately.

Criselda Yabes

Manila is a lover you’ve come to hate. It has become so uninhabitable that you’d leave it any time for the islands but then this is where you’re stuck at the outset of the pandemic. I decided to read these books to find redeeming qualities from its history and how grand it was in the past. It gave some comfort and ideas for a novella.

Criselda Yabes: Manila is a lover you’ve come to hate. I decided to read books to find redeeming qualities from its history.

I couldn’t read anything too serious or heavy during the lockdown. Little Women was the last movie I saw in a movie house just before the quarantine and immediately re-read Louisa May Alcott’s book that I found in Fully Booked for only ₱150. Just recently, a friend sent me March, the Little Women’s father who was away at war—and reading fine literature made me feel I had come up for air. I’ve read other books by Geraldine Brooks and she is amazing at setting voices, places, and characters. It made me feel alive again while still stuck at home.

(Criselda Yabes has just released her latest book, The Battle of Marawi [Pawikan Press]. No less than Vice President Leni Robredo has read it, writing on her personal Facebook page a resounding endorsement: “It’s a gripping account of the war in Marawi… It kept me awake until way past midnight and is highly recommended.” More details about the book can be found on

Susan Severino Lara

COVID-19 and the quarantine imposed to manage it disrupted everyone’s life, and mine is not an exception. All lectures and workshops that had been scheduled (both the summer national writers’ workshops, as well as workshops for business writers, aspiring creative writers, and textbook content editors) were cancelled, since travel restrictions hampered mobility and face-to-face interaction.

I’m still working from home, which has been my work mode for years, and that provided a kind of continuity, but the cancellations left a lot of free time, which should have meant more time to read.

Susan Severino Lara: Apart from writing, reading is the only activity that keeps me sane and gives me something to look forward to when I wake up.

Apart from writing, reading is the only activity that keeps me sane and gives me something to look forward to when I wake up. Aside from the Holy Bible and The Celtic Spirit (Daily Meditations for the Turning Year) by Caitlin Matthews, both of which I read every day of the year, I have been reading and rereading: Almost Everything by Anne Lamott; The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy, edited by John Brehm; The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte; The Pilgrim and the Sage: Ignatian Spirituality and Buddhism in Dialogue edited by Ari C. Dy, S.J.; and Louise Gluck’s poetry collections.

Is there anything they’re all saying that helps me cope with the rough patch we’re going through? Yes: There's always hope, nothing is permanent, this too shall pass. 

(Susan Severino Lara recently completed a book project, Creative Nonfiction: Crafting a Knowledge of Self, Others, and the World, which she co-edited with Marjorie Evasco, Ginaline David and Celine Laroza, and its accompanying Teachers Resource Manual, Creative Nonfiction Teacher’s Handbook, both published by Anvil Publishing.)

Christine Bellen-Ang

I read The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai, Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay.

All the novels mentioned have a theme of freedom and liberation. (The characters) Sprout, Sampath Chawla, and Jay Reguero left their respective homes for missions that motivated them to get to know themselves better. Missions that may be impossible, but life has a way of making it possible.

Christine Bellen-Ang: As books help you unleash the imagination, you look forward to a safer time ahead

These novels brought me moments of release and discovery during the lockdown. As books help you unleash the imagination, you look forward to a safer time ahead.

(Christine Bellen-Ang is a faculty member of the Department of Filipino, Ateneo de Manila University. She has written prize-winning stories for children, children’s books retelling the stories of “Lola Basyang” and full-length plays and musicals for children including Batang Rizal.)

Mina V. Esguerra

I’ve read maybe 50 books since the quarantine started, most of them romance. On a regular year, I would read about 90 books, also mostly romance, so I feel like my “comfort reads” also happen to be of the genre I consider my industry. Somehow, I feel good about that—what we create matters, because of the comfort it provides and the better world that it portrays. 

I was my household’s quarantine pass holder during ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), and trips to go to the supermarket would take four hours or so of lining up and buying and waiting. Audiobooks and ebooks helped me pass the time and distracted me from a lot of the fear that came with being outside that time when we knew less about the pandemic.

Mina V. Esguerra: What we create matters, because of the comfort it provides and the better world that it portrays. 

My list of recommended reads:

Sweet On You by Carla de Guzman (US publisher, Filipino author, romance). To my knowledge, it’s the first US-published contemporary romance featuring Filipino characters in the Philippines—and it’s set during our Christmas season. It’s a joyful, food-filled romantic comedy set in Batangas, featuring the rivalry between a cafe owner and the baker next door.

Duty Ka Ba by Tepai Pascual (web comic, ongoing series, My first reaction to a new update of Duty Ka Ba is often giggling at the inappropriate feelings main character Melba is having for a very handsome doctor.

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (US, thriller), Office Hours by Katrina Jackson (US, indie, romance) and Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall (UK, romance). 

(Mina V. Esguerra released her 25th book this year, a romance called So Forward. With her writing community #RomanceClass, she has produced a web series called Hello, Ever After, with all episodes available on the YouTube channel,

John Iremil Teodoro

I have been reading since the pandemic lockdown in March. One of the blessings of being forced to stay home is, I was able to read the books I bought several years ago that are just gathering dust on the bookshelves at home.

As a writer and a teacher of literature, reading during the lockdown saved my sanity. Until now, after more than half a year of the lockdown, reading is doing a lot for my mental health.

The Winds of April, the first novel of National Artist for Literature NVM Gonzales. I regretted not having read this novel before. My copy is the beautiful hardbound edition published by UP Press. And I love to read hardbound books! This is a bildungsroman novel set in Mindoro and Romblon. The language is vivid and engaging, using the kind of English that is very Filipino in its sensibilities. I love NVM Gonzales more because of this.

John Iremil Teodoro: As a writer and a teacher of literature, reading during the lockdown saved my sanity.

Eagle Pond, a creative non-fiction book by Donald Hall, poet laureate of the US. The language is lush but simple, elegant and full of wisdom of a poet. I missed Antique terribly after reading this book. Now I am dreaming of retiring early from my teaching post in De La Salle University and go home, and live on the farm of my grandparents in Antique.

I have also re-read two of my favorite novels: Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Just last month, I got two wonderful new books by two idols and women writer-friends. I gobbled them up immediately: The Battle of Marawi (Pawikan Press, 2020) by Criselda Yabes, the the best investigative reporter in our country and an expert on Philippine military. And In the Womb of the Earth and Other Stories: Self-Translation from Hiligaynon into English by Alice Tan Gonzales (UP Press, 2020). Alice is one of the best fictionists in our country and a Palanca Hall of Famer.

(John Iremil Teodoro is an associate professor and the Graduate Program coordinator of the Department of Literature, De La Salle University-Manila. He writes in four languages, namely English, Filipino, Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a.)

Ige Ramos

This has been an emotional inventory as my books have replaced the casual conversations I would normally have with friends.

I’ve heard it so many times, the cliché of Tsundoku and the virtuous scrubbing of Marie Kondo. If it’s a crime to buy books and then hoard them, then I am guilty as charged.

Why did I start counting my books? Maybe I was bored, maybe I was anxious, perhaps it was one way to take stock of my material possessions. Since I do not buy books on a whim, I don’t consider this an addiction. My books are bought with an objective in mind and my collection is also well curated.

In the introduction written by Maria Popova for the book A Velocity of Being, she states that she came to understand the role of books in her life—not as mere intellectual decoration, but as a vital force “as meat and medicine, and flame and flight and flower” in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

Ige Ramos: My books have replaced the casual conversations I would normally have with friends

We are social creatures. We like to interact with each other. We love to touch and kiss; our minds are not hardwired to live like monks. Strangely enough, this lockdown is actually a welcome disruption for me, and far from feeling irritated or troubled or even afraid, I am instead using the comfort of my books to embrace uncertainty.

This brings me to an eclectic collection beginning with Japonisme: Ikigai, Forest Bathing, Wabi-Sabi and More and Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. These two captivating books come without the promise of salvation, but instead can lead you to a path of a fulfilling and happy life by drawing lessons from Japanese culture and ancient philosophy.

(Ige Ramos is an award-winning book designer who has ventured into publishing, releasing his own work, Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine, in 2019. This November, he will launch the 50th anniversary edition of the Maria Y. Orosa cookbook, Appetite for Freedom, The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa with Essays on Her Life and Work, after being designated by the Orosa Estate as the official publisher and creative director.)