It started in November last year, when I called my grandma while standing in the middle of National Book Store’s Shangri-La Mall branch. “La, I’m at National. Are there any books you want from here?”
“Oo,” was Lola Charit’s immediate reply. “Yung sequel nung ‘Creep’ and yung ‘Painting the Town Grey’ ba yun?”
I was stunned. Did she mean “50 Shades of Grey,” the surprise erotic hit from E.L. James? The first book of the popular BDSM trilogy that spawned a million mommy porn copycats?
I hoped not.
But minutes later, my 86-year-old grandma texted: “‘Freak,’ sequel to ‘Creep’ by Jennifer Hillier. The other book is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’”
House of books
Books are a big part of my relationship with my grandma. I grew up in a duplex with my parents and my paternal grandparents—it was a house that was always filled with books. Stephen King, Irving Wallace, John Grisham, James Patterson, Richard North Patterson, Nora Roberts, Robert Ludlum, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie, Ken Follet, Tom Clancy—they all lived in the many shelves that lined our walls.
My grandma jumpstarted my love for reading. Even before I figured out how to do it on my own, she used to read to me—everything from Greek mythology to stories from the Collier’s Junior Classics set that she bought for my dad and his siblings in the 1960s.
When I learned how to read, I didn’t just devour my own books, I read everyone else’s. I even spent hours in my grandma’s attic, reading her back issues of Reader’s Digest from the ’60s and the ’70s. Because of that, and because she had gotten tired of me swiping her new copies before she could read them, every year, part of her Christmas gift to me was a subscription to Reader’s Digest.
She’s always been supportive of my passion for words. When we’d go to the malls, she’d head to the supermarket and leave me behind at National Book Store where I filled a cart with books I wanted. She’d return, pay for them and I’d happily walk out of the bookstore, red bags bursting with Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and new titles about The Baby-Sitters Club and the Sweet Valley Twins.
When I got older, it was my turn. I bought books for my grandma and I passed on titles I’d read that I think she’d like, from chick lit and sweet romances to memoirs, courtroom dramas and true crime stories. I’ve sent her books by Ruth Reichl, Nora Ephron and David Sedaris, Marian Keyes and Nick Hornby. Like me, she enjoys Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series. We laugh about how we feel like wringing Becky Bloomwood’s neck sometimes. Over the years, we must have read hundreds of the same books. By now, choosing which books to send to her is a breeze. I know her literary tastes inside and out, I know exactly which books she would and wouldn’t like. Or so I thought.
Because “50 Shades of Grey”? This was going to be the ultimate test for our otherwise harmonious two-person book club.
I tried reading “50 Shades of Grey” when it first came out but I couldn’t finish it. I read 10 chapters in one night and woke up the next day with absolutely no desire to continue reading. I didn’t stop out of protest, I wasn’t shocked by the content, I wasn’t turned off by the sex. I’m no stranger to erotica—I read “Story of O” in high school, I buy anthologies like “Herotica.” I am not a conservative reader, I’m not conservative, full stop, I just didn’t like “50 Shades of Grey.”
Weeks after my grandma’s request, I forced myself to finish reading “50 Shades” in ebook form. I really didn’t like it.
But every single time I went to the bookstore (and I go to bookstores a lot) and every time I saw “50 Shades of Grey” staring up at me from the shelves, I felt guilty.
And so two weeks ago, I finally relented. I bought Lola Charit a copy of “50 Shades of Grey” and I handed it to her along with Dan Brown’s “Inferno.”
“Ano yan?” asked my dad, who had taken us out for lunch.
She said, “Ito yung book ni Dan Brown na nagalit yung mga tao kasi sinabi niya gates of hell yung Manila.” (Yes, she is cool and always updated.)
“Eh yung isa?” he asked.
“Hay naku, si Lola, gusto magbasa ng bastos,” I said to him.
“Talaga,” she said, without missing a beat. I’m not sure if she misheard me.
I took a photo of her holding “50 Shades” and told her I was going to Instagram it. She laughed.
The next day, I texted her. “La, have you started reading ‘50 Shades’?”
Her quick reply: “Yup, very interesting! Parang I have an inkling about this guy Grey, I think our little heroine is in a lot of trouble. Why do you ask?”
She sounded like she was enjoying the book and I realized then that how I felt about “50 Shades” didn’t matter—I was going to buy her the rest of the books in the trilogy if it would make her happy.
But that’s not going to happen. Because four days later, Lola Charit finished the book and when I asked what she thought of it, she sent me this text: “I like her style, straight to the point which makes the book easy reading. The story is a love story kaya lang, Pam, she went overboard on the sex issue! It is too erotic for my taste.”
I asked her if she still wanted “50 Shades Darker” and “50 Shades Freed” and she replied: “How can I? Sayang, Pam, it could have been a beautiful love story if she did not let her imagination run wild. Imagine, except for 2 or 3 chapters, lahat about sex in detail in vivid colors, pang 3-D pa!”
I asked her why she wanted to read it in the first place. Was it the hype? All the articles about it? “I wanted to read it kasi I remembered a film I saw years ago—‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ a beautiful story. Ang gandang film, akala ko this control freak is my pitiful Dorian Gray! I had no idea I was holding a well-written porno!”
Lola Charit said she first read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” when she was very young, during the Japanese occupation. “Walang magawa ang mga tao noon so we simply read and read! Want to know where we got our reading materials? A very enterprising young guy na puro pimples sa face.”
The man opened a stall at the wet market in Blumentritt and allowed people to rent books. “Everyone went crazy there, unahan kami talaga kasi hindi masyadong marami ang books,” my grandma said.
My grandma remembers fighting with a guy over a book—she was just 14 then. She was already holding the book when a tall guy claimed he saw it first. “Inis na inis ako sa kanya. I was so mad, hindi ko binigay! And I held on to that book for a long time, hindi bale na magbayad ako ng fine. Even the pimply guy got mad at me.” That tall guy she fought with? He ended up becoming her husband, my Lolo Osing, who was also a big reader.
Suddenly, everything made sense again. My grandma did not want E.L. James—she wanted Oscar Wilde.
So I will get her a copy of his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and then I’m sending her Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” Our happy little book club will carry on—this time without paddles and safe words.