Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Review of 'On The Other Side' by Carrie Hope Fletcher

"A love story like no other, this is the debut novel from Carrie Hope Fletcher, author of the Sunday Times No. 1 bestseller All I Know Now.

Evie Snow is eighty-two when she quietly passes away in her sleep, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.  It's the way most people wish to leave the world but when Evie reaches the door of her own private heaven, she finds that she's become her twenty-seven-year-old self and the door won't open.

Evie's soul must be light enough to pass through so she needs to get rid of whatever is making her soul heavy.  For Evie, this means unburdening herself of the three secrets that have weighed her down for over fifty years, so she must ind a way to reveal them before it's too late.  As Evie begins the journey of a lifetime, she learns more about life and love than she ever thought possible, and somehow, some way, she may also find her way back to her long lost love...

On the Other Side will transport you to a world that is impossible to forget.  Powerful, magical and utterly romantic, this is a love story like no other from everyone's favorite 'big sister,' Carrie Hope Fletcher."

I have followed Carrie on YouTube for several years now.  When she was in Les Miserables in London's West End, I went and saw her perform as Eponine while I was studying abroad.  It turns out I was very lucky to see her perform that day-- she was sick and only managed to do the matinee show, but not the evening performance.  I am very, very fortunate.  I have enjoyed watching her grow up on YouTube and start venturing further into her arts career.  So when I found out she was writing a story-- fiction this time-- I was incredibly excited.  But I also walked into this book rather blind, not knowing what Carrie was like as a fiction writer.

I love the general concept of this story.  I love stories that explore the afterlife and what that is like (this fascination sounds creepier than it actually is).  I love that in this afterlife, you go back to a place where you were most yourself.  For Evie, that was her first apartment and where she found her first love.  If that is what life is like after death, there shouldn't be a reason we fear death as we age and start falling apart.  That's a nice feeling.

The feeling of this book was quite different than others I've experienced.  Because the story shifts from the present, when Evie is in the afterlife, to the past, when Evie is actually alive and there's magical elements involved in both periods of time, there's this whimsical and lucid feeling to the tale Carrie tells.  It's really interesting.  I realized as I was reading this book that a lot of the magic elements really threw me off.  I think I've been reading a lot of realistic fiction lately, and magical things don't typically happen in those books.  So that was interesting to deal with.  It's like I'd forgotten how to handle magic in my time away from fantasy fiction.

As far as characters go, I tended to feel more towards the extreme characters.  Characters like Evie and Vincent were kind of boring because they seemed so perfect... perfect for each other and like they've got their lives more or less in order.  My favorite scenes revolved around Evie's children who were handling things after Evie's death.  They didn't pretend to be perfect, at least.  They had a lot more to deal with than Evie seemed to have to deal with.  I mean, they were being asked to unwind their mother's past in order to understand.  That's got to be extremely difficult when you've just lost your mother.  I don't have that same sympathy for Evie when she chose to marry her husband and not Vincent.  It was just too idyllic for me.  I wasn't wrapped up in their story like I feel like I should have been.

Overall, for a debut novel (because her first book All I Know Now was a nonfiction book), this was okay.  I don't know if this will be one to stay on my bookshelf, but only time will tell.  I do look forward to seeing how Carrie grows as a novelist.

I give 'On The Other Side':
Thanks for Reading!


Friday, September 30, 2016

A Review of 'Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes' by Eleanor Coerr

(Note: I'm currently trying to catch up on reviews on this blog... this review was started a while ago.  Please bear with me.)

"Hiroshima-born Sadako is lively and athletic-- the star of her school's running team.  And then the dizzy spells start.  Soon gravely ill with leukemia, the 'atom bomb disease,' Sadako faces her future with spirit and bravery.  Recalling a Japanese legend, Sadako sets to work folding paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again.  Based on a true story, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes celebrates the extraordinary courage that made one young woman a heroine in Japan."

I read this book many years ago in elementary school.  It was when we had these gigantic books with excerpts of other books.  The story has stuck with me all this time, so it was nice to be able to sit down during the fifth graders' double-art time and read this heart-breaking story again.

One thing that I wish is that this book was longer.  It acts as an introduction to this period of time in this particular place.  At least that's how I'm treating it with my reading group.  Since this is a 60-page book, I'm having my small group write five-paragraph essays about some part of Japanese culture or this part of history.  I have one boy that is interested in learning and writing about the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, so I'm going to help facilitate that project of his.

I appreciate that Sadako was a real person.  I think it brings into focus the fact that this is a real event that effected real people.  This is a side of the World War II aftermath that not a lot of people hear about.  Most of the time there is an interest in how Europe recovered from this awful war.  Because when we think World War II, we think of Hitler.  But this war was so much bigger and more involved than Hitler, even though he was the face and leader of despicable crimes.

I love this book and I always will.  I hope that you'll love it too.

I give 'Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes':

Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Finished Another School Year!

(Note: I started writing this a while ago, but then life got in the way... I still want to be able to share my reflections on my last full year of college though, so that is why I am posting this now)

I've done it!  I have completed my last full year of my undergraduate career.  But I'm not done just yet.  I still have one more semester to go.  Still, it's weird to be in the calendar year of my graduation, even if it is in December.

This was such a weird school year... it was a year of trying new things, stumbling, falling, sometimes failing (though I didn't fail any classes).  I just want to talk about those things and reflect on the school year.  So without further ado, these are things that I did that I'm rather proud of this past school year:

Student Senate.  One thing that I was really proud of doing was joining Student Senate as one quarter of the Commuter Senator chair.  It was an interesting experience, making decisions on behalf of the undergraduate student body.  It was weird that on each Tuesday meeting, I would be called "Senator Bernard" instead of my first name.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints and suffering academic work, Senate was the first activity of mine to go.  I resigned in November.  Nevertheless, it was a good experience and I am happy that I at least tried being on Senate.  It was just more of a time commitment than I was aware of.

Daycare.  I have had a couple of jobs this school year related to childcare.  I started off in a corporate daycare that is in my neighborhood.  It was good for a while, but in the end, there were too many children, not enough staff, and horrible management.  I started in September and left in February.  I think this is the longest amount of time I have spent in a job that wasn't through campus that is more corporate.  At the end of February, I interviewed for an after school daycare program for school-age kids.  I am still in that job, but will be more or less finished with the job once I start teaching this summer.  I'll be on the sublist, but that's it.

Balance and Standing Up For Myself.  The theme of this semester has been recognizing when I have taken on too many things and then owning my stuff when I screw up.  Even though there is still a lot of embarrassment and anger that bubbles to the surface when I think about these things, I think it's an accomplishment to own up to things that I failed to do or didn't do as well as I was expected to.  Not one to be celebrated, but good for a self-pat on the back for getting a little bit more mature.

Writing Opportunities.  This school year has been crazy with writing opportunities, which has made me extremely happy.  They are as follows:
  • Writing for The Wheel Student News: I had the opportunity to be a Multimedia Journalist for the school newspaper.  It was a lot of fun because I got to talk to a lot of people around campus that I wouldn't normally get to talk to.  If you want to read those articles, you can find them HERE.  As of right now, I am planning to continue with this opportunity during my final semester.  I truly look forward to this!
  • Induction in Delta Phi Lambda: This is the Honorary Writing Society that exists only through the University of Minnesota and St. Kate's in Minnesota.  I'm not sure where else it exists.  It was nerve-wracking to pull together fifteen pages of writing and send them off into the world (or to the English Department) and then to have the professors in the English department find my writing good enough... that felt good.
  • Ariston: Ariston is my university's art and literary journal.  Last year, I submitted a photo from Ontzet in Leiden, the Netherlands and it was published.  This year, I wrote about Sophie Scholl and my experience in Munich, Germany.  This was a piece that I wrote for my Creative Nonfiction class in the Fall and it was one that I was pretty proud of.  It feels really good to have my writing recognized on campus.
  • The Odyssey: This opportunity kind of fell into my lap a little bit.  My mom has a friend whose daughter writes for the Odyssey at her school.  I applied kind of on a whim and within a couple of days, a lady who lives in New York was in contact with me.  My intention was to just be a writer and gain experience there, but then one thing led to another and I became Editor in Chief for the Odyssey at St. Kate's.  I'm still writing, which is what I wanted, but I have the extra privilege of building my skills in editing.  It's been a crazy opportunity and it's a leadership position, which is neat.  It's challenging, but I'm learning so much at the same time.  If you'd like to read what I've been writing since March or April (I can never keep track of these things), you can click HERE.
Research Papers.  I had the opportunity to write a number of interesting research papers this year.  They're ones that I was very interested in any way, and I'm glad that I had the space to write about and explore these topics.  I wrote about the English Language in the Netherlands for my Language as Power class and I wrote about China's threat to the Tibetan culture and language since they're destroying Tibetan land in my Ecolinguistics Senior Seminar.  I had been looking for to take Language as Power for a long time, but Ecolinguistics was not on my radar at all, until it became my last opportunity to take my senior English seminar.  That class was such a treat.  I learned so much.  Ecolinguistics helped me discover that I have a passion for language and how it's applied in the world.  This might be something I'd like to pursue later down the road as I consider graduate school.  But that's not for a while.  We'll have to see what comes of this.

The past school year has been a really challenging one that came with a lot of ups and downs.  But I'm really proud of what I was able to accomplish.  Here's to my last semester!  I hope that it's just as great, if not better.

Thanks for reading!


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Taking Care of Myself

Recently, the right circumstances have arisen where I have started making an effort towards getting serious about my health.  It's been about two weeks-- I didn't want to talk about it when I started because I was worried that I wouldn't keep up with it.  I've realized that in the past, I have talked about these plans that I have and unless they are well-supported by outside help, they didn't really lift off the ground.  This time, I'm doing something right.  So I want to talk about what I'm doing and what tools I'm using to sort of reflect on this experience so far.

My Exercise and Incentive Chart

My first goal was to walk more.  I find walking enjoyable and it's a flexible enough exercise where I can do it throughout the day, or I can decide that I need a break from whatever I'm doing and go walk somewhere for an hour.  It doesn't have to happen in a gym setting unless I want it to.  I got my fiance to participate in this practice with me.  We both got new pedometers and have made it a practice to wear it every day and compare at night just before we go to sleep.  What I needed and wanted was a record to show how far I've gone and a way to keep me motivated to continue keeping track.  My charts look like this:

The top chart is the chart my fiance and I use to track how far we've gone as individuals.  This is just my half because I don't know if this is something Jack would be willing to share with the world.  But I don't mind.  Every day for the past two weeks, I have been careful to take down my miles, even if I reached far below the recommended 10,000 steps a day.  As you can see, I started slow in the beginning and I continue to have dips in numbers of steps, but I've walked and made some kind of progress every day.  The red boxes on the far left indicate number of weeks that have gone by while the green on the far right indicates when I have reached or surpassed a milestone in our incentive chart.  I think this alone has kept me motivated to continue to keep track of my activity.  It's gratifying when every two or three days, I'm reaching a milestone and I know exactly how far I have to go to reach that next goal.

My incentive chart is below.  I created a chart with incentives for 10-500 miles.  The incentives range from going to see a movie at one of the smaller, local movie theaters to going to the zoo or seeing another part of the Twin Cities to taking the MegaBus to Chicago.  We haven't cashed in on our incentives yet, mostly because we're nearing the end of the semester and there's so little extra time, but it still feels good to be earning these activities so that we can do them at a later time.  If you've had trouble keeping motivated to exercise, I recommend this strategy.  I need a carrot in front of my nose to get me to go and stick with something.  That's just a thing I know about myself, so instead of changing that part about me, I roll with it.

Lose It! App

I discovered this App through a person I follow on Instagram.  I'm still very new to the App, but wow, this has been a real game-changer for me.  One of my biggest struggles in the past has been that I don't keep track of my food.  Or even if I think about what I'm eating, it's a very misguided record.  This way, I choose from a list or enter in the food that I'm eating and this App keeps track of the calories that I bring in.  It's kind of like Weight Watchers, as I understand it, where you choose a goal weight and then you can eat anything you want, but you do have a certain number of calories you can have in order to stay on track.  So I entered a goal weight and a date that I wanted to reach that goal and the App said (not really said), "Alright, if you want to stay on track, you need this many calories in a day."  I was impressed because I tried to make a more extreme goal (same goal weight, but at a soon date, around my wedding day) and an advisory popped up saying that my goal was not a safe one and that I needed to adjust it.  I'm so impressed by this.  It's not enabling people looking for a quick fix, but making you think about what is reasonable for your body.

It also takes into account the exercise that you do.  So every day, I've eaten more than my allotted 1,400 calories, but I've had enough exercise to make this okay.  This App also has some nutrition information so that I can see, in basic terms, what I'm eating.  I have yet to make meaning out of this part of the App, but like I said, I'm just starting out with this.

Last night, I overate at dinner and this app took into account my other meals and snacks and the exercise that I had done already and told me that I was x number of calories over what I needed to stay on track.  So I knew that I needed to go on a walk.  I didn't have to do homework right at that moment, so I went on a walk.  It was really nice because I was compensating for my big meal and I was able to go out and explore parts of my neighborhood that I haven't been to before.  It was wonderful.

So that's where I am right now.  I'm enjoying this experience of keeping my health in mind wherever I go.  These tools have motivated me to get up and do something when I might not have been motivated otherwise.  I walk to and from school whenever I can, I walk to my jobs when the weather isn't awful, I'm in the habit of going to the gym on Mondays because it's always exciting when I get over 10,000 steps.  This is a great point in my life.  I wish that I had done this sooner.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Review of 'Grounded' by Kate Klise

"Life will never be the same... 

After her brother, sister, and father die in a plane crash, Daralynn Oakland receives 237 dolls from well-wishers, resulting in her new nickname: Dolly.  And she doesn't even like dolls!  Dolly would much rather go fishing-- not that she's allowed to go anywhere on her own after the accident.  As she sees it, her whole life has turned terrible, and there's nothing she can do about it. 

But when her angry, grieving mother's new job as a hairstylist at the local funeral home is threatened by the new crematorium, Dolly decides it's time to take action.  She suggests throwing Living Funerals-- a chance to attend your own funeral and hear all the nice things people say while you're still alive to thank them.

Will Dolly's new plan heal her mother's broken hear and save a dying business?"

Why do I always choose books like this for my fifth graders to read?  But this book wasn't totally sad.  It's just that I realized that this book and the next book we're going to read (and that I'll review here when we've finished reading it) center around death and dying.  But, they're grade level books and the fifth graders in my reading group have done quite well when we talk about grief and funerals, which you can't avoid when you read this book.

I think this is a neat exploration of grief.  What makes it so neat is that there are two people who are in the same family going through grief, but because of their ages, they deal with these difficult feelings differently.  The mother is angry towards others and she keeps busy with whatever she can.  She shuts down and doesn't do a lot of the activities and chores that she used to do on a regular basis.   She tries to keep her remaining child close by to keep her safe.  And what else would you do if you lost two of your three children and your husband?  The daughter, Daralynn (I hate calling her Dolly because she hates that name... I hate being called horrible nicknames, so I like to ask... or infer) has a different way of dealing with so much loss.  She writes letters, particularly to her dad.  She goes fishing at the lake like her dad used to do when he needed to think.  Daralynn was closest to her father than she was to her brother and sister, it seems.

On a different note, I appreciated the crime aspect of the story.  Sketchy Clem Monroe... in our group, we had a bad feeling about him right away.  I thought that he was guilty of murder, but I was wrong... and actually, the fact that he is *SPOILER* guilty of conspiracy and taking money under false pretenses makes this story more exciting.  It's a bit more devious than murder, if you want to start ranking crimes...

This was an enjoyable read even for an adult person.  I'd like to find more work by Kate Klise sometime soon!

I give 'Grounded':
Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Review of 'Ash' by Malinda Lo

"In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother.  Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her.  In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do.  When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change.  Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa.  Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-- and her desire to live.  But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is abut the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief."

This book is a sort of a retelling of the classic story Cinderella.  The resemblance stops as soon as Ash is with her stepmother and stepsisters and after her father dies.  But this isn't a bad thing-- just a difference I noticed.

This book took a little while to get into.  My professor who taught my literacy education class let me borrow it last semester and between being quite busy and not finding the beginning super appealing, I let it sit for a while.  I'll let you know that it does get better... I'll explain.

I think the part that kind of prevented me from getting into the book right away was Ash's wall of grief.  I understand that she lost her mother and that's a really difficult thing to go through, especially when you're quite young.  But the thing that bothered me was that her grief didn't seem to lessen or become more nuanced as she got older.  She was just as grief-stricken as the day her mother died.  I don't know anything about losing a parent, but I've lost close family members.  The closest person to me who has passed away way was my Uncle.  It was a really hard grieving process, but it's been years since the day we had to let him go and the day of the funeral.  There is pain and sadness, but it's not the same pain and sadness as a few years ago.  With Ash, her pain and sadness doesn't change very much.  I think her grief was a dramatic one, almost.  It was a grief I didn't have access to which made it hard to get into this book.

Once I was a ways into the book, I wasn't so bothered by the grief... that is, I think I stopped taking it so seriously.  What bothered me next was how helpless Ash was and how quick she was to run away.  Her age also bothered me.  I know that at some point in the book, she turned into a girl who was closer to being an adult... I estimate sixteen or eighteen.  But I had to keep reminding myself that Ash is around this age.  So hers and Kaisa's relationship felt really weird to me.  Kaisa had this maturity about her that I kept thinking that she was in her mid-twenties or even thirties.  I still wonder what she sees in Ash.  The relationship felt inappropriate because of the maturity each woman carried with her.  Kaisa had a lot of experience with the world and Ash just didn't.  I don't understand this relationship.

One thing that I appreciated were the hints of nuance to the stepsisters.  They weren't simply pure evil.  Sometimes they'd respond to Ash's kindness.  Ash brought the eldest stepsister, Ana, who is seeking marriage to preferably the Prince, but anyone will do, really.  Ash gave her a spell that's supposed to bring your true love to you or something like that.  Ana used it, although she didn't want to admit it.  You could tell she was more than mean.  She was a stuck character-- her mother needed her to marry because of the debts they had.  She didn't really have a choice of whether to marry or not.

I also thought the take on this story with the fairies was interesting.  Fairies were made out to be dangerous and while we never really see how dangerous they can be (we just hear about it), it added a little suspense because in the back of your mind, there was always the possibility of something bad happening because Ash was with a fairy.

I also appreciated that bisexuality or even being lesbian was treated normally.  Like we treat straight people in our society.  It's normal and okay.  No one had to mention it and no one talks about it.  It just stands out to readers because... it's normal, but we still spend a lot of time convincing people that it's as normal as being heterosexual.  Because when we come out in our society, people are often afraid to say who they are and straight people don't have to go through this.  In this society, it's okay and accepted by everyone to fall in love with someone who is the same sex as you.  And also someone who is not the same sex.  It's okay to love.

Overall, this was an okay read.  This is definitely meant for a younger audience, so it's possible that middle school or possibly early high school readers would eat up this book.

I give 'Ash':
Thanks for Reading!


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Review of 'Orange is the New Black' by Piper Kerman

"With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before.

But that past has caught up with her.

Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424-- one of the millions of people who disappear 'down the rabbit hole' of the American penal system.

From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules.  She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.

Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman's story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison-- why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they're there."

I have watched every season of "Orange is the New Black" available on Netflix twice over.  I am absolutely fascinated with the goings on in prison, though I never want to find out first hand what it's like.  Vicarious experience is good enough for me.  When I heard that this show was originally a book, I made it my mission to get this book for myself.  That was about a year and a half or two years ago, but I finally got my hands on a copy and I devoured this book.

I was surprised by just how different from the show it is.  I mean, the Netflix show gets quite violent, especially in the later seasons.  It can get downright scary.  In the show, particularly during season 2, if I remember correctly, there is gang violence within the prison and things begin to fall apart around the prison itself.  But there isn't any of that in this book.  Definitely not the gang violence and very minimally about the prison falling apart.  Even Alex from the show plays a minimal part in this book  This book is mainly about the women in prison that Piper meets and how she keeps it together during her year-long stint in prison.  She ruminates a little about the injustices that befall our prison system.

Recently in my Feminist Philosophy class, we've been talking about the Prison Industrial Complex-- that is, unfairly compensated for prison labor... it's basically slave labor, prisoners are paid so little.  But worst of all, there is a racial imbalance-- far more people of color are imprisoned than white people.  You see these inequalities and you get to know the people in the prison rather than simply know the crimes that were committed.  One thing that I liked was that it wasn't accepted to ask what someone was in prison for.  Sure, some people would share that with others, but not before you got to know the person.  You'd learn what their hopes and dreams for the future were and whether or not they were married or otherwise romantically attached to someone and whether or not they had children waiting for them at home.  Then they might tell you that they were in prison for a drug-related crime... and then you'd be faced with feeling of, "That's it?" because you realize that, in fact, the people in prison have worth.  You realize this in a way you can't usually in real life unless you genuinely know someone who happens to be in prison.  We tend to lump all prisoners together and not really think about the crime committed.  We tend to think that all prisoners who are sent to prison belong there and that is that.

I'm not saying that prisons need to be abolished, because I do think there are some people who need to be locked up (although not in solitary because that causes more problems than it solves) such as murderers, rapists, and people who are abusive and sadistic to other people and animals.  But I do think this book puts you in a place to think about why we put people in prison and whether or not our prison system is set up in an ethical way because it forces you to think of prisoners as people, if that makes sense.

One thing I preferred in the show was that the other women in the prison are the front runners of the story and that they get to tell their own stories.  That even further forces you to think of prisoners as people with specific identities.  I suppose this would be hard to do in a book though, especially the way Piper Kerman has set up this story.

I see this book as Piper recognizing the privilege that she holds in prison.  She takes time throughout the book, as opposed to just once, to acknowledge that she has advantages that many of the other prisoners don't.  She has friends and family that visit her every week.  She has a decent amount of money that she can spend within the prison for day-to-day necessities.  She has opportunities that others don't have.  I thought she struck an interesting balance between checking her privilege as a white, educated woman and sharing her experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading 'Orange is the New Black' because it was so honest and highlighted a part of our society that people tend to ignore except on a superficial level.

I give 'Orange is the New Black':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, March 14, 2016

A Review of 'Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran' by Azadeh Moaveni

Note: This is one of the few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"As far back as she can remember, Azadeh Moaveni has felt at odds with her tangled identity as an Iranian-American.  In suburban America, Azadeh lived in two worlds.  At hoe, she was the daughter of the Iranian exile community, serving tea, clinging to tradition, and dreaming of Tehran.  Outside, she was a California girl who practiced yoga and listened to Madonna.  For years, she ignored the tense standoff between her two cultures.  But college magnified the clash between Iran and America, and after graduating, she moved to Iran as a journalist.  This is the story of her search for identity, between two cultures cleaved apart by a violent history.  It is also the story of Iran, a restive land lost in the twilight of its revolution.

Moaveni's homecoming falls in the heady days of the country's reform movement, when young people demonstrated in the streets and shouted for the Islamic regime to end.  In these tumultuous times, she struggles to build a life in a dark country, wholly unlike the luminous, saffron and turquoise-tinted Iran of her imagination.  As she leads us through the drug-soaked, underground parties of Tehran, into the hedonistic lives of young people desperate for change, Moaveni paints a rare portrait of Iran's rebellious next generation.  The landscape of her Tehran-- ski slopes, fashion shows, malls and  cafes-- is populated by a cast of young people whose exuberance and despair brings the modern reality of Iran to vivid life."

I read this for my Creative Nonfiction class this semester.  We had to give a memoir presentation and this was one of the books we could choose from.  Some unknown force has been drawing me back to the Middle East.  Morocco was just a small taste, but even so... I have this desire to know more and to see more.  Since I can't physically go there right now, this is how I will travel.

I know very little about Iran and even less about the problems that it faced at the time this book was written and continues to face today.  This was a nice way to see what life-- every day life-- is like in this place.  Even though Azadeh possesses an Iranian passport, she knows very little about what it's like to be Iranian and identify with that label on a really deep and complex level.  Being Iranian and living away from Iran leads to a very different identity than someone who is Iranian and is actively creating a life for themselves in Iran.  It was fascinating to see her form her identity and develop as an Iranian person and see how people reacted to her because she wasn't there during the country's greatest struggle.  Her family was in a position of power at the time of the revolution, so when it became too dangerous to stay, they were able to leave and many others didn't have this same opportunity.

My favorite part and also the part that made me sad was how women got along in this society.  Iran, at least at the time this book was written-- I can't be sure about now-- there were very strict rules.  Women needed to wear hijab and dress modestly at all times.  It was safer to travel with another person, but that other person can't be a boyfriend, because that's not proper.  One story that really stuc out to me was when Azadeh was out with friends, two of whom were a couple, and they were stopped by police.  They hadn't done anything wrong to provoke the police's attention, but they were stopped any way.  The police asked Azadeh's friend if the man she was next to was her boyfriend.  She has to lie-- no, he's not her boyfriend.  The police then says (and I paraphrase) "Alright, then you wouldn't mind if he got hurt" and proceeds to beat him up in order to get a reaction out of this girl and reveal once and for all that this guy is her boyfriend and they are doing something against the rules.  The girl does not make a sound or have a reaction of any kind.  It's heartbreaking that women aren't trusted at all.  Another story was Azadeh's experience when she found the gym for women.  They would remove their hijabs in order to exercise and they spoke openly about any subject in a way they couldn't if they were out in the city.  Women can have a life of their own, but with great difficulty and behind many closed doors.  It's very sad.

This is a book that I liked a little bit more once I started getting into the book, but it did seem like Azadeh spent a lot of time whining about her life in the U.S.  In hindsight, it's possible that she just needed a little perspective and living in Iran, this country where you have to watch your step and is dangerous in the face of revolution, was just what she needed.

I don't know if I will ever read this book again, but I look forward to reading more about Iran in the future.  It's a country I never thought that I would be even remotely interested in.

I give 'Lipstick Jihad':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Review of 'Bossypants' by Tina Fey

Note: this is one of a few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"Before Liz Lemon, before 'Weekend Update,' before 'Sarah Palin,' Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher.  She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey's story can be told.  From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live, from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon-- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy."

This book has been on my radar for quite some time, but it was only until a few months ago that I started to read this book.  After listening to Amy Poehler's memoir, I was a little disappointed, but Tina Fey's book was quirky in ways that Amy's wasn't.  It's a little hard to explain.  I hate to lump Amy and Tina together, but I'm going to do it any way.

I appreciated the path that she took to get to where she is today.  What was interesting to me is that she came from a background where she wasn't the best performer, but she loved what she was doing while she worked her way up in the improv world, making it into Second City and into Saturday Night Live in not the most expected way.  She didn't have the predisposition to be in entertainment, but she found what she loved and chased it down mercilessly.  I think that's admirable.  Certainly there were hiccups along the way, but who doesn't have those?

I loved Tina Fey's views on motherhood towards the end of the book.  As someone who is not a mother but is the age where everyone around her is magically having children it seems, I've thought a lot about what it means to be a mother.  I love that she took time to be with her daughter and didn't apologize for it.  I love that she kept pursuing her work and didn't let her identity split between being a mother and being a writer/performer.  This is a very real struggle I've noticed for mothers, maybe even especially fairly new mothers.  You want to be there for your child, watch them grow and support them, but you can't completely lose yourself in the process.  So how do you strike a good balance?

I wish that I had written about this book a little bit sooner or taken notes on it after I read it... I'm having a little trouble remembering my thoughts and feelings on this book.  I do know that it was a fascinating read.  I enjoy reading the stories of well-known people to see how they got to the position they are in life.  I love hearing their wisdom.  Tina Fey has an interesting life and is full of wisdom that I can only aspire to have as I get older.  You will not regret reading this book.

I give 'Bossypants':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Review of 'The Miniaturist' by Jessie Burton (Audio Book)

Note: This is one of the few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"'There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed...'

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt.  But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming.  Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-- leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home.  To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-- an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways...

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household.  But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-- and fear-- the escalating dangers that await them all.  In this repressively pious society where gold is worshiped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe.  Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them.  Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation... or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth."

I have been looking for more books that take place in the Netherlands or at least are about the Dutch.  When I heard about this book, I was so excited, especially after taking a Dutch history class and learning more about this time period, when the Dutch East India Trading Company was basically the center of the Netherlands' rise to economic power during the Golden Age.

I loved walking through Amsterdam with the main character, Nella, because even though we were in Amsterdam at very different times, I still managed to recognize some places and I could kind of imagine where in the city she was.  I knew where the old city hall was because I walked through it with my French sister Marie when she came to visit me.  I know what the canals look like and I miss them, even just a little bit, every single day.  This was a very nostalgic read for me, if you can't tell.

There were a couple parts of this story that just jumped out and surprised me.  Since this is a blog where I'm not very good about hiding spoilers (books are meant to be talked about), you've been warned...

I didn't expect Nella's husband to be gay, but I was so drawn in once Nella's life possessed this amount of danger and adventure (because otherwise she didn't do very much... women who married into families like the one she married into didn't have to do a lot during this time).  I knew that it wasn't seen as a good thing to be gay, but I don't think I fully realized just how dangerous it was.  For the person who is gay, you can be killed and for the family, you're severely disgraced.  But it was scary how Johannes' sister, Marin, pulled Nella aside and told her that she could tell absolutely no one and that they had known about Johannes even before he and Nella were married.  They wanted to provide her a comfortable life so that Johannes could be spared.  That's how desperate life was for gay and lesbian people.  It's shocking, though not surprising, if that makes sense.

Race relations were another tense area of this book.  I think what surprises me about the areas of race and sexuality in this book is that I'm seeing how these people are treated as opposed to being told that "This is how black/gay people were treated at this time."  It's like being a witness, even though the story is fictional.  Being a witness is scary, to say the least.  Towards the end of the book, we find out that Marin is pregnant (astonishingly, she was able to hide her entire pregnancy... I don't understand...) and when she gives birth, it's clear that of the people the family knows there's only one potential father: Otto, the manservant who happens to be black.  He is no where to be seen at the end of the novel because it's not allowed for him to have any kind of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, with a white woman.  It's dangerous for him to be around.  And I think that that really hit home with me too, seeing and in a way being part of the environment that was so dangerous for him.  Not much has changed...

This is a book that I can't wait to find and put on my personal shelf (if I ever find the space to do so).

I give 'The Miniaturist':
Thanks for Reading!


Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Review of 'Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery & A Very Strange Adventure' by Lissa Evans

"Enter a wonderful world filled with real magic, mystery... and danger.

As if being small for his age and also having S. Horten as his name isn't bad enough, now 10-year-old Stuart is forced to move far away from all his friends.  But on his very first day in his new home, Stuart's swept up in an extraordinary adventure: the quest to find his great-uncle Tony-- a famous magician who literally disappeared off the face of the earth-- and Tony's marvelous, long-lost workshop.  Along the way, Stuart reluctantly accepts help from the annoying triplets next door... and encounters trouble from another magician who's also desperate to get hold of Tony's treasures.

A quirky, smart, charming page-turner, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms will enchant young readers-- as well as teachers, librarians, and parents."

I am back with my fifth graders!  This was the first book that we finished reading.  I was attracted to this book by the cover art and the art that appears at almost every chapter.  What kept me reading was, even though I had an idea what was going to happen next a lot of the time, I always wondered how the characters would handle the next situation thrown at them.

I didn't particularly care for the characters... they felt rather flat to me.  Stuart could go from zero to sixty in a flash if the situation were right, the triplets fell into the stereotype that all triplets are the same person times three, Stuart's father was annoying and had unnecessarily complicated syntax when he spoke, and his mother was just distant the whole time... overall, I'm not terribly impressed.  But the plot was interesting because it challenged me to always think a step ahead.  I know my fifth graders appreciated this challenge too.  They really liked the book and when I told them that there was a sequel, they demanded to read it next (which we're not, but perhaps before the semester ends).

This book is very much for younger readers, but as the person reading the book with them and talking about it book-club style, it was still a nice read.  Just maybe not something that I would feel compelled to read again or put on my own shelf at home.

I give 'Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms':
Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Review of 'I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives' by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda

Note: this is one of a few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment.  Everyone in Caitlin's class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place.  All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of-- so she chose it.

Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter.  There were only ten letters, and forty kids in her class.  But he was the top student, so he got the first one.

The letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends-- and better people-- through letters.  Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it."

I remember picking up this book over the summer when I went on a walk with a little girl and her adorable dog.  My home city and my adopted one are both cool because they have these things called Little Libraries scattered throughout the city in front of businesses and private homes.  I once saw one that looked like the TARDIS from Doctor Who!  But any way, I happened upon this book on our walk in her neighborhood.

This book starts with a simple class project of writing to pen pals around the world.  Each student in Caitlin's class picks a country and writes a letter to someone their age.  They don't know a name, they don't know if they're writing to a boy or a girl... the person on the other side of their correspondence is a mystery.  Caitlin's friends all write to someone in part of Europe.  Caitlin was drawn to Zimbabwe and it was the best decision she ever made for her life.

Martin Ganda was at the top of his class, but struggled to stay in school financially (since he had to pay to go to school).  He was lucky to receive Caitlin's letter.  Had his grades been lower or if he had failed a test or two, he might not have gotten Caitlin's letter.  One thing that I love about Martin is his curiosity towards Caitlin's life in the U.S.  He never complained to Caitlin about the problems he and his family were facing, even though days would go by where his mother would give up food so that her children could live.  When Caitlin asked to see a picture of him, he went and fo und the only picture his family had of him and he sent it to her.  He didn't stop and tell her his situation and that pictures were very expensive.  It's awfully big of him, especially since this is a facade that can be difficult to keep up, and eventually it did become too hard to keep a secret.  

It felt a little odd that Caitlin's family was supporting Martin's family.  I know that they were financially able to support Martin's family and that it was something that they wanted to do... I also know that that helped change Martin and his family's lives forever and that they were extremely grateful... but I have this idea in my head, maybe from something at church where we were talking about relief work and how the best way to help someone is to teach the people in the area that is being relieved a skill.  You can feed people fish and they won't go hungry now, but if you teach them how to fish, they'll never be hungry.  That sort of mentality.  This story didn't match up with this idea in my brain.  But I think what made me feel a lot better was that that support shifted from Caitlin's family to Martin as he finished school and started to go out and show the world what a gifted guy he is.  He's ridiculously good with numbers!

I admired Martin's drive throughout the story.  His drive to not only do well in school, but stay in school and get caught up when he fell so far behind from not being able to pay his tuition to stay in school.  He was resourceful and extremely motivated in a way that a number of students in first world countries (I'm sorry, I don't know a better term) just aren't.  We take our education for granted, whether that is the education we're legally obligated to receive or whether it's higher education at a university, technical, or trade school that we opt to receive.  That was a big thought that ran through my head as I was reading this book.  

I haven't really had a successful pen pal relationship in my life, but this book made me think a lot about the international relationships that I have made and how important those have been in shaping how I think about the world.  It's so cool to read about international connections like the ones that Martin and Caitlin made.  This was a really great read.

I give 'I Will Always Write Back':
Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Review of 'The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures' by Anne Fadiman

Note: This is one of a few reviews leftover from 2015 that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"Lia Lee was born in 1981 to a family of recent Hmong immigrants, and soon developed symptoms of epilepsy.  By 1988 she was living at home but was brain dead after a tragic cycle of misunderstand, over-medication, and culture clash: 'What the doctors viewed as clinical efficiency the Hmong viewed as frosty arrogance.'  The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, written with the deepest of human feeling.  Sherwin Nuland said of the account, 'There are no villains in Fadiman's tale, just s there are no heroes.  People are presented as she saw them, in their humility and their frailty-- and their nobility."

I had a hard time with this book at times.  I loved learning about Hmong culture and it was interesting to read about how Hmong culture and people are adapting to life away from Laos and Cambodia (because that's largely what this book was about-- the people who emigrated with their families away from the places they called home).  It was incredible to read about how people, especially the children, but even the adults, straddled two cultures at once and managed to keep the culture they brought with them intact, though with some adjustments.

I leave this book thinking everyone is at least a little bit at fault.  I'm disappointed in the hospital for not putting translators at a higher priority, especially when they are fully aware of the demographics of the community that they serve.  They knew that there had recently been a huge influx in the Hmong population.  Instead, what was happening was that nurses aides and technicians at the hospital were being hired, especially if they could speak Hmong, and then they were being used as translators on top of the jobs they were originally hired to do.  I don't know how anyone can be expected to do their hospital tech job and then stop that work and go translate for a family and be expected to do well at all of these things and also, I think, not be properly compensated for doing these two jobs for the hospital.  Both of these jobs are important, but they require a lot of time and different skill sets that aren't necessarily related to each other.  It's not fair to those people.

On the other hand, it also bothers me that the Lee family didn't know even basic words of English that might have helped the doctors diagnose Lia.  If not before the first visit, at least for the subsequent visits before she had an established medical record and a reputation.  Words like "hot," "shake," or "asleep" might have helped the doctors know that she was unconscious and that she had been convulsing (for how long, that's something that the doctors would have to figure out, but at least they'd have some clues).  I think it was especially important to have these words, especially since Lia kept being admitted into the emergency room again and again for the same problems.

The hospital also got too frustrated with the Lee family.  I know that they didn't have a good amount of background knowledge on Hmong culture and beliefs, but you'd think the doctors and nurses would glean that their culture was different than the one the hospital and many of the staff are part of.  Clearly, they can't handle Lia Lee's case in the same way as they can with white patients.  I noticed that towards the end of the book, they had worked themselves into kind of a routine with Lia and as a result, sometimes they became careless.

The family is also quite stubborn.  I became frustrated with some of their interactions with the hospital.  My feeling is that when you come to the hospital, you're recognizing that the situation at hand is bigger than what you can handle and so you go to the doctors who are much more equipped to handle these big situations.  The patient and/or their family ultimately gets to make the choice what happens, but it's the doctors job to use their knowledge to advise the patient and their family in order to help them get well.  It's not the family's job to tell the doctors that they're not doing their job.  That is my biggest point of contention with the Lee family.

As far as language is concerned in this book, I was happy to have my soon to be mother-in-law to talk to about this, as she had read this book for one of her college classes (as I was supposed to have done in my anthropology class, but didn't until a couple years later).  At one of her former churches, they had a decent-sized Koren (Kuh-Ren) population and so the church offered English classes to help these families accomplish basic tasks like grocery shopping and going on a doctor's visit (or other things like that).  I can't remember the question that she asked, but it was something about why they didn't learn some English a little sooner.  Not a question asked in an accusing way, but one that was asked out of curiosity and that was how it was taken.  The answer was basically that they lost their home and they didn't want to lose their culture and native language too.  To me, that's makes sense, but I am having trouble marrying my thoughts on these separate matters together as one coherent thought on the matter.  It seems that there are no winners in this situation and this is something that I need to accept and take into consideration.  I've determined that it's impossible to pick one side, especially when you don't completely agree with how they conducted themselves or how they contradict the "opposing team," so to speak.

I would recommend this book if you don't know a lot about Hmong culture and their history and I would also recommend it if you need a huge issue to chew over for a while.  I don't feel done with this book.  It's given me a lot to think about, absolutely.

I give this book:
Thanks for Reading!