Sunday, September 25, 2016

#39 [2016/CBR8] "The Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka

I've been interested in learning more about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II for a while now. After reading The Japanese Lover earlier this year, my interest was piqued, and then I heard about The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka,

Julie Otsuka tells the stories of Japanese picture brides immigrating to America in the early 1900's. What makes this book unique but also challenging is that she writes in first person plural. The viewpoint is from an unknown number of various Japanese girls and women. Some are named and some of those names are repeated but there is no through story line or any one main character.

The book starts with the women on their cramped ships on their way across the ocean, and beginning their new lives in a strange, new land. "Because if our husbands had told us the truth in their letters--they were not silk traders, they were fruit pickers, they did not live in large, many-roomed houses, they lived in tents and in barns and out of doors, in the fields, beneath the sun and the stars--we never would have come to America to do the work that no self-respecting American would do." (28)

The story continues as they settle into their new country, working as maids and gardeners, harvesting crops, farming, and creating small businesses. The women have children and deal with the attitudes of their second-generation-immigrant children. The story continues until after the outbreak of WWII, when the suspicion and fear tear from them everything they've worked so hard to achieve.

"The rumors began to reach us on the second day of the war. There was talk of a list. Some people being taken away in the middle of the night. A banker who went to work and never came home. A barber who disappeared during his lunch break." (81)

Overall, I am very impressed with this book. Otsuka packs a lot into a relatively short novel, and I love that the perspective is from a historically very underrepresented group: both women and Japanese immigrants. It's a look at history that is not in American high school history books. This is a book that has stuck with me and continues to make me think.

I do have mixed feelings about Otsuka writing in first person plural. I realize that it allowed Otsuka to tell a much wider range of experiences than she would have been able to if she had focused on only a couple of main characters. I did appreciate this wider range of perspectives--especially on a topic that I knew so little of. The experiences of these women were so varied that many experiences would have been lost if she'd only told one story. I was also impressed by Otsuka's ability to write in this style. However, at its worst, I felt like I was reading a series of lists, and it did make the story drag a little in the middle. In addition, there is an emotional connection to the characters that is lost when you are reading about a series of strangers that you never really get to know. I liked this book and I'm glad I read it, but I'm also interested in reading a more personal story about this topic.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

#38 [2016/CBR8] "We Should All Be Feminists" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was a girl and arguing with a male friend of hers, he called her a feminist in a derisive tone. She had never heard the word before but assumed it must be something bad. However, unlike many people who deny their connection with feminism because of ignorance and social pressure, Adichie went home and looked it up. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Really, not a bad thing after all.

I became a huge fan of Adichie after reading Americanah, which I loved. When I saw that she'd written a tract called We Should All Be Feminists (2014), I immediately knew I wanted to read it. It turns out that We Should All Be Feminists is a modified version of a TED talk that Adichie delivered in December of 2012. It is a very quick read and has all the trademarks of Adichie with insightful personal stories, and clear, progressive, common sense ideals. It's definitely worth reading.

One fascinating trait of Adichie's writing is that she understands American culture but also has the perspective from her own Nigerian culture. She compares and contrasts the realities of the two, and it is especially interesting when she does this with race and gender. In many ways, the United States is much more progressive than Nigeria, when it comes to the role of women in society. With many of Adichie's examples of inequality coming from Nigeria, I often felt grateful that I lived in the United States. Yet Adichie still discussed interesting differences with gender roles in the two countries.

"What struck me--with her and with many other female American friends I have--is how invested they are in being "liked." How they have been raised to believe that their being likable is very important and that this "likable" trait is a specific thing. And that specific thing does not include showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly....We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them." (23)

Adichie also argues that both men and women will ultimately benefit from women's equality and less enforcement of strict gender roles.

"We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage...And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller."

Adichie is a thoughtful, progressive writer with a unique perspective. This book was a fast read and recommended to everyone.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

#37 [2016/CBR8] "It Ended Badly" by Jennifer Wright

Like most of the books I read these days, I discovered It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History (2015) through a Cannonball Review. It sounded like a fascinating, fun read, and it was immediately available at my library. That's really all I needed, but knowing that one of the break-up stories was about Edith Wharton was probably what had me picking up this book so quickly. I love Wharton's writing, and I wondered if I would be able to see any of her personal life (which I knew almost nothing about) in any of her books.

Wright's writing is entertaining and easy to follow. The stories feel like a gossip session. "Did you hear about the time that [insert crazy story here]." And if you weren't particularly interested in one of the people, you didn't have to wait long until you had an entirely new historical era and topic. Sometimes these stories are set up as lessons or consolations for those recently suffering from a breakup. Most often, the consolation is: no matter how badly you felt or acted during your last breakup, you could not have been as bad as these couples. However, these thirteen stories are so far from our reality, that the "lessons" were a little bit of a stretch. A common theme throughout these stories is mentally ill people with a lot of power.

It is probably not surprising that I found Edith Wharton's story of love and woe the most interesting. Wharton grew up in an incredibly sexually repressed household--Wharton's mother would not even tell her anything of sex the night before her marriage. Her marriage was probably celibate or almost celibate and ended in divorce, But in 1907, when Edith Wharton was forty five, she had her one and only love affair. Morton Fullerton was a journalist and a player of the highest order. Like many players, he was charismatic and very good at sex. But he also had a sociopathic tendency to attach people to him and then leave them without a word. And he did this to Edith Wharton.

After a couple of mind-blowing months, Fullerton disappeared, and Wharton sent him sad, longing, and forgiving letters. 
                  I re-read your letters the other day, & I will not believe that the man who wrote them did not feel them, & did not know enough of the woman to whom they were written to trust to her love & courage, rather than leave her to this aching uncertainty...
                  You told me once I should write better for this experience of loving. I felt it to be so, & I came home so fixed by the desire that my work should please you! But this incomprehensible silence, the sense of your utter indifference to everything that concerns me, has stunned me. It has come so suddenly...
When Fullerton continues to ignore her and treat her like crap, Wharton comes to a heartening, self-empowering conclusion.
                  What you wish, apparently, is to take of my life the inmost & uttermost that a woman--a woman like me--can give, for an hour, now and then, when it suits you, & when the hour is over, to leave me out of your mind & out of your life as a man leaves the companion who has afforded him a transient distraction. I think I am worth more than that, or worth, perhaps I had better say, something quite different.

What a sad story. And what an asshole Fullerton was. I'm torn between being pissed at Fullerton for causing such heartbreak in such an insensitive way, and being grateful that Wharton could at least experience love. This story made me want to re-read The Age of Innocence and read Wharton's biography.

I only had some minor complaints about this book. I found myself often wishing for more historical context. Wright uses a lot of primary sources, which were fascinating to read, but I wanted to know more. Often, Wright would say, "some people think this happened and some people think this happened" and just leave it. She seems to know a lot about history. I would have preferred at least her opinion as to what was more likely. Any of the stories or people I found interesting, I felt like I needed more information to get a complete picture of what was going on. Also, I enjoyed Wright's tone, but sometimes her jokes took me out of the history she was trying to tell and served only to distract.

Finally, Wright said that "Anne Boleyn is my personal breakup role model." (71) She admires Boleyn for her composure and willingness to take the high road at her death. Indeed, her actions made her a more memorable historical figure. Standing before her execution, Anne Boleyn said, "...but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord." (70) Seriously? If Anne Boleyn had been sarcastic, I would have enjoyed this speech much more. Sure, taking the high road and not speaking badly of your ex is the best way to go in normal break-ups. But when your spouse is a hypocritical monster about to kill you, I think you can go ahead and speak your mind.

Friday, August 19, 2016

#36 [2016/CBR8] "The Year We Fell Down" by Sarina Bowen

I picked up The Year We Fell Down (2014) ages ago, when it was either really cheap or free on Amazon, but I never got around to reading it. Months later, a day came when my options were few and my urge for some light reading was strong. I vaguely remember not being too excited about college kids, hockey, and wheelchairs, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

Corey Callahan is nervous because she's just starting her first year at a college that seems remarkably like Yale. She is away from home for the first time, but she's also dealing with the stress of a recent accident that's left her in a wheelchair. With nerve damage making it difficult to use her legs, Corey's been through tons of physical therapy. She's had to learn how to get out of bed, get dressed, and get around in a wheelchair. And now she has to learn how to navigate her new campus. Not only that, Corey was a star hockey player. She's lost the ability to do the activity that she enjoyed and excelled at more than anything.

Corey is put in a more accessible room on the first floor of a dorm away from the other first year students. She has a roommate, Dana, and she has Adam Hartley across the hall. Adam Hartley is the sexy upperclassmen, star hockey stud, who is also in the accessible dorm because he broke his leg and is stuck on crutches.

Hartley and Callahan (they call each other by their last names, which I found very confusing because I could never keep them straight) bond over their shared love of hockey and hockey video games. They both have so much trouble getting around that they end up spending a lot of time together. Hartley is devoted to his girlfriend, Stacia, the original mean girl who is studying abroad for the semester, but Corey almost immediately develops a pretty heavy crush on Hartley that only gets stronger.

There were a lot of things that I really liked about this book. First, it was unique and interesting to have a heroine with a permanent disability. I thought Bowen did a good job with Corey's frustrations at her limitations. I especially related to Corey's self consciousness and need to be independent. It felt pretty realistic.

Secondly, I really liked the relationship between Corey and Hartley. They were actually friends who spent time together and got to know each other. Of course Corey developed an immediate crush on Hartley, and it just made sense that it would take a while for Hartley to get to know Corey and realize what he felt about her. It made even more sense when his attraction to Stacia was explained later in the book. Their first hook up and Corey's reaction to it seemed exactly like something that has probably happened countless times in college dorm rooms. Also, I loved Corey and Hartley's first date. It fit their relationship perfectly.

***KIND OF SPOILERY?***Finally, I grew to like Corey's character so much that it almost transcended the romance. Sure, I wanted her and Hartley to get together, but when things were looking grim between the two, I knew Corey would be all right. Right when she was down at her lowest, she didn't wallow in self pity. She pulled herself up and went out for the inner tube water polo team, exposing her weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a way that she had always tried to avoid. She called it her Bravest Day Ever, and it was one of the most moving moments in the book for me. I was so happy for her.

I'm definitely going to be reading more of Sarina Bowen. Unfortunately, I cannot find any more of The Ivy Years series at the library. I did download Coming in From the Cold by Sarina Bowen, but it's a different series, and I don't know anything about it. Are some better than others?

Monday, August 15, 2016

#35 [2016/CBR8] "The Gutsy Girl" by Caroline Paul

I first heard of Caroline Paul because she was one of the first women firefighters on the San Francisco Fire Department, and she wrote a book about it (Fighting Fire, 1998). I bought the book, planning on reading it, but haven't gotten to it yet. Once I went through my own fire department academy, I wasn't too keen on going through the experience again--even through the eyes of another. But then I heard of another book by Caroline Paul, and I was curious enough to read it right away. The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure (2016), illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton, seems to be geared toward tweens and middle school students.

The Gutsy Girl is a wholly positive book that encourages young girls to get out of their comfort zones and be adventurous. Although Paul sometimes defines getting out of your comfort zone as doing anything that scares you, including raising your hand in class, the book is focused on outdoor and physical adventures. In addition, the book is a celebration of groundbreaking women in a number of fields. Paul uses stories and role models to say, "look at all this cool stuff women and girls have done, you can do it too, just be confident and don't worry about failure."

The book is split into chapters with short stories of Paul's life interspersed with small blurbs of inspiring girls and women today and throughout history. At the end of each chapter are some adventure tips and ideas for journaling. The tone is lighthearted and encouraging. It is clear that Paul is very aware of some of the factors limiting women today and is doing her best to encourage young women to succeed in areas often dominated by men.

Paul's stories about her life are more about teaching lessons in overcoming fear and failure than crowing about her own accomplishments. However, reading between the lines, it is obvious that Paul is a remarkable person who has done a lot in her life. She rowed competitively at Stanford(?), went paragliding in South America as a teenager, was invited to be on the National luge team, and broke down boundaries as a woman firefighter.

My favorite part of the book was just reading about Paul's life. She is a clear, entertaining writer. The small blurbs of inspiring girls and women interspersed throughout the book were sometimes distracting, but they also added a new dimension that was helpful overall. These inspiring women ranged from Ashima Shiraishi, a 15-year-old New Yorker and one of the best climbers, male or female, in the world right now, to Annie Taylor. Annie Taylor was the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Even more remarkable was the fact that this was 1901 and Annie Taylor was sixty-three years old. Desperate for money, she designed her own barrel and survived. Unfortunately for her, the press was not interested in an old woman going over Niagara Falls, and it wasn't until a man did the same feat ten years later that he got the attention she deserved.

I appreciate Paul's writing, and I appreciate that Paul is trying to inspire girls to not let fear or boundaries stop them. It's hard for me to imagine what I would have thought of this book if I had read it in middle school--if it would have inspired me. I was a very different person back then. I hope that a young girl can read it today and be inspired by the many possibilities out there.

#34 [2016/CBR8] "How Bad Do You Want It?" by Matt Fitzgerald

I'm so far from an elite athlete, even the comparison is comical. Yet I've pushed myself often enough and hard enough while running, rowing, or cycling, that I have some understanding of the pain of pushing past your limits. So, I was intrigued when I heard about this new book, How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle (2015) by Matt Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald's main thesis (supported by lots of science) is that your mind is the limiting factor in athletic endurance performance. It is your perceived effort that limits what you are able to accomplish. As you get fitter, your actual and perceived effort will decrease for the same amount of work. But you can also decrease your perceived effort and increase performance without any actual fitness gains. Fitzgerald looks at the personal stories and important races of a number of different athletes, including runners, cyclists, triathletes, and rowers. He uses each story to exemplify a certain principle in the science of endurance racing.

Since I'm into this kind of thing, I found all of the stories fascinating. They were often tales of immense talent coupled with frustration and failure inevitably ending with an inspiring comeback or win. It's inspiring stuff. The science is also fairly interesting. The main problem I had with this book, though, is that Fitzgerald tried too hard to match the science with the story of his athletes. The book would have been rather dry and boring without the inspiring wins, so I definitely understand his motivation. However, the success of one athlete in one race depends on so many factors, many of them still unknowable and unquantifiable, including who the competition is and how the competition is feeling. I feel that the book lost some of its credibility in its effort to tie everything together a little too neatly.

For example, Jenny Barringer was a remarkable young runner who had easily won every cross country race she'd run that season. But she lost it at her final and most important race. After feeling dizzy during her warm-up, she literally collapsed in the middle of the race. Although she was able to eventually get back up and finish, she came in near the end. Fitzgerald used Jenny Barringer's story to show that you had to expect and even brace yourself for the pain you were going to feel in the race. Barringer apparently had so little competition in the races leading up to her big one, that she was not prepared to push herself to the limit. I don't buy this explanation at all and think she was suffering from some unknown, physical problem. Why did Barringer feel dizzy during her warm up? She shouldn't be feeling bad in the warm-up if it was the unusually hard competition that made Barringer collapse. In addition, usually, if you're not prepared to push yourself very hard, you slow down, you don't physically collapse. No one knows exactly what happened that day, but I was not convinced by Fitzgerald's explanation.

I found this same problem with a number of Fitzgerald's other anecdotes. Greg Le Mond came back from almost dying after being shot with a shotgun. In order to win the Tour de France, he had to race the time trial of his life. Fitzgerald used Le Mond to show that athletes often improve more with time-based goals than with those that are more general. However, Le Mond's situation does not seem to fit this mold. He started his time trial before his rival and did not have a clear time-based goal. There are probably thousands of reasons won that day, but I was not convinced it was because Le Mond had a time-based goal.

Finally, I did find the chapters on Thomas Voeckler and Willie Stewart directly on point. When Voeckler had an audience and unexpected success, he biked much better than expected and was able to push himself harder than he ever had before. Willie Stewart was able to use the plasticity of the brain to learn how to swim differently, and very successfully, after losing his arm in an accident.

After being a huge cycling fan for a number of years, I have become quite cynical when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. I'm sure there are clean athletes out there, but when I read a story about an athlete who improves dramatically, I can't help but wonder. I'm not sure, but I can guess that a way to decrease perceived effort is to take performance enhancing drugs. This is not the subject of this book, and it's probably unfair to expect Fitzgerald to open up that can of worms, but I found the question consistently distracting.

I did enjoy reading the individual stories in this book, and I learned something about the science of endurance racing. However, if you are looking for a guidebook to improve your training, this is too general to be useful in that regard.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

#33 [2016/CBR8] "Ridiculous!" by D.L. Carter

I would occasionally roll my eyes at this book, thinking, oh my god, this plot or this character is ridiculous. But then I would remember the name of the book and know that I couldn't really complain about a book being ridiculous when its called Ridiculous! (2012). Really, what did I expect? I have never read anything by D.L. Carter before, but this one was fun and interesting, so I'd be willing to read another.

Millicent Boarder, her two sisters, and her mother have lived under the miserly and disagreeable thumb of their cousin Antony North since their father died. Treated like uncompensated servants, their situation becomes even more precarious when Mr. North suddenly dies of a fever. In a rather desperate attempt to protect her mother and sisters from homelessness and destitution, Millicent dresses up as Antony. She realizes the risks she's taking and knows she's in it for the long run, but it seems a small price to pay for freedom and happiness for her sisters and mother.

While on business as Mr. North, Millicent [hereafter referred to as Mr. North when she's dressed as him] comes across a recently overturned carriage holding Shoffer (a Duke? or some kind of high nobility) and his sister Beth. Mr. North helps them out and he and the Duke become friends, eventually becoming even closer friends. When Mr. North brings the Boarder sisters and their mother to London for a season, Shoffer, is remarkably helpful in finding them a place to stay and introducing them to society. Beth, very shy and uncertain, quickly becomes friends with the two Boarder sisters, and the two families spend quite a bit of time together. In order to pull off her scheme, Millicent turns Mr. North into something of a joke, a man of wit and parody who never takes himself too seriously. Mr. North quickly becomes the fashion of the London season. Although I sometimes thought Mr. North's antics were a little over the top, his carefree rejection of societal norms was often amusing and a large part of the book.

As I was reading this, I knew Shoffer and Mr. North would end up together, but it was hard to figure out how or when it was going to happen. In fact, the friendship between the two was so well built, and they spent so much platonic time together, that I sometimes had a hard time imagining them as a couple. I did appreciate that they really had a basis for their relationship. I also appreciated how, as Millicent took on the persona and responsibilities of Mr. North, her relationship with her sisters and mother changed. They spoke less often. Millicent did not want to burden her sisters with the financial issues she was dealing with, and her sisters often did not tell her what was going on in their life. Millicent also appreciated her freedom as a man so much, that, even if it had been safe to do so, she did not want to give it up.

I was not very impressed with the characters of Millicent's mother and Beth's grandmother. At some points, Millicent's mother seemed nothing short of idiotic. She would deliberately chastise Millicent in front of servants, possibly giving her secret away. But she was also put in charge of choosing all parties and social engagements for the family because she would make the right decisions? I found her unrealistic and inconsistent. Beth's grandmother, on the other hand, was a picture of pure evil without any explanation. No one likes a snob, but Beth's grandmother wasn't acting remotely rationally.

This book was a quick, fun read that kept me entertained. Although I had a couple of problems with it, the good definitely outweighs the not as good.