Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mothers and Daughters

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan

Just like Steven Spielberg films will often have some type of father-son theme or reference at one point or another, Amy Tan's novels tend to have mother-daughter relationships at their center. Ruth and her mother Lu-Ling have always had a complicated relationship. At the beginning of the novel, Lu-Ling is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Ruth begins to realize that she really hadn't been paying that much attention because as she spends more time with her mother, it becomes clear to her that her mother has been suffering from Alzheimer's for a while now. In fact, Lu-Ling suspected something was amiss a few years before when she wrote down her life story for her daughter.

As a result of the Alzheimer's, Ruth moves back in with her mother, reprioritizes her life, and begins to analyze her relationships and her interactions with people. She also finally has her mother's manuscript translated from the Chinese, where she discovers her mother's story, and some family secrets. Ruth learns the history of her grandmother, and also finally understands certain parts of her own upbringing.

Like one of the characters in The Joy Luck Club, Ruth makes quite a few discoveries about her mother - her previous marriage, for example, her true family background etc. Suddenly her mother's recent comments make sense rather than simply being signs of dementia.

It seems like lately I've read a lot of novels that are good, but when it comes down to it, I have nothing substantial to say about them. They are entertaining, I like the characters, and yet, there's little to discuss.

Codes, Paintings and Conspiracy Theories

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

I guess I've been on a little bit of a Tudor kick lately. The narrator of the novel is Meg, one of Sir Thomas More's wards. The back cover explains that Hans Holbein painted two portraits of the More family, separated by a period of six years or so, and these portraits end up serving as framing devices for the novel's time span. Part of the novel is dedicated to analyzing these portraits, so of course, I had to google to find out more and see how much of it actually seemed accurate. The book only had a sketch of the first portrait in its pages, but unfortunately not the second, though the cover was from a section of the painting as it turns out (that was one of the things that annoyed me about The DaVinci Code - Brown's referencing a bunch of paintings, and I wanted to see them to determine if the conclusions were out there, but supportable, especially for a novel or just complete bull). By googling, I discovered that the first portrait went missing and only the sketch remains.

Since this is a historical novel, the author was of course restrained by reality - Meg ends up marrying a man who is about 25 years older than her, and says she was in love with him since she was around 14 - this bugged me, but since the real Meg actually did marry this man, the author might as well make them a happy couple. More or less. Her husband, John Clement, has a big family secret in his background which really isn't that exciting (or even that hard to guess at, especially with a minor knowledge of English history), and doesn't really have much to do with the rest of the plot of the novel.

More interesting is the background that begins to affect the family. At the beginning of the novel, Sir Thomas More is at the height of his power (the new Chancellor) while by the end he has fallen out of favor due to his unwillingness to see the king as head of the church. Meg has problems reconciling her father, the intellectual and humanist with her father, the almost fanatical Christian who tortures and burns heretics (some of whom Meg sympathizes with).

Overall, it wasn't a bad read. Meg, as a character, is kind of a mix of modern day sensibilities and older values - sometimes, I just wanted to tell her to stop being so quiet and soft spoken, while other times, I thought there is no way a woman in her time would do that. Her husband is basically boring, and their relationship really didn't do it for me, but I liked the parts that explored other aspects of society at the time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Must Have Missed the Scary Thriller Part

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

During one of my Barnes visits while on R&R, I saw this in one of the special sections (new fiction or recommendations, probably), and decided to give it a try since it sounded slightly different from everything else I had in my hand up to that point. It was described as a psychological thriller so I was kind of curious.

The story started out promising enough but began to drag about half way through. The frame for the main story is that a man who has recently become a father attends therapy because he is unable to touch his son and unsuprisingly enough, his inability to do his share with the child rearing is putting a bit of a strain on his marriage. He begins keeping a journal of his childhood experiences, which serves as the main narrative. As a child, he began seeing things shortly after his father's death. The question of course is whether demons are real and is he really possessed or is he using an imaginary friend figure to act out. His father's friends, who like his father, were intelligent but very religious want to perform an excorcism, while his mother wants nothing to do with that perspective and believes they are encouraging and endangering her son.

There never was an incredibly shocking moment in the book. After the inital build up, it just trailed off. The ending was ambiguous but not in a way that makes you think; instead it was just obnoxious that the author ended where he did. Either way, I wouldn't want to be George's family.

One thing that bugged me is that at one point, the religious crowd of the book discussed ancient, non-Christian religions, and suggested that "the demons snuck in" (187) and "set themselves up in the place of gods," actually mentioning Kali, the goddess of death, by name as a demon that possessed a girl. I'm not adverse to the idea per se, but if you're going to use that idea, couldn't you at least use religions that are defunct and no longer used rather than insulting a religion that still has about a billion followers? I mean, really, would it be that difficult to do a google search and find a different name? I mean, how many Greek gods are there? Tons. How many people still practice that religion? As far as I know, none.

Basically, it just wasn't quite scary enough with the demon, and even though it is slightly ambiguous, the narrator, who is somewhat unreliable, believes that demons exist the entire time. The psychology stuff just isn't described convincingly enough for there to be a question of whether or not the guy's crazy or possessed by demons - the book clearly is leaning more towards the demon idea. Although, George does seem to go off the deep end in the final scene (it seemed rather false compared to the rest of the novel), so I think by the end it's a bit of both.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What the Hell, Part II

Last night, I got to experience yet another episode of "where's your battle buddy at?" As usual, I didn't think of the proper comebacks and responses until already a block past the man who stopped me, but I was angry enough where I almost turned back to yell at him.

I was on my way to the coffee shop to meet someone for coffee, and was walking by the gym when this man stopped me and asked what my name was. I'm not sure if it was the same guy as last time - both were in PTs, both were stocky, and both were at least in their mid to late thirties. Surprised by the question, I simply answered truthfully but put as much emphasis on the word lieutenant as possible (I know, there's really not much rank to pull here, but I wanted to make sure he knew he wasn't talking to a random private or junior sergeant). And once again, I got the question about the absence of my battle buddy and a warning to watch out for myself.

Never at any point did this guy offer to tell me his name, and I don't know why he needed mine to tell me I needed a battle buddy. Next time this happens, I'm going to just mouth off, I don't care what the guy's rank is, and if he has an issue, I'll just direct him to the commander or 1SG.

Honestly, it's the Army, and the battle buddy system has always been emphasized. However, I seriously doubt this guy would have stopped me if I'd been a man. I've been on this post for almost a year, and yes, occasionally, I walk alone in the dark. I never walk on routes I don't know and I always pick the main streets that are mostly populated. For example, the way I walked yesterday, I was always by buildings that are open 24-7, so if I ever felt uncomfortable, I could have always stopped in the gym etc. I always take the long route when it's dark, even if I generally cut through several motor pools in the day. Additionally, I have a radio, so if I ever felt threatened, I could call out over the radio and someone in the company would be guaranteed to hear it.

In fact, the only time I have ever felt harassed on this post is when strange men stop me in the middle of the street to ask where my battle buddy is. Why are you asking: are you going to follow me and mug me?

After dark, I rarely go anywhere alone. Occasionally, I might go to the motor pool, and many times, depending on my responsibilities, I actually end up catching a ride with the commander, or the commo guy rather than walking (the thing is I kind of actually prefer walking sometimes). I'll also go to Battalion some nights. Other than that, I really don't go anywhere after dark (the gym is so close it doesn't even count). I would love to go to Green Bean at 10 at night sometimes, or even later, but when it comes to entertainment rather than business, I try to abide by the whole buddy system. It's just sometimes it's hard to find a buddy. For example, last night, someone asked me to meet them somewhere - am I really going to find someone to walk me there just so I can have a battle buddy? No. But I'm not going to let the lack of battle buddy stop me, either.

A few other people have said things once or twice as well, but it doesn't bug me as much when it comes from people in the company. Of course, none of them have offered to escort me everywhere I go, either, so I'm really not going to pay too much attention. Last year, when I was still dating one of the other platoon leaders, he said he was uncomfortable with me going to the pool alone (he didn't like going because "it smelled," though) - I don't know why. Yes, there are always a ton more men there than women, but it's not like anyone has ever tried hitting on me or engaging in conversation. The most annoying thing that has happened is that on two different occasions, guys decided to dive in while I was swimming laps, and they dove in right before I swam by their location rather than waiting for me to pass. If that's some kind of weird flirtation device I'm unfamiliar with, all they succeeded in was annoying me.

Since there are so many more men than women on the FOB, I guess I can kind of see why people are slightly more concerned with the whole woman alone thing, but it seems more like paranoia than anything else. After all, as all the stats show, in most rape cases, the rapist is someone the victim knows, not a random stalker lurking in the shadows. I don't know how much this type of environment skews those numbers, but I doubt it makes that much of a difference. It's just we're all much more likely to hear about the guy that broke into a woman's room and is currently being searched for than the other scenarios. And to be honest, I haven't heard of either scenario happening here. Months ago, there was a poster in Anaconda about the MPs or CID searching for a guy, but other than that, I haven't heard rumors about a single rape on this FOB, by an acquaintance or a stranger. Does that mean there are no rapes occurring, whatsoever? No, but I'm damn sure that if women had actually been attacked, we'd be hearing about it via either fliers, or it would be mentioned at meetings so we could warn our Soldiers about it.

And yet, certain people feel the need to stop me and ask about my battle buddy. If that's really just a way of talking to me, as some have suggested, then all I can say is I have no interest in talking to them, and trust me, being overly patronizing is not the way to get to know me. Just because I'm a woman walking doesn't mean I'm a target for someone to hit on, or whatever the hell they think they are doing. If I'm alone, it's because I choose to be, and no, I wouldn't welcome their company. And damn it, I almost hope I run into this guy again soon, because I'm annoyed and I actually have responses prepared now. Of course, I'll probably forget them all as soon as I am back in the situation.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Culture, Identity and Assimilation

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to America is about two married couples, unable to conceive, who adopt children from Korea. They meet at the airport for their daughters' arrival, and from this common ground, a friendship develops. One couple is Iranian-American, young, while the other couple is close to middle-aged, and kind of a stereotypical middle class white couple. They take two very different approaches to child rearing. Ziba and Sami Yazdan choose an American name for their daughter, basically want her to fit in, and Ziba works part time. Brad and Bitsy keep their daughter's original Korean name, dress her in ethnic outfits and make comments like "I don't notice skin color or race." I think Bitsy may have been the most stereotypical ("the white liberal"): she doesn't work because she doesn't want to miss out on bonding time, has strong opinions on topics, and tries to make people see things her way; also, she's a bit of a hippy - she has taught yoga, used to weave her clothes, uses cloth diapers etc. Sometimes she can be downright insulting but she doesn't see what she is doing wrong.

The narrative switches back and forth between different characters' perspectives, though Maryam is probably the main character. As far as the daughters are concerned, Jin-Ho is more strongly developed, or at least has more of a voice, and naturally she wants the opposite of what she has - her parents want to make sure she retains some knowledge of her original customs and traditions and she just wants to be fully Americanized and dislikes the ethnic clothing as well as her mother's insistence to celebrate the anniversary of her arrival.

Tyler explores the ideas of assimilation and belonging through her different characters and their relationships to cultural backgrounds. I liked her writing and it worked very well, but it wasn't necessarily insightful - in a way, she was kind of working with certain stereotypical ideas about culture and finding one's place but she's definitely a good enough writer where even though the characters had predictable traits and Tyler wasn't showing the reader anything new, she tied it together well so that the charactes, especially Maryam, still seemed interesting and somewhat unique. Of course, it's predictable that Jin-Ho is going to want to ignore her own ethnic background - after all, that's what happened in novels like The Joy Luck Club, where everyone just wants to fit in until they get older and start having more of an interest in China; still, the way Tyler took all these different ideas and presented and discussed them in one place worked very well. And I think the book can help lead to good discussion about these various topics.

This is my first Anne Tyler novel and I enjoyed it. As I just said, I'm not sure if Tyler took a complicated topic and looked at it in depth or if it's a more superficial treatment of the subject. I guess this novel might almost be kind of like the book version of the film Crash. While you're watching it, you feel like you're watching an interesting commentary on racism in the United States, but when you're done, you realize it had nothing new or enlightening to bring to the topic. (Also, I am not trying to say they are about the same topic, but rather the way they deal with their topics.) Despite that, I enjoyed the book, and I think some of the characters managed to break out of the stereotypical role more than others.

I also found the following passage rather amusing (while I usually find comedic authors and books amusing, I don't usually end up laughing; this phrase actually made me laugh). When Maryam meets Kiyan, who is visiting Tehran and his family from the United States, she makes this assessment:

He had the faintest difference in speech. It was not a real accent, and it was certainly not an affectation. (Unlike the speech of her cousin Amin, who had returned from America pretending such an unfamiliarity with Farsi that he had once referred to a rooster as "the husband of the hen.") (157)

. . .

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Cornelia Hobbs has recently started dating the man of her dreams when one day he shows up at the cafe she manages with his daughter in tow. Up until this point, Cornelia didn't even know of Clare's existence, and her appearance leads Cornelia to make some reappraisals of Martin Grace. Clare has spent the past few weeks hiding her mother's erratic behavior but when her mother leaves her, she has no choice but to turn to her distant father for help. The novel is mainly about the relationship between Cornelia and Clare, and the influence they have on each other's lives.

Cornelia is obsessed with classic movies, and in the first few chapters, she made comments like, "I don't believe in signs but . . ." which I found slightly annoying, although other than that, I liked the character. In the beginning, I was much more interested in Clare as she was trying to understand and protect her mother, who was bipolar. I don't actually have very much to say about it, but it kept me entertained on the plane, and I liked all the character interactions. Cornelia, who in ways still lives in a dream world, discovers some things about herself throughout the novel, and also grows up, getting over the Hollywood fantasy (Martin looks like Cary Grant). Overall, it was a good novel about human relationships, and finding one's direction in life.

How Many Wives Will He Have?

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Given how popular the Tudor court is in pop culture even today, it's easy to have preconceived notions about the different women, and Henry VIII himself. Weird did a good job of actually showing these women in all their complexity with the information available. She doesn't glamorize or villainize one wife over the other, even though people have at times. Anne Boleyn still may come off as the worst, simply because of how vengeful she could be, but this doesn't mean that Katherine of Aragon is glamorized in any way. Weir also takes issue with seeing Jane Seymour as a pious and modest woman, based simply on the fact that she had to have at least some ambition to be willing to let another, innocent woman be executed to advance herself.

Many of the political issues that were occurring at the time are touched on, but not discussed too deeply into since this is mainly a biography of Henry's wives. Weir touches on the reformation, wars with different countries, but the focus remains on the women.

She also takes a critical look at Henry and his relationships with his wives. While Henry definitely was willing to believe lies if it would get him what he wanted anyway, his casting off of Katherine really was about more than pure lust, and others certainly sympathized with his need for a heir, just not necessarily his choice of Anne Boleyn.

I recently ordered The Tudors, so at least now I'll know just how historically inaccurate it is before I start watching. Honestly, I'm expecting the show to be entertaining, but as far as accuracy, I have very low expectations. As attractive as Jonathan Rhys Meyers is, I'm not sure how good of a choice he was as Henry. He's too young, since by the time Anne was in the picture, Henry was in his 30s, and also starting to get a little heavier. Also, this might be a simple point, but they couldn't even get his hair color right - Henry had reddish-blondish hair ("golden boy") - after all, where do they think Elizabeth got her famous red hair from? Certainly not her mother. Of course, they made the same mistake in The Other Boleyn Girl by casting Eric Bana.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Fun Stuff

While I was home on leave, I went to Chicago for a weekend, and, naturally since I was in Chicago, I went to the Art Institute for an afternoon. While there I saw this Pablo Picasso painting, which I found highly amusing due to the title:

Crazy Woman with Cats

Apparently, the stereotype's been around for a while.

Yesterday, I happened upon this picture on Feministe:

Check This Out

I found this link on Feministe a few days ago, and I thought it was very neat and worth sharing. It's a series of comic strips about the earthquake in China and some of the stories of the rescue efforts. They are incredibly heart-wrenching and sad, but I love the way the artist used this medium to represent these personal stories. But, very sad, so consider yourself forewarned.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Woman's Perspective of the Conquests

Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

As famous as Isabel Allende is, this is actually the first of her novels that I've read. I don't know how it compares to her other work since this is based on a historical character but I liked this one. Ines was the mistress of Pedro de Valdivia, one of the conquerors of Chile. While reading it, there were moments that seemed racist since the Spanish, the heroes, were basically enslaving many of the Incans, and treating them as second class citizens in addition to battling local tribes to take over their territory and land. Ines, the narrator, occasionally questions some actions and motivations, but Allende doesn't try to sugarcoat everything, and instead lets Ines be a product of her times in her attitude towards the conquest of the Americas. Ines was the only Spanish woman to travel with the original group of invaders into Chile, which makes her very unique for her times. Since then, she has been somewhat ignored by history (big surprise there), but Allende tells her story based on a few sources and historians that mention her. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially since, at least in the States, we tend to learn about the Incas and the Aztecs, or the very first conquistadors but not how the other countries of Central and South America came into being.

Part of the reason I've shyed away from Allende actually has nothing to do with the author herself. I've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I just wasn't impressed by the guy. I realize they are from different countries, but I remember reading somewhere that magic realism is often used by South American authors among others. I also wasn't a big fan of Gunther Grass's novel The Tin Drum, and the characters in Like Water for Chocolate annoyed me (I don't think the plot bugged me as much as the main character). But anyway, after those three examples, I just wasn't that into the idea of magic realism, and I was afraid Allende might make use of it. On the other hand, I liked Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (but not The Ground Beneath Her Feet) and I'm a Toni Morrison fan, so it's really more about the way the authors incorporate magic realism into their stories rather than me wanting everything to be realistic.

A Sarcastic Take on Weight Loss

Such a Pretty Fat: One Narcissist's Quest to Discover If Her Life Makes Her Ass Look Big or Why Pie Is Not the Answer by Jen Lancaster

In her third memoir, Jen Lancaster documents her battle to lose weight after selling a book proposal based on the idea. While being just as humorous and sarcastic as in her previous two books, she also offers some valid insights and critiques of the culture, and the weight loss industry. She becomes very frustrated with Jenny Craig, which served as a good starting point, but got old very quickly, and proved rather inflexible for real life. As she noticed at both Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers (the meeting, not the website), there is too much of a focus on counting calories, and barely any on exercise (although she really liked the Weight Watcher's Point system). After telling her Jenny Craig counselor about a personal training session, the woman tells her, "You should just try walking" (249).

As her husband notes, after she begins dieting, Jen is "completely fixated on body image, and [she] never [was] before" (107). I could actually relate to that statement because when we first got to Iraq, and I started working out more than usual, I became a lot more frustrated with my appearance and what I thought of as a lack of progress than I'd been before. By the end of the book, Jen has lost the weight she set out to lose, but more importantly, she is healthier, fitter and also thinks she has finally grown up. She is still overweight, but she isn't afraid of food (another complaint she had about the weight loss programs), and is happy with herself - not that she wasn't before.

John Hughes on Speed

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle

Set in the suburbs up in Chicago area, this novel is very much like a book version of a John Hughes film. Each chapter begins with a picture of the protagonist, and these are actually collected on the front cover, showing how the character just keeps getting into worse and worse shape due to various mishaps.

The novel begins with Denis's speech as valedictorian, in which he declares his love for one of his much more popular class mates. As a result of this declaration, he ends up on a series of adventures on graduation night. For the most part, it was funny, but it started losing steam towards the end, and some parts just went on too long. Also, maybe I'm just too innocent, but I was reading parts of this, thinking "in high school? Really?"

I think the book is already being made into a movie, and it should translate very easily, especially since it basically already uses all the high school teen movie clich├ęs. Also, the author has worked on The Simpsons and other films, so he should have no problems translating the work into a screen play.