Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I was wanted to thank everyone for all the comments they've been leaving on my last post. I wasn't expecting that much of a response. I really appreciate it. Due to the computer security settings and all the blocked sites, I can't actually get to my own website to make a comment even though I can make posts, which is why I wasn't able to say this as a comment. However, I wanted you to know that I was very excited about all the feedback, and thank you very much.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Long-winded Rant on Body Image

Sometimes, it seems like the Army almost encourages bad eating habits and negative body image. When I was in my Anthropology class on food and culture, the text book had a short section on eating disorders, and mentioned briefly that they were more prevalent in certain institutions, such as the military.

It's not that the Army has a higher standard than the rest of the society. However, the height and weight standards don't always seem to take natural body types into consideration. We have people in the company that can't pass height/weight, struggle to pass the tape test for body fat, but work out more and are more physically fit (and I don't just mean weight lifting, these people can run, too) than many of the more slim and fit-looking people. I think this may be the only place in my life where I've really heard men talk about how they really need to lose weight, and can't eat certain meals because they have to maintain weight (I didn't hang out with any wrestlers in high school). Every other time I've heard men go on about their appearance, they've discussed the desire to get big, and there is some of that going on here as well.

When I was a cadre member at camp, the cadets got weighed and taped as necessary two or three days in. Anyone who failed got redone two weeks later. One of my cadets went from failing his tape to not even needing taped within two weeks because he'd lost that much weight (about 15 pounds)*. On the one hand, good for him, he didn't have to worry about it for the rest of the summer. On the other hand, we're encouraging horrible dieting habits.

Back in college, a friend of a friend was in ROTC at a different university. Apparently, the week before a weigh in, he would only eat “onion soup” - meaning, onion boiled in water. He also wouldn't drink the day before the weigh in. Obviously this is an extreme example, and it's more of a crash diet than a life style.

I remember everyone in ROTC, especially the women, always dreaded getting taped. Especially for shorter women, the standards occasionally seemed a little extreme, so there wasn't any shame in it, but there's still a little voice saying, "damn, I'm fat." For most of college, I didn't have to worry about. When I gained weight, it happened to be at the same time my weight allowance went up due to age. I was still always very close to that line, and always fought for my half inch (half an inch means they have to round up and an inch makes a difference of about five pounds). Now, I'm definitely at the point where I need taped and I'm not exactly happy about it.

For the most part, I think I have a more or less healthy attitude about my body. However, I hate the idea of getting taped, and I am unhappy about the fact that I gained around fifteen pounds this deployment. On the one hand, I don't think I necessarily look that much worse (it's noticeable, don't get me wrong, but I'm tall and I have a build that can hide weight relatively well), but I know my jeans aren't going to fit comfortably. I don't want to kill myself trying to lose a few pounds, and I'm afraid if I start trying to diet, I'll get obsessive. Additionally, what exactly would be wrong with having a few extra pounds? Why should I feel some need to conform to society's beauty standards? To quote one professor's T-shirt (I always wanted that shirt), "Fuck your fascist beauty standards."

And yet, I liked where I was at before I came here (I admit even then I wouldn't have complained about losing five pounds, but I was comfortable with my body). Also, I think I still tend to be slightly superficial as far as what attracts me in men, so can I really expect them to date me when I don't meet a certain ideal if I wouldn't really be interested in them? Obviously, personality is important and all, but I've actually dated some rather traditionally attractive men.

I wouldn't say I've ever been completely happy with my body, but I've definitely learned to be comfortable with it, and would even go for long periods without obsessing about my weight or looks. It took me some time to get there, but I had reached that point with the occasional regression here and there in college. I think part of the reason it may have taken me longer to get there than it should have is because I was one of the "chubby" kids in elementary school and I didn't actually notice when I'd grown out of the baby fat, and continued to think of myself in that way for quite a while. Also, as a teenager, I was still under the impression that I needed to be a size 4 or 6.**

I went through a few diets in elementary school, junior high school and high school, some more short-lived than others. The worst one was my freshmen year, when I was taking my lunch to school and packing exactly ten Saltine Crackers every day (120 calories). My senior year I lost almost twenty pounds, somehow. I regained about 15 pounds by the time I started college.

I was basically happy with my body for the first two years of college. I worked out regularly with ROTC, and occasionally, I'd also do extra things on my own. The second semester of my junior year, I really started focusing on getting in shape for camp, and while I didn't lose too much weight, I toned, and my jeans definitely became looser. Yet, after the first month or two of working out at which point I was proud of what my body was doing and my improving PT scores, I started becoming more frustrated with my appearance than I had been before. I liked the muscles I had, but noticed flab in spots I hadn't even considered before. And I was unhappy that certain muscles weren't larger and more defined.

During summer camp, I gained about ten pounds, and it never came back off. I wasn't exactly feeling too confident about myself when I got to school, but I didn't obsess or spend too much time trying to lose it, either.

My first year out of college, I remained at that same weight but I finally stopped feeling uncomfortable about it. As bad as it sounds, it helped that more guys were interested in me that first year out of college than my whole time in college. Apparently not being around a bunch of perfect looking college women helped. And, admittedly, there aren't many women in the Army so that always increases opportunities. I guess I figured that if they found me attractive the way I was, I probably didn't need to conform to society's standards. Also, I realized that no matter what, I wasn't going to completely change my life over a few pounds. I like going out to eat, I like junk food, and even if I'd like to lose five pounds, I'm not going to give up eating something I want because of calories. I recently was watching The Biggest Loser on television, and this one woman had won a pass to go visit her friends and got a break from training temporarily. She went out to eat and ordered a pizza with no cheese and a salad with the dressing on the side. She then dunked her fork in the dressing each time before stabbing one piece of lettuce. I'm sorry, but the perfect body isn't worth that. I have no desire to revolve my life around what I'm not eating.

When I first got to Iraq, I was working out more (I had a work out partner), and once again while I wasn't losing weight, I was getting in better shape, and improved my PT score. However, I once again noticed that as soon as I started on an intensive work out program, I was obsessing about my appearance much more than I had before. I was getting pissed about the fact that I wasn't losing weight and generally felt like I wasn't seeing results soon enough.

I recently read Courtney Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and really loved her discussion on the whole body image thing. I've since given a copy to one friend, and lent it to one of my Soldiers (who says she keeps getting pissed off while reading the book because "it's so true"). In addition to discussing women's body images, she discusses men's actions and influence on women’s thought process. And I have to agree, it can be so difficult to understand what men exactly think.

On the one hand, they say they understand the difference between Hollywood women and real women, but it can be hard to believe when every time you're in their room, they have a different scantily clad size 0 model with huge breasts as their computer wall paper (at some point, if they are so surrounded by certain images, aren’t they going to expect and want that at all times?). Or when they mention women in Hollywood they find hot, and it's like they're reading off Maxim's most current top ten list. "Jessica Alba, etc." Can't they at least be a little original and say Tina Fey - at least she's also funny and smart. Or Kate Winslet – she’s slightly more real looking, chooses interesting movies and appears to have a personality. Or when a guy says, "I'd get a divorce if my wife ever gained twenty pounds," how exactly am I not supposed to develop a complex about my appearance when I put on fifteen? Or when I say, "I would like to lose some weight," meaning five or ten pounds, and the guy of the moment responds with "if you changed your eating habits, you could easily lose twenty to thirty pounds," how the hell am I supposed to react? By the way, this was before the fifteen pound weight gain. And I haven't been below 150 since high school, and I can't even remember being below 140, so fuck you. 30 pounds, my ass.

Basically, I hate that my weight and appearance occupy as much of my thoughts as they do. And that I somehow feel like I should conform slightly more to society, and at the very least, lose the weight I gained. I know fat and fat acceptance is also a part of feminism, and while I agree that people should stop judging people on their weight and appearance, I have internalized enough of the dominant beliefs where I have to admit that I don't want to be fat. The stigma attached to being "fat" and the obsession with weight in our culture are ridiculous but I, too, want conform to it enough to not be labeled fat.

*There is a height/weight chart. Based on a person's height, he/she is allotted a certain amount of weight. If he/she is over that weight, he/she gets taped to check if his/her body fat percentage is within regulation.

**Now my parents have always complimented my appearance, and told me I looked great the way I was, but even they made a few comments in over 24 years of parenting that weren't exactly helpful. Such as when I was in third grade and my mom refused to let me have another slice of pizza, telling me I would thank her later. Or the time in high school when my mom asked if I'd put on weight because my dad thought my butt was getting big and he was afraid to bring it up to me. For the most part, when I got into arguments about my appearance with my mom, though, it was more about my clothing - she wanted me to put more of an effort into my clothes rather than wearing baggy T-shirts (junior high). She was always the one finding the mini-skirts, telling me I should wear them while I was still young and able to pull them off. Naturally, I didn't agree with her about my ability to "pull them off" at the time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Yes, because that's a reasonable reaction to being angry

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan


The novel begins as two men attend their former lover's funeral.  Despite the fact that both men, Clive and Vernon, have since had several relationships and marriages, there is a distinct impression that Molly is the woman who had the most influence on their lives and was more important to them than anyone else.  Vernon and Clive are best friends, and both vehemently disapprove of Molly's husband, finding him boring, and one of her other lover's, the Foreign Minister, Julian Garmony.


Both of the characters are very successful, Clive as a composer, and Vernon as a journalist/newspaper editor.  As a result, it is perhaps understandable that they are rather self-involved.  At first Clive appears to be more sympathetic as the artist that is out of touch with the world, but he uses his inspiration and art as an excuse to completely ignore another human in need, and feels self-justified about it.


Vernon, armed with recently discovered scandalous photos of the foreign minister, sets out to destroy the man's career with an expose.  While Clive points out that by publishing these photos, Vernon will be villifying the man for something that shouldn't be wrong, Vernon believes he is pointing out the man's hypocrisy.  After all, Garmony is an incredibly conservative family man to the media who engages in some of the behaviors he more or less speaks against.


At first, Vernon appears to be the more ruthless of the two while Clive is the more likable.  However, as the novel progresses, it is easier to see the justification for Vernon's actions than Clive's.  Additionally, the ending just seemed like such a ludicrous turn because it was too extreme.  Of course once again, it is easier to see Vernon's perspective. Other than Molly, Clive is the most important person in Vernon's life, so it is easier to understand how incredibly hurt and betrayed he might feel by Clive's disapproval.  Clive's main reason for being angry and acting as he does, however, seems to be that he blamed Vernon for disrupting his creative flow at an inopportune time.
It wasn't a horrible novel, but it definitely wasn't one of McEwan's best.  I would recommend On Chesil Beach to anyone interested in McEwan, and say to only read this one after having read his other, better novels.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Quick Summary of My Religious Development

I found this post a few days ago, and thought it was very funny.  I immediately sent it to a few other people who have a similar sense of humor to me, and also wanted to link to it right away.  But I then decided I should maybe do a more extensive post upon further reflection.


A few people in the company think of me as an atheist.  I have been accused at times of being slightly anti-Christian or intolerant of Christian views.  While I admit to being rather skeptical and cynical of many aspects of religion, I am not quite sure if I am a full-fledged atheist (even if I find humor in mocking zealous Christians).  When it comes straight down to it, I just don't think I care enough one way or the other.  I would describe myself as agnostic, but for me agnostic means someone who doesn't know if there is a god, but actually kind of wants to know the answer.  I feel like if I were truly agnostic, I would actually take an interest and read books on religious thought and so forth to educate myself and figure out what the answer really is.  I have no interest in even pursuing the subject and generally shrug my shoulders, or say, "I don't do religion."


I wasn't always like this.  I grew up in southern Germany, where almost everyone is Catholic, and religion was one of many other classes we had to take (in fifth grade, I would be taking Math, German, English, Music, Biology, Art, Religion, PE, Geology (or Geography), among many others; in sixth grade, history was added, and in seventh, Latin - I think I may have had as many as twelve to fourteen subjects at one time).  Religious instruction started in third grade to prepare us all for our First Communion.  Perhaps since it was part of school and I was an overzealous student, I got really into it.  I'd go to the Wednesday afternoon service and Sunday mornings, participated in a Bible group (which may or may not have been mandatory in preparation for First Communion) and always volunteered to participate in the service (which is actually how I lost my best friend since I went to church instead of a birthday party - the next day, my friend was barely talking to me and had replaced me with the birthday girl as his new friend).  The entire time we lived in Germany, my family never went to church regularly.  We'd usually show up to a service Christmas Eve, but my dad didn't want to go to a church service he didn't understand (the German Catholic Mass), and I don't think either of my parents had any interest in driving to base Sunday mornings.


Eventually, like almost every other German student I know, I lost interest.  Perhaps it would have just happened anyway, perhaps it was because I realized there wasn't really a place for me in the church.  When the religion class instructor asked if any of us would be interested in being "Ministranten" (or altar boys, though Ministrant doesn't actually imply the word boy in it), and I was told no because I was a girl even though I was the only one interested, I was rather unhappy, but also realized that I enjoyed sleeping in Sunday mornings and all this stuff just wasn't worth the trouble.


Even though religion was taught as part of the school curriculum, I never once had an issue with reconciling science and religion.  They were both separate but true.  As a result, when I moved to the States, and was learning about evolution, it seemed pretty evident to me that it was true.  It was science.  I didn't understand how it conflicted with religion.  Since some students told me they didn't believe in evolution because of religion, I came up with ways to argue that both could peacefully coexist ("we don't know what God's concept of time is - he says a day, that could be billions of years to us; he is all knowing so he intended for evolution to occur the way it did; he made the genes mutate but didn't actually build us from clay"). 


Equally, I didn't understand the sudden emphasis on saving one's self for marriage.  I'd never heard of that concept in Germany, and it wasn't because I was too young to be discussing sex.  I read German teen magazines, and those things used to have instructions on condoms, kissing, stories called "My First Time" etc.  It just wasn't an issue over there.  My parents, of course, had had "the talk" with me but they never said wait till marriage.  They said make sure it's love.  My 8th grade Health Teacher, who actually seemed rather liberal, progressive and hippy-like in many ways, had a guest speaker come talk to us about sex.  He explained to us that we were like roses and every time we had sex, we'd lose a petal until finally we'd be an ugly, empty shell of a flower.  I was thirteen, and I tuned the whole thing out (I had the rather unrealistic plan in my head at the time to get my first kiss at thirteen or fourteen, have a serious boyfriend at sixteen, lose my virginity at 17 after a year of dating, and then go to college - totally didn't happen that way; I ended being several years behind on everything except college).


America's interpretation of religion baffled me.  While in Seattle, my parents were friends with a family who are sort of related to us via in-laws, and they were much more religious than we were.  After eight years in Germany, my dad wanted to be a member of a church again, mainly I think for the social community, so we went to a few services with them on occasion, and I even volunteered at the youth bible group since I needed community service hours for Honors Society.  Still, religion tended to bore me, and it seemed much more conservative in the States.


Over the years, I became more disillusioned with the practice of religion in the United States.  While I know liberals who are religious and tolerant, so many of the people that we met who describe themselves as Christian are nice but very conservative and intolerant.  I hated how people used their religion to justify their narrow minded positions, especially since everyone just picks and chooses which Bible verses to follow.  This is wrong because Leviticus says so.  And yet they never bring up the many other things that the Bible deems as wrong that have since been accepted.  Nor do they discuss the conflicting verses.  "Don't marry your brother's wife, it's incest" vs. "marry your brother's widow and protect her."  I think maybe I take after my mom.  While she never went to church regularly, she thought of herself as somewhat religious.  However, she was critical of the church.  She felt the Catholic Church in our town in Germany took advantage of some of the older women that attended regularly.  Now, she is always critical of people that call themselves Christian whose actions speak otherwise.


When we discussed the Founding Fathers and some of their religious views, I thought there was a philosophy I could fall behind.  There was a Supreme Being, he created the universe, the Earth, whatever, and then he went away and let us do our own thing.  He really could care less what we do down here, who's sleeping with who etc.


I've noticed in the Army especially that people who are religious tend to be of the very conservative sort, as in they believe in creationism and think homosexuality is a sin.  Maybe it's just that those are the most vocal and noticeable.  I've actually become even less interested in religion during the deployment than before if that was even possible.  Before every mission, the chaplain comes down and prays with the troops that are about to go on the road.  I used to stay in the circle, respectfully, with my head bowed.  Now, I step to the back.  Maybe it's just me, but having a ritualistic prayer doesn't necessarily seem that sincere or spontaneous to me.  Shouldn't true faith be about spontaneity rather than simply routine?  So I step away for two reasons: I don't know what I believe, and I don't think that if I ever determine what I think that that would be a true expression of real faith for me.


While I probably am closer aligned to being an atheist at the moment than anything else, I don't necessarily have a problem with religion.  I have a problem with the interpretation of religion.  I have a problem with the way some people choose to practice their faith.  I have an issue with how some people use their faith to cast stones and judge others.  I dislike how some people use the Bible and other religious texts to justify their bigotry and ignorant, misguided beliefs.  And I know not everyone is like that.  But it scares me that this is who we see representing religion, that this is the side of the religion that seems to be gaining more and more power and getting more and more say in the world.  That's why I enjoy things that make fun of the overzealous religious who think that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  At least this way I know there is also a group of people out there that don't think that way and who also see the folly in some of the views of extreme religion, but Christianity in particular.

Another Isabel Allende Novel

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende


This is the third Isabel Allende novel I've read in the last few months, and the first she published.  It took me a little bit longer to get into this one, because in the second part she discusses Esteban Trueba and at that point in the novel, I was much more interested in the deValle family.  Once she gets to the third part and back to Clara deValle, I was basically hooked.

The story spans three generations, beginning with Esteban and his wife Clara, and ends with their granddaughter, Alba.  Over the generations, certain themes repeat themselves: Blanca and her daughter Alba both end up in relationships with revolutionaries, or socialists, much to the annoyance and dislike of Esteban, a leader in the Conservative Party.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the reasons I had been hesitant to read Allende was my fear of overuse of magical realism.  Of all her novels I've read, this one makes use of that technique the most, but unlike other novelists, hers is more subtle.  Perhaps subtle is not the quite the right word, since Clara communicates with spirits and has telekinetic powers, and characters are born with green hair, but it seems like other authors just overdo it.  Or they focus too much on the grotesque and the absurd.  For example, in G√ľnter Grass's The Tin Drum, the main character has basically adult consciousness from the moment he is born, but chooses not to grow up, remaining in the body of a toddler for several years, even trying to seduce and have sex with the babysitter while looking like a two year old.  Something about that just went a little too far for me.  I had similar problems with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and parts of Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie bothered and distracted me, though I mostly enjoyed the novel (The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the other hand, is convoluted, boring, and just not that interesting).
In Allende's characters, their unusualness is shown as more of an eccentricity than anything else as well as the progression of time - none of Clara's descendants have her skills or abilities, and there is an idea that the time of magic has passed with the rise of modernity and the violent upheavals of the country.  By the time the coup occurs, only few of the spirits still remain.
In addition to being about the deValle-Trueba family, the novel is about social change and struggle, as well as good intentions gone awry.  The family's destiny ends up intertwined with other people, and things that happened decades ago end up affecting the present.  And there are also great passionate love stories mixed in throughout the narrative, Blanca and Pedro standing out the most.
Now that I've read three of Allende's novels, two of which were probably her most well known and famous, I'm kind of curious which one I should get next (other than Zorro - I think that one's somewhere in a huge stack of unread books in my apartment in Germany) - any recommendations?

Where's My Cake?

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley


I'd seen this on Amazon at a few different points, and while the title intrigued me (I like cake; I'd show up if someone told me there'd be cake, especially chocolate mousse cheese cake from the Cheesecake Factory), I wasn't sure if a funny title was worth the time or money.  Then I actually saw it recommended on two very different sites that I read, and ended up ordering it.

First off, the other websites praised it so highly that I was expecting to be laughing out loud a lot, despite my usual reaction to comic essay pieces.  So needless to say, it didn't quite meet my expectations.  However, there was one essay in particular that made me laugh quite a bit, and the others amused me enough.  I think my favorite one was about her being a bridesmaid for a middle/high school friend she hadn't even talked to in years.  Not only that, but she was the maid of honor, which Crosley didn't even realize until a few short weeks before the wedding.  She was chosen for this "honor" simply because she had inquired if there was one at the beginning of the planning process.  In response to this, Crosley "wondered if all her life's decisions since [she]'d known her had been based on such subtleties of conversation, and it took everything [she] had to stop from asking, Are you sure you're engaged?" (161)  I also enjoyed her piece on the Oregon Trail (I've played that!), and about her vegan/vegetarian diet.  There were definitely a few parts in all her essays that I could relate to or easily imagine happening, while others were more outlandish, and overall it was well balanced.  The first few were the most uneven and weak but even they had good parts, and as the book progresses, the essays also get better.

Friday, July 04, 2008

[Insert Clever Title Here]

Love Marriage by V.V. Ganeshananthan

Narrated by Yalini, this novel is told in a series of short vignettes. In the first few vignettes, I kept confusing myself because I thought the author was switching narrators when she'd start a new one off with a name, but that was just the narrator telling who she would be talking about in that particular instance.

After her uncle, who has been out of touch with the family for a long time, comes to Canada to die in peace, Yalini and her parents leave their lives in the States to spend his last months with him. Yalini's parents both immigrated from Sri Lanka, while her uncle chose to stay and join the Tamil Tigers. Yalini helps her doctor father care for her uncle, and also takes the task of family historian upon herself. Her cousin Janani is about to enter into an arranged marriage, and this partially influences the themes that Yalini focuses on in her family's history: marriage and love intermixed with ethnic violence.

It takes some time to get into it, but definitely worth the read. As the novel progresses, Yalini faces a bit of an identity crisis but ends up with a greater understanding of her past, her ancestors and their sacrifices.

Decisions, Decisions: Fun Bohemian or Stepford Wife in Suburbia

Love the One You're With by Emily Giffin

Emily Giffin's first novel, Something Borrowed, is probably one of the best chick lit novels I've read. As a result, I keep reading her new books, even though her follow ups haven't been as good. For example, I really wasn't that into Baby Proof. I guess one thing I liked about Something Borrowed is that compared to other chick lit novels, the man was actually somewhat developed. It wasn't as if she just paired her protagonist off with anyone to end the novel as occasionally happens.

In Love the One You're With, recently married Ellen runs into her ex-boyfriend on the street. Of course, it's not just any boyfriend; it's the one great passion she had before her current spouse. Somehow, she gets sucked back into talking to him, and begins wondering about her own marriage.

I definitely understand the whole inability to let go, and the need to overanalyze everything. After almost a decade, though, it seems like Ellen would be able to let go of Leo. I can sort of see the attraction - he's a lot more interesting than Andy, her husband, and seems more passionate, intelligent and perhaps mysterious (although I think mysterious is definitely something to outgrow after a certain point, and is probably only attractive when you're not dating; I've never really done mysterious).

Honestly, I don't think eiher guy was right for her - Andy was rich, and understanding, and nice, and incredibly bland. If I were married to that guy, I probably would also be questioning my decisions when coming across the dark, bruting ex (it's like the difference between Angel and Riley on Buffy; Riley was boring and everyone hated him while Angel may have caused heartache but there was passion in the relationship).

Also, something about the portrayal of rich Atlanta society just bugged me - all these women who went to college but either quit their jobs to marry and have children, or didn't even get jobs to begin with. When they move to Atlanta, Ellen basically gives up her entire career and customer base and becomes a housewife. Very Stepford. She was probably in the wrong part of Atlanta since she sees her options as an exciting job in New York or portraits of children in Atlanta. In a way, the novel is very heteronormative; Ellen pities her older, unmarried sister, and as much as she cringes about the rich society of Atlanta, she also kind of wants the very traditional life style. What exactly is so wrong with never getting married? It's not like her sister wasn't in a happy relationship with a nice guy and alone and miserable. The book might show alternatives, but it doesn't paint them in a good light.

Redefining Family

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Taylor Greer, the novel's protagonist and narrator, grew up in a small, poor town in rural Kentucky, and her one goal in life was to get out. When she's finally saved up enough money, she gets into her car and just drives, ending up in Phoenix, Arizona. On the way, she has aquired a three year old child.

Taylor and Turtle move in with Lou Ann and her infant son, her husband having recently left her. As these women live together, they form a close friendship, and Lou Ann becomes more confident and less of a push over thanks to Taylor's influence. Various other characters play important roles in their lives, and form a family for themselves.

Overall, it was good, and I'll probably pick up the sequel eventually. Kingsolver also addresses ideas of nationhood and immigration as Taylor learns about different people and cultures in her new community.

Intro to Sexism

He's A Stud, She's A Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know by Jessica Valenti

Valenti devotes four pages to each of the double standards she discusses. As a result, she raises some good points, but doesn't get too in depth into any issues, some of which overlap quite a bit. Of those four pages, about one is devoted to a section entitled "So . . . What to Do?" Most of these give resources for further research on a topic or simply advise women to speak out.

Basically, it was an entertaining quick read, but mainly an overview. There were definitely a few topics I would have liked to see expanded but Valenti's goal was to highlight some different stereotypes. Also, some of the advice under "What to Do?" is rather repetitive, but once again, at 4 pages per topic, what can you expect?

Her writing is fun and sarcastic. I preferred Marcotte's It's A Jungle Out There, but I think that's because Marcotte didn't try to cover quite as much in a similar amount of pages. Marcotte's book, however, has since become controversial due to the racist nature of the art work. Marcotte has issued an apology and they are going to remove those pictures in the second edition, so I'd recommend holding off before picking that one up.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Religion and Research - Westerners in Thailand

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski

I ordered this as a result of reading about it at Books for Breakfast, and I'm glad I did. I tend to go through phases where I'll read incredibly quickly, and others when it's a little slower (the presence or absence of a new television DVD set does have an effect on that since I stop doing anything else entertainment-wise until finishing a series; just recently, I have watched Supernatural Seasons 1 and 2, Californication and How I Met Your Mother Season 1 - I figured with Alyson Hannigan, Neil Patrick Harris and the guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, it deserved a shot despite being on CBS). Anyway, I've been on a good streak with the last two books I picked up, staying up later than I intended because I didn't want to put them down yet.

While this book is a novel, Mischa Berlinski inserts himself as a character, so there are definitely points where I was wondering if something was true when it came to minor details. The novel is about his quest to find out the facts leading to a murder over a decade before. He starts out with only the name of the murderer, Martiya van der Leun, and her aunt's phone number. Following up on clues, he gets more and more contacts, and finally starts discovering the story behind the anthropologist, Martiya, and David Walker, one in a long line of missionaries.

As he learns more about Martiya from her friends, and David from his missionary family, Berlinski becomes more and more obsessed with the story and discovering the why, in a way comparable to Martiya herself, who as an anthropologist became obsessed with actually truly understanding rather than just observing the Dyalo of northern Thailand (completely fictional).

There were a few parts where the novel was a little too longwinded, but it wasn't too bad. Mostly, I was just kind of disappointed with the ending - I figured that somehow there would be an interesting and deep political, or even moral, question or debate, about missionary work vs. anthropology that would somehow explain or end the novel. Some of my specualtions: perhaps, Martiya felt that missionary work was destroying ancient cultures with no right etc, but that wasn't it at all. The ending was a let down, mainly because the "why" just wasn't enough for me, but other than that, it was an enjoyable novel.

Gold and Love - Two Great Obsessions

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

I still remember when everyone seemed to be reading this book. My mom read it, my best friend at the time read it; basically, everyone was talking about Daughter of Fortune. Naturally, being a bit of a book snob, I couldn't possibly read it as a result - after all, what does the public know? And wasn't it part of Oprah's Book Club? Nope, absolutely refused to read something that mainstream. This was before discovering that some of my favorite books and authors have somehow ended up on Oprah's Book Club at one point or another. Apparently she has good taste in novels, but unfortunately she also has a penchant for the self help section (I recently turned the TV on to find that Oprah had a life coach as her guest - the TV obviously didn't stay on long).

I've gotten over my snobbishness somewhat, and I liked Ines of My Soul, so this one was next (also, I remember hearing that the novel talked about the "two hundred twenty two positions of love", so I can't say I was completely uninterested).

The two main characters are Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en. Due to different life turns and circumstances, both find themselves in San Francisco, far away from their home countries, at the time of the Gold Rush. Through their eyes, Allende explores the rough and tumble world of a newly emerging state, and shows what kind of strange alliances can form on the frontier (such as Quakers and prostitutes to name just one). At the beginning of the novel, Eliza, love-stricken and pregnant, follows a man to California. Her search introduces her to all types of different people and situations, and also sees her mature into a much stronger, independent woman. Tao Chi'en, a Chinese physician, ends up settling in San Francisco's Chinatown and plays a role in fighting the slave trafficking business. Despite their different backgrounds, the two develop a close bond, and become each other's family.

There are a variety of other colorful characters in the novel, and several strong women, such as Paulina del Valle, who defies her father and escapes from a convent to marry, has a great natural sense of business and a rather equal marriage. While Eliza spends much of the novel trying to find her old lover, by the end, it has become less about finding him and spending her life with him as much as just her wanting to close a chapter in her life. As she gets older, she romanticizes him less, and is able to see their relationship and her feelings in a much more rational light.

The novel only spans about ten years, though it hints at Eliza having a long future. I liked that - when the novel closes, Eliza is twenty and still has the rest of her life ahead of her. It is a very cheerful and hopeful ending in that way. The Space Between Us, for example, ended with Bhima having to start over at an age when she shouldn't have to; even though she was at peace with what happened, it was a rather bittersweet ending.

Master, Servant, Family

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

While this story is set in India, its underlying themes are much more universal. Obviously, there is some local color, and cultural differences as a result of the country, but for the most part, the novel is about class differences.

Bhima has worked for the Dubash family for years now, and in many ways, knows Sera, her employer, better than anyone else. After all, she is there, day in and day out, and has witnessed many of the family secrets that Sera couldn't share with her friends and family due to her own feelings of shame. Bhima is the only one who knows about the beatings, and how dark her marriage really was while everyone else remembers her deceased husband as an outstanding man. Sera has taken an interest in Bhima's family, and helped her granddaughter get into college. Despite their obvious affection for each other, there is still an obvious distance between them. Sera can't get over certain middle/upper class ideas, and while in comparison to her friends, she is much more liberal, she still lives by certain conventions.

Both women have past loves that went horribly wrong and ended in disappointment, and throughout the novel, the reader gets a glimpse into their lives. Bhima has worked hard all her life, but her plans have often been thwarted by circumstance. Even her granddaughter, her final hope, ends up losing her opportunity to go to college as a result of a pregnancy. The life stories of Sera and Bhima, especially, were so interesting, that like Bhima, I figured it was unimportant who had gotten Maya pregnant, and that it was more important what it meant for them and how it would affect her future. As a result, I was surprised when the father was revealed after all.

At one point, Maya asks her grandmother, "why do you love their family even more than you love your own?" (270) This actually reminded me quite a bit of The Bluest Eye. Pecola's mother pampers and loves her employer's young, blonde, blue-eyed daughter much more than Pecola and, in fact, blames Pecola for her rape later in the novel. While Bhima would never choose the Dubash family over her own, and her love for her family is very clear, she still spends so much more time taking care of the Dubashes that it is not surprising Maya might accuse her of this. Also, in The Street, Lutie had to leave her own son behind in order to make money taking care of another family's child because the white family deemed themselves more important than Lutie's son. Basically, this odd intertwining of lives between servants and employers is a universal theme, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. It might have an Indian spin to things, but it is still easy to relate to, including things such as the nagging mother-in-law, middle class attitudes towards the working class, etc.