Thursday, May 12, 2016

Be kind to yourself

When I was younger, I really hated the word "nice" as a descriptor of people.  I thought nice meant boring.  I hoped that no one would ever use "nice" as the first word to describe me.  I was so much more!  Fun and witty and opinionated and all the rest.  I wasn't boring.  And I didn't want to be thought of as just nice.

I'm in my early 30s now, and my perspective has completely changed.  I love nice people.  I would be thrilled if someone were to describe me as "just a really, really good person."  I can't think of any personality trait that I find more attractive than kindness, except perhaps a sense of humor that is similar to mine.

Sara Eckel's book, It's Not You:  27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single, is a kind book.  It is a longer version of her excellent, very popular Modern Love essay in the New York Times.  It's about being kind to yourself, which can often be very difficult, especially if you are a single woman in your 30s or 40s.  Inevitably, people think there is something wrong with you.  Eckel does not.  She says that if you're single, it's not because something's wrong with you.  It's because finding someone is hard.  It takes a lot of luck.  It's about timing.  And if it happens, that's great.  But if it doesn't, it's not your fault.  You are no less worthy of love than other people are.

So many things that Eckel brings up here as the reasons why women are single (you're too picky, you're too intimidating, you're too available, you need more practice, you aren't playing the game, etc.) are things that have been said to me by well-meaning friends and pretty much complete strangers.  Eckel takes 27 of the most common reasons self-help books and well-meaning friends tell you that you're single and refutes them.  She tells you why vulnerability is a good thing, why you should stand up for yourself.  She is just that really wonderful girlfriend who listens to you and doesn't judge you but instead gives you support and a really excellent hug.

I've been single for pretty much my entire life.  I have done so many of the things Eckel mentions here.  She talks about all the projects and tasks single women take up, trying to make themselves more well-rounded, better, worthier people for relationships.  They exercise, they learn to cook, they host dinner parties, they volunteer in their communities, they travel alone, they work really hard to make new friends and keep long-established friendships alive.

And it's true.  I am in the best shape of my life right now, I have more friends than I've ever had before, I make sure that I have a full calendar (though I will never use the word "busy" to describe myself as I hate that word), and I put myself out there far more often, and in ways that make me quite a bit more uncomfortable, than I ever would have thought possible even 5 years ago.  Being single has made me into a better person, even if being single can be really hard sometimes.  But has it made me more "worthy" of finding someone?  No.

Eckel talks a lot about self-compassion and Buddhist teachings (though she does not consider herself a Buddhist).  This is an idea I have been thinking about quite a bit over the past several months, mostly because I think so many people are kind to others but are not kind to themselves.  We do not trust ourselves, we do not give ourselves credit for going out there and giving it the ole college try, we assume there must be something wrong with us.  Eckel references a TED Talk by Brene Brown that I looked up after finishing the book.  It's about the power of vulnerability, and it is excellent.  Brown says, yes, it's hard to make yourself vulnerable.  It makes you feel weak, it makes you feel exposed, and it can be horrible when it doesn't go well.  But... making yourself vulnerable also opens you up to richer, more wonderful relationships with people.  It gives people the opportunity to be vulnerable with you, too.  You learn more about someone.  Your friendship deepens.  You are kinder, gentler, more forgiving.  They are, too.  And it's worth it.  "The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging.  That's it."

Eckel also talks about the whole "ice queen" idea - that if a woman really wants to get a man's attention, she should basically ignore him and pretend she doesn't care about him, because if he realizes she cares, then he'll leave.  Of every piece of dating advice out there, this one always comes up.  Don't show too much interest.  Play the game.  Don't respond to his text for like, 8 hours, even though everyone knows you saw the text as soon as it was sent because what are the chances you don't have your phone with you?

I would say this is always the one I struggle with the most because I think it's really bad form and quite rude not to respond to someone who contacts you.  I also have very little patience in spending time with people I don't like when I could spend time with people I do like.  If I like you, I will make time for you.  If I don't, I won't.  The idea of not making time for someone that I like is just ridiculous to me.  The idea of treating someone I really like unkindly is also very hard to take.  As Eckel says,
Think about the most self-assured people you know.  Are they inconsiderate, selfish, or withholding?  Do they try to make you feel small and powerless?  Or are they the ones who offer to take your coat and give you their full attention when you tell them about the book you're reading?  Are they the ones who notice when you've done something well and tell you so?
Like I said, I want to be the nice person.  I don't want to be the cause of angst or anxiety in someone else's life, I want to be a source of support.

And that's why I think this book was so great.  It was not at all self-help-y, it was not about finding ways to find guys, it was not about anything except feeling good about yourself.  And that means a lot.

One of Eckel's single friends, when asked what she wanted in a man (because some people thought she was too picky, and other people thought she just didn't know a good thing when she had it), said something that I think is pretty much perfect, and will be my criteria going forward:
I want to find a guy who delights and surprises me as much as my friends do, but I also want to make out with.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Slumlord Millionaires

It cannot be said that Matthew Desmond's Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City is an uplifting book.  Amazon has given it the dubious distinction of being "#1 Best Seller in Poverty."  The book follows eight families in some of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods from mid-2008 to late 2009 and shows how their struggles to pay the rent each month can create insurmountable challenges in every other aspect of their lives.  A snowball becomes an avalanche.  And then they are evicted, and it becomes even worse.

I did not realize just how often people are evicted from their homes.  I have always had a vague idea that laws favor the renter over the landlord, perhaps based on the whole "possession is 90% of the law" idea.  But I think that whole notion is predicated on the idea that both sides are equally educated and have the same access to resources.  When the two sides are not balanced, things can go south very quickly.

Desmond states that "If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women.  Poor black men were locked up.  Poor black women were locked out."  In Milwaukee, black women make up less than 10% of the population but more than 30% of the evictions.  Eviction wreaks havoc in so many ways - parents have to scramble to secure housing, they often lose their material possessions in addition to their homes, their kids are taken out of school, no one feels connected to or committed to a neighborhood, and they now have an eviction on their record, making it even harder to find another home.

It is hard to read Desmond's book without feeling a little sick or hoping that maybe he is exaggerating the situation.  Can landlords really be so cruel?  Is it true that they make the most profit off their poorest tenants?  This must be a pretty one-sided presentation of the information, right?

And maybe it is.  After all, there are eight families profiled, but only two landlords, and the two landlords are disturbingly unkind and mercurial.  Even with that caveat, though, this is a very bleak picture of America.

The tenants here have all made mistakes in their lives, some of them have made really big ones.  It is tempting to think - well, they messed up.  They deserve this.  If they just worked more/tried harder/stayed clean, then they wouldn't be in this situation.  I think we all want to think that because we need to believe that we live in a fair world, and that those of us who are being dealt a better life got that life because we work more, try harder, and are smarter.  Not just because we were lucky.  Because if any of this is based on luck, and luck can change, then any one of us could be struggling.

But even people who make mistakes have children who deserve stability.  They have families that need financial and emotional support.  They need help but are afraid to ask for it.  They don't know their rights.  They pay a very high price for their mistakes, and with the snowball effect that just one crisis can have on someone in poverty, they keep paying that price, over and over.

Desmond uses the word "exploitation" to describe the relationship between landlords and their tenants in poor neighborhoods.  I was aghast at the conditions he described.  Landlords often charge tenants very high prices (really, not that much lower than rent in much better neighborhoods) for apartments that are in really bad shape.  And, since they can threaten these tenants with eviction at almost any time, they don't feel any obligation to do maintenance work or upkeep on their units.  They nickel and dime tenants, make them do work for free, kick them out, and then begin again with someone new.

It took me a very long time to read this book, mainly because it was so sad.  It was hard to pick it up after a long day of work.  But I live in a very large and very segregated city, and I think it's important for me (and everyone else) to understand how housing policies can impact Chicago.  For that reason, I'm really glad I read this book and better understand the economics and politics at play here.  It was a tough one, but it's important.  You may not think that housing policy has any effect on you, but it does - it is your taxes, your neighborhood, your school, and your city.  So pay attention.

If you would prefer to read about Desmond's book and the issues he brings up rather than reading the full book, I highly recommend the New York Times review.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

How to follow your dreams and disappoint your parents

I am not sure why comics are such great vehicles for memoirs, particularly memoirs of growing up and coming of age.  Whatever it is, I definitely have a weakness for memoirs in comic book form (whereas I hardly ever read memoirs in prose).  So when I heard about Ozge Samanci's Dare to Disappoint, her memoir of growing up in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, I put it straight on my library wish list.

As usual, I have no idea where I first heard about this book.  I think possibly on some comic book round-up from the end of 2015.  While the story itself is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking, it's related in a very endearing and visually appealing way, and I really enjoyed it.

Ozge grew up in a pretty tense environment.  Turkey was in a period of high militarization, religious fervor and conflict, and an opening of the economy and culture to outside influences.  In the midst of all that, Ozge's parents worked very hard at low-paying jobs; they were insistent that Ozge and her older sister would do better for themselves.  Only study engineering at the very top school!  Otherwise, they'd be failures.

As someone who grew up in an Indian household, I completely understood the pressure Ozge felt to do well in subjects that were not nearly as interesting to her as others were (though, to be fair, Indian parents require their kids to be good in all subjects, not just math and science).  Similarly, I can understand parents' deep desire to ensure that their children's lives are easier and more comfortable than their own.

As this is a pretty universal conflict, it's not really Ozge's struggles that draw you into the story, though they are shared in a humorous and entertaining manner.  Instead, it's the juxtaposition of her coming-of-age against Turkey's growing pains.  She learns about herself, understands her environment better, and navigates a complicated system.  All with the help of fun, colorful illustrations and collages.

I really enjoyed learning more about Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, at the end of the Cold War.  It's always fun to learn about everyday life in a different place, particularly when systems are set up so differently from what you are used to.  For example, Turkey's school system was set up (maybe still is?) in such a way that you had to do really well on tests to advance to the good schools and the well-paying jobs.  Students practiced military drills at school.  Ozge encounters devout Muslims (she is not one herself), studies and works herself to exhaustion, discovers boys, chats with Jacques Cousteau, and tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

Dare to Disappoint is not likely to change your world or blow your bind, but it's funny, bright, and thoughtful.  If you're a fan of comics or of coming-of-age stories or memoirs (that's a pretty wide range), then I'd recommend checking it out.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Gabi, the amazing girl you wish you knew in high school

Isabel Quintero
I am not sure how I first heard about Isabel Quintero's novel, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  But whatever serendipitous circumstances finally worked to bring me and this book together, I'm grateful for them.  Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, is funny and heart-breaking and marvelous.

The book is written as a series of diary entries over Gabi's senior year of high school.  Gabi is an overweight Mexican-American girl in southern California.  Her father is a meth addict, her mom is a very traditional Mexican mother, her brother is angry, one of her best friends just came out and her other best friend is pregnant.  Through all this, Gabi applies to college, discovers a deep love for poetry, finds her own considerable creative genius, and deals with the complications of many boy problems.

I really loved reading this book.  Gabi is such a wonderful narrator.  She's smart, she's sassy, she's confident, she's loyal, and she's a great person with whom to spend a few hundred pages of teenage drama.  To give you a sense of her personality and why I would have loved to be her best friend in high school, here are a few quotes:
That's the magic of poetry - some gay Jewish poet wrote about people wasting away around him because of drugs, and I, a straight Mexican-American girl. know how he felt because I am seeing the same waste he witnessed over fifty years ago.  Ginsberg is talking about my dad in those first lines.  He didn't know it then, but he was. 

I feel bad about that, like I'm supposed to be lying in bed, distraught, eating an entire container of Chunky Monkey.  But I already did that last night.  And I think one night of crying for a guy I-think-I -really-like-but-am-not-so-sure-about-anymore is enough.

And my absolute favorite:
Then I looked myself straight in the eyes and said, "Gabi, get over it.  You look spectacular.  You look amazing, so stop your bitching or do something that makes you feel better."  I took a deep breath and took off my shorts and shirt and stepped out on that beach like I owned that shit and didn't give a fuck about all the skinny girls around me.  After a while, I didn't feel like an outsider and nobody made comments or even cared about what I looked like.  The other thing about being fat is that you spend too much damn time worrying about being fat and that takes time away from having fun.  But I decided today would be different.  And it was.
Gabi was such a breath of fresh air, and I loved her.  Quintero makes clear that Gabi is overweight and loves to eat, but she also makes clear that Gabi is extremely attractive to people.  She has no less than three guys after her over the course of this book, showing that even teenage guys are drawn to smart, confident women.  Gabi also is very secure in herself and her talent.  She has no issues with writing poetry and reciting it in front of other people.  You won't find long, angsty paragraphs here about not wanting other people to know about her family drama, or not wanting to attend an open mic night at a coffee shop because people won't think it's cool.  You'll find a girl who just STEALS THE SHOW.

It's because Gabi is such a fantastic narrator that this book doesn't ever get weighed down by all of the serious issues it confronts.  In some ways, it felt like Quintero tackled a bit too much in this book to give any one issue enough attention on its own.  But in other ways... maybe that's just what teenagers these days deal with all the time.

Quintero deftly juxtaposes Gabi's traditional upbringing and the expectations of her family against her newly-awakened feminism.  She does this with glorious references to feminist poetry, such as Sandra Cisneros' Loose Woman and Tracie Morris' Project Princess.  As someone who doesn't read a lot of poetry, all the references to poems in this book had me Googling all over the place, trying to find the poems that Gabi mentions so that I, too, can experience what she feels when she reads poetry.

There is so much more that is covered in this book; if I were to talk about all of it here, I'd be gushing on and on.  To me, Gabi's confidence and her budding feminism butting heads against her upbringing were the most memorable.  But there's something for everyone here, something that will resonate with you and remind you of your own childhood and your own insecurities and how you can face them.  Personally, I haven't owned a swimsuit in I don't know how many years.  (Mostly because I really don't like beaches, but also because, well, swimsuits are a pretty stressful piece of clothing to buy.)  But after reading Gabi's comments that I quoted above, I realize that, damnit, I can wear a swimsuit if I want to, and there's no reason to deny myself an enjoyable experience on the off-chance that someone else who probably sucks, anyway, will judge the way I look.  So there!

Seriously, read this book.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Forest and the Tower

Naomi NovikI started Naomi Novik's Temeraire series with a bang but then lost steam somewhere around the third book and never got back into it.  So I admit I was not all that excited about about her new stand-alone novel, Uprooted.  But the book got rave reviews from people I trust, so I thought I should give it a go.

Of course, the large hardcover edition came into the library just before I was off on a trip to the other side of the world.  It also came in at the exact same time as another large hardcover fantasy novel I wanted to read.  After some serious agonizing, I chose to take Uprooted with me on my trip and leave the other book behind.  And, pretty much as soon as I read the first page, I was sure I had made the right decision.

To digress for a moment, one of the reasons I get a little bit annoyed by all the love and adulation that Game of Thrones has inspired from the HBO series is that I think of Game of Thrones as a fantasy throwback.  Maybe it was of the moment when the series first started being written about 20 years ago, but now, it just feels a bit dated and outmoded to me.  The fantasy genre has evolved past the massive doorstoppers, series of 10 books each, swords and sorcery and all the rest.  I'm sure those types of books are still being written and enjoyed, but I love that the genre has expanded to include so much else, too.  And so while I really enjoyed Game of Thrones when I first started the series, I have no real desire to continue with it.  I prefer the way fantasy is now.

And that's why I think Uprooted really works for me.  While Uprooted is very firmly rooted in traditional fantasy and folk tales, it is also very much a modern novel.  The book stands on its own without two more books to follow, features a gloriously strong heroine, focuses on friendship and caring for others, and there is no objectification of women (or men).  Hooray!

My favorite thing about Uprooted is one of its key themes, the push and pull between caring for individuals and caring for populations.  How important is it to save one person when an entire group of people is at risk?  Alternatively, how easy is it to lose empathy for others if you never consider them as individuals?  I loved the way Novik explored this with Agnieska and the wizards.  Agnieska is deeply rooted to her home, her family, and the people she grew up with.  She loves them all and knows them.  In contrast, the wizards, all of whom have lived far longer than her and seen everyone they care about come and go, seem to care very little for individuals.  They care more for symbols and countries and larger beliefs.  Both beliefs make sense, and I really appreciated the way both sides played out throughout the novel.

My other favorite thing about this book was the friendship between Agnieska and her friend, Kasia.  Some readers are apparently disappointed that Agnieska and Kasia's relationship did not become a romance.  I was not disappointed by that at all; I love when authors give equal footing to friendship as they do to romance.  Friendship can be so hard to write well because it develops deeply over time.  Novik took a friendship that had existed for both girls' entire lives, and she brought so much honesty and trust and forgiveness to it.  I loved everything about how this friendship was brought to life.  It was wonderful.

There is a romance in this book, but it does not take center stage.  While I found it believable in some ways, I also don't think the male character was developed well enough for it to capture my heart or imagination.  That said, I loved the way Agnieska acted in the romance.  She never considered herself unworthy, she never considered them unequal, and even when it seemed like maybe things wouldn't work out, she went on with her life doing good things for many people.  It was excellent.

This book got me through several nights of jet lag (or perhaps exacerbated the jet lag since I was totally open to reading it at all hours of night).  I think it was a little long at the end, but other than that, it was lovely.  Exactly the sort of fantasy novel that I love; I can't wait to purchase a copy of the book for myself.  And while I know I said I'm so thrilled that this is a stand-alone novel, I also would love to jump back into this world and spend more time there.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Delicious eats and food for thought

Marcus Samuelsson
I really love the food documentaries on Netflix.  I enjoyed The Chef's Table, I really liked For Grace, and I am sure I will eat up (haha, pun intended) whatever else Netflix recommends in my queue.

I don't actually do a lot of food-related reading, though.  I am not sure why.  Maybe I miss the visuals of the beautiful dishes or the sounds of pots clanging, meat sizzling, knives chopping.

I have never been to any of Marcus Samuelsson's restaurants before, though I have used his recipe for a garam masala pumpkin tart for Thanksgiving over the past few years.  I really like Samuelsson's cooking in theory, though I have not experienced it in practice.  Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, grew up in Sweden, worked in restaurants around Europe and on the sea, and then moved to New York.  His cooking style draws from all of his global experiences and tastes; hence, he has a recipe for garam masala pumpkin pie, melding the tastes of traditional American home-cooking with Indian spices.  I love taking tastes that don't often go together and making them work, making something new and different.  In a dorky and idealistic way, I feel like if people can see how their tastes are not so different and can complement each other to make stronger whole, then maybe it will help people see past their bigger and more philosophical differences, too.

Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson's book about his life.  In many ways, it's pretty typical of what you would expect from a chef.  He didn't like school, he preferred being in the kitchen with his grandmother.  He went to culinary school and worked harder and longer and better than anyone else.  He was lucky enough to get a big break at a well-known restaurant, and from there he was off, with a few bumps and bruises along the way.

But in addition to that, Samuelsson shares some personal insights as well.  For example, he grew up very dark-skinned in a very light-skinned environment.  He faced overt and more subtle racism in the kitchen almost everywhere he went.  A couple of times, he would be offered a job on paper but then show up for work and be told that there was no place for him.  He talks a lot about how few minorities are in the kitchens of high-end restaurants, how few women, too.  And how he is doing his part, working very hard to give people the opportunities that he often did not receive while he was training.  Samuelsson never makes race or racism the dominant part of his narrative, but it clearly had a huge impact on his training and the way he learned to cook, and I think he addresses it really well.  It's also clear just how much it has influenced every aspect of his cooking; he draws from so many different food cultures to create his recipes.

What's also obvious in this book is that being a chef is really hard and a ton of work.  It takes a huge personal toll on people.  Samuelsson missed both his grandmother's and his father's funerals because of work.  He does not spend a lot of time being introspective about this, but it is hard to imagine.  He also has a daughter, and for about the first 15 years of her life, he never made any attempt to contact her or get to know her.  Obviously, Samuelsson had to deal with a lot of personal things and decisions as he grew and matured; while readers don't get a huge amount of insight into these very personal motivations and decisions, it's clear that he still struggles with them.

Samuelsson makes no secret that he enjoyed going out, having fun, meeting people and spending time with women.  He also clearly has a ton of confidence in his skill and his decisions.  He can sometimes sound arrogant, but I think it is just honesty.  And it's hard not to love anyone who serves a meal at the White House and then comes home to Harlem and makes the exact same meal for his teenaged next-door neighbor and all her best friends.  That was just lovely.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and now I really want to visit Samuelsson's restaurant in Harlem the next time I am in New York City!  Here's a link to Red Rooster's website in case you want to see the fusion menu he has on there, too.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Two lives lived well

Jo Walton
Jo Walton's My Real Children is one of those books that I loved and completely devoured, but I cannot entirely pinpoint why.

The story is about Patricia Cowan.  Patricia is getting older, and she forgets many things, big and small, that have happened to her over the past few years.  But she also remembers things, big and small, that she could swear happened, but don't make sense in her current circumstances.  Patricia seems to be living two lives, in two separate worlds.  Her life was all on a steady path until one day, she made a decision, and based on that decision, her life (and the world she lived in) went in two very different directions.

I love almost any alternate reality or alternate universe story, so I was predisposed to enjoy this one.  I appreciated that it was, for the most part, set after WWII rather than before or during the war.  Yes, the second world war had stunning effects on the world and how it has turned out, but events and decisions made both before and after the war have had enormous impact as well.

I am now about a week removed from having read this book and I admit that I am not sure why I loved it so much.  I gave it an unreserved 5-star rating when I finished it.  I loved Patricia, I loved how she made the best of circumstances no matter what they were.  I felt so saddened by the way her children, in both lives, relegated her to the background as she got older.  I enjoyed the subtlety with which Walton introduced societal prejudices into her narrative.  For example, in one world, Trish and her partner, Bee, seem to have no issues whatsoever with their son being in a polyamorous relationship.  It just seems to be what he chooses and they are fine with it.  They are, however, quietly concerned when their daughter marries a Muslim.  Walton does not delve very deeply into this (though, admittedly, she doesn't delve deeply into very much, which I will get to in a bit).  But most people don't like to examine their prejudices, so in a way, it was quite realistic.

Jo Walton writes about the small, personal, everyday acts of our lives wonderfully.  In all her books.  You get such a vivid sense of a character's day-to-day activities, and I really enjoy how she gives such care and attention to things that all of us view as trivial, but are the events that fill our lives.  She does this so well in very slim volumes; her stories are compact and self-contained and somehow still deeply moving and I love that about them.

That said, in this one, I just feel like there was so much that was left out.  And I say that now, but please remember that I loved it.  It is only now, a week later as I write this review, that I am mulling a bit.  We hear about big world events in an off-hand manner, in both worlds that Patricia inhabits, but never quite enough to understand what the situation is.  We see only minor inconveniences, mainly to outlying characters.  Though we have the idea that there are stresses on Trish's family in one version of her life, we don't see anything very drastic happen.  Again, this is part of Walton's skill; most people don't have hugely dramatic events in their lives, they just make the most of what they have and try to soldier on and be happy.  I wanted a bit more context.

Also, the book takes place over several decades, and in two very different worlds.  Because of that, we hardly get to know any of the other characters at all.  They flit in and out but do not have a solid presence.  Good friends from college are rarely mentioned again, the children are all vaguely there but with hardly any impact on life, spouses are either horrible or perfect with no real personality or depth, and the world keeps turning but what happens on that world is not shared in any great depth.  Because of that, at the end, when Patricia is trying to make sense of whether she would rather have a happy life in a horrible world or a sad life in a much better world, it was hard to feel compelled in either direction; I did not know enough to compare the two worlds at all.

So, this book!  I loved it and read it so quickly and enjoyed it hugely.  But, looking back, I feel like it could have had more depth.  If you want to read about the impact that big events have on small lives, this is wonderful.  If you want something... bigger?  Then, maybe not this one.


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