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.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Off to Asia!

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia skyline

I am off this weekend on a 2.5-week business trip to Southeast Asia!  (#workperks)  I'll be visiting Hong Kong for a hot minute, Bangkok for two hot minutes, and Singapore and Malaysia for a bit longer.  I don't often post personal life things to this blog, but I do share travel and food photos on Instagram when I'm out and about.  If you'd like to see them, you can follow me @aartichapati.  I will hopefully have time to do a bit more sight-seeing (and fun eating) than I did on my last trip, which I am quite excited about.  If you happen to be in any of those areas, let me know!  It would be fun to meet up.

Happy reading, and I'll see you in April!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ten Years Later

10 years ago, I posted my first book review on a blog (not this one, these were livejournal days)!  I would link to it here except that I really hate reading my old reviews.  Anyway, the first book I reviewed was Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour.  A book I really enjoyed and still own.  So funny; nowadays, because I blog, I am often nervous about tackling long books.  Before blogging, I was all about the chunksters that used to dominate fantasy and historical fiction.

My reading tastes have changed drastically over the past ten years.  It's hard to parse out how much of that is due to blogging and all of you and how much is due to my own personal growth (or lack thereof).  Regardless, I'm so happy with the way my reading tastes have evolved and broadened over time.  I love that I read so much more widely now than I used to, and I think I am a kinder, smarter and better person because of it.  Books can have such massive impact on individuals and on society as a whole.  When I consider my personal mourning for Terry Pratchett and our national mourning for Harper Lee, I know that there is so much power in words to be agents of change in the world.

Bloggers, then, are the conduits through which books can reach people so that they can effect change.   All of us worry, I think, that we spend a lot of time and effort writing about books that no one ever reads.  But one thing I have learned about myself is that there's a long game.  It can take me a long time to get around to reading a book I've heard about, but that doesn't usually lessen the impact that book has on me.  Even if you told me about a book or an author years ago, and I just get around to reading it now, you were still that link.  You made a difference.

Similarly, the impact of a story can be felt long after I've finished reading it.  I remember so clearly reading The Awakening in high school and it not registering very much with me at all.  But now, even though I've never read The Awakening again, I think back on how prescient it was about life as a woman and the decisions and trade-offs we must make.  The effect may be delayed, but it's no less important.

So I'd like to thank you all for the influence you have had on my reading and on so many other people's reading.  Perhaps you are lucky enough to see an immediate response to your recommendations.  Or maybe you are struggling, wondering if anyone out there has read your impassioned post about a book that changed your life that seems to have hit the internet and faded so quickly.  I promise you, the impact you have is often hard to track and invisible to you, but that doesn't mean it's not there.  All of you have had an immeasurable impact on my reading.  And because of that, you have influenced who I am as a person.  (And let me tell you, I'm pretty amazing :-) ).  Thank you!


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