Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book #15: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Okay, so I read this for my book club (knowing that I won't be going for a little while after the baby comes, so I wanted to go now). I really liked it, and I really didn't like it. This book is a novelization of the story of Dinah from the Bible--the one daughter of Jacob who is named in the book of Genesis. In the Bible, we learn that she was taken and raped by a prince, and Simeon and Levi go and kill an entire city of men and kidnap her back. That's basically all you know about her. But this book covers her whole life, and the lives of her mothers before her, and gives voice to this woman who doesn't say a word in the Bible. She tells her story and that of her family, and tells what "really" happened to her as she was growing up and then what happened to her after that one small (and traumatic) episode that is described in the Bible. I'm going to get somewhat specific (spoiler alert!) so I remember stuff for our book club discussion next week.

The thing that I really liked in this book was the sense of community and closeness among the women in the story. The best part, I thought, was the beginning chapters, describing the four wives of Jacob (Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah), and how they became his wives and how they interacted with each other. The book is called The Red Tent because that was the women's tent where they all spent their periods together--and Dinah makes it seem like this immeasurable time of bonding and caring for one another. It seemed almost magical, the way that she talked about it--all the women in there together, taking a break from their usual labors, resting and gossiping and worshipping their (pagan) gods together. I really liked that image and I thought Diamant did a wonderful job of creating that world for me. (Interesting to note: this menstrual tent idea for these women in the Bible is not actually historically accurate... there's no evidence that they did that. But Diamant says that other cultures had it so she thought it could have applied here with these women too.) I also liked the strength and power that the women depicted in their birthing scenes--I am NOT a birth story person (they usually gross me out and hit too close to home) but since Dinah grew up around so many births, and grew up to be a midwife, it was a natural theme and it really made me feel like women are powerful and strong. I also feel like the ending was somewhat satisfying to return for a short while to her father's family and see how her story lived on; it fit with the strong themes of the women keeping their own stories alive and the oral histories that played a huge role in their lives.

I didn't love some things about the book too. I didn't love her depictions of Jacob or Joseph. Jacob was a totally inattentive father (except to his beloved eldest sons) who couldn't even picture what his daughter looked like after she was taken away. Joseph grew up to be an insufferable arrogant jerk who Diamant projects as being gay and actually sleeping with Potiphar's wife instead of the story we all know and love from the Bible. And also, her depiction of Rebecca as this psycho, stonewalling crazy grandma-prophetess just struck me as wrong. (But I mean, maybe there's something mentioned in the Bible that makes sense of that?) I was pretty bored of the story after she cursed her father and brothers and left after the bloodbath. She goes to Egypt, bears a son of her husband who was killed, and basically sits around for years, eventually becoming a midwife and gets married again. I felt like she displayed pretty much no emotions about being taken away from her home that she'd lived in for her whole life and leaving her mothers who she adored. She literally knew her husband for like one week when she was 15 years old, and they basically just had sex the whole time, and she spent the rest of her life pining for him and not missing her family who she'd been with for forever. I mean, come on. I hated how her son drifts away from her and she becomes nothing more than a servant who happened to bear him in her womb (which, I get may be realistic to the times, but I still hated). I also hated how she accidentally runs into Joseph again as the grand vizier in Egypt. I mean, come on. That's super likely.

Overall, I thought the book was worth reading. I felt like I read the whole beginning with a sense of foreboding, waiting for things to get really bad, and it kind of ruined my enjoyment of the beginning (which was definitely the strongest part of the story, with the themes of feminine strength and connection). I liked how it fleshed out (fictionally) this story from a woman's perspective, which helps to give new ideas about how things may or may not have been for these people, who really did live one day a long time ago, even if I don't personally agree that they would have been that way.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book #14: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

It's fitting that one of the quotes on the front of the book is from Malcolm Gladwell, because this book feels a lot like his. Grant uses different stories about people who have made decidedly original marks on the world to teach what common traits "Originals" have. He uses lots and lots of interesting studies to fill out the points he makes, which is fitting since he is an academic (I think?). So it definitely sounds like Gladwell and reminds me of his books (which I haven't read for a few years). Some of the stories that stood out to me: a finance company in CT that has a crazy-sounding CEO that demands that people share their dissenting opinions with him, the development of Warby Parker and how it seemed like their business would fail and why it didn't, stories about the development of Seinfeld and The Lion King and how both almost didn't get made. All of these stories were very interesting, and Grant was a good writer and made his points very well. I really enjoyed this read.

My main question after reading this is kind of simple-minded and probably shows how boring I really am. That is, how important is it that people are actually "original" or non-conformist anyway? Is this a quality we should be striving for or something? Obviously, creativity and originality are really important traits to have in the society at large, and it's really important that SOMEONE can innovate and find great new solutions to problems. But honestly, we don't all need to be creative or original. I don't think it would truly contribute to my overall happiness level or anything to be more creative. Most people don't really need those skills, to be honest. So to me, the points about how to implement the ideas in this book fall flat. But maybe I'm just a pessimist and this shows how truly un-original I am. (According to one of his chapters, birth order affects a lot of how rebellious or non-conformist you are, and the oldest is usually a rule-follower and people-pleaser. Younger/youngest children are usually more non-conformist. So maybe this is just because of my perfectionist oldest-child tendencies.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book #13: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

I read about this book when I read Ann Patchett's memoir Truth and Beauty about her deep friendship with Lucy Grealy a few years ago. I remember her description of the book and it sounding so interesting that I really, really wanted to read it. However, there wasn't a copy at our library at the time, and then I forgot about it. However, now that I'm all into e-audiobooks, this one became available to me and I listened to it on my phone over the last week. Hooray! I love the feeling of getting a good book that I've been meaning to read for years.

Lucy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her face when she was nine years old, and had to undergo years of treatment and surgeries afterwards to survive the cancer. As part of that treatment, she had to have half of her jaw removed. She wrote this memoir about her experiences dealing with the aftermath of that removal--mostly coming to grips with the fact that now she was ugly and would forevermore be facing the taunts of her classmates and groups of drunken men. It seems quite clear through the book that the cancer was less traumatic for her than how she had to come to grips with her new appearance, and therefore identity, after the cancer was gone. The whole book seems to be asking the question of "What is identity?" and is pondering the connection between our self-esteem and our beliefs about our appearance and beauty and our true identity. She says on at least one occasion that her face was her self, and since her face was so mutilated and consistently belittled and stared at, she had a hard time understanding or appreciating herself.

It was wrenching to read about her experiences going through cancer as a child. Grealy was brutally honest about her family situation (sometimes strained relationships) and the flaws of her parents (who left her to deal with a lot of her treatment completely alone), but not overly dramatic about it. She was also brutally honest about her desires for love and attention, and about her immature reactions to things like her cancer treatments (she was excited to be sent to the hospital, even knowing that she'd be in a lot of pain, because she got to be treated like she was special). It definitely made me sad to imagine her going through these treatments by herself and dealing with that pain alone. She also talked about how her mother's admonishments of "don't cry" affected her ability to deal with pain and respond appropriately. Grealy did an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and it shows--there are some beautiful, well-written passages throughout where she notices small details and draws them out for you. I thought this was a very interesting memoir about her experiences, and I think I will be thinking about her message of appearance vs. identity for a while to come.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Book #12: Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote one of the best books I've ever read: Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln. SO SO GOOD. After I read that, I wanted to read everything else she'd written, so I put this one on my to-read list on Goodreads. I finally got around to it four months ago and then promptly lost it in the car, and found it again last week. This isn't a history or biography like the other books I've read by her--it's a memoir about her time growing up outside of New York City in the 40s and 50s, and particularly about her personal love of the Dodgers baseball team and their annual attempts to win the World Series. She talked about her family and relationships, how she learned to keep score of baseball games with her dad, how they would sit and listen to games over the radio and eventually watch them on TV, how their neighborhood was like one big extended family where all the kids ran in and out of each other's houses constantly. She writes about it being so idyllic, living the suburban life of the 1950s--it reminded me a little bit of Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and his experiences growing up at the same time somewhere in the midwest. It was well-written and moderately absorbing, but honestly, it may have been more interesting if I were a baseball fan (since it is mostly a baseball memoir--she writes about each season of the 50s for the Dodgers with great detail). I also thought after she spent so much time writing and explaining about how much she loves the Dodgers, it felt a little anticlimactic for how little she wrote about them leaving to go to Los Angeles just a few years later. She obviously was sad about it, but she didn't seem to spend all that much energy on it. The last chapter kind of petered out as she wrote about her childhood ending and her mother dying. Overall, it was well-written, but not sure I will ever feel the need to read it again.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Book #11: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado

This book sounded more promising and interesting than it really was. Tirado writes about what it's like being poor in America, and explains some of her experiences working low-paying jobs and living paycheck to paycheck, and not being able to make ends meet. She writes about the problems with not being able to afford healthcare (either preventative or maintenance, only in emergencies would they go to a doctor or hospital), like how she is losing all her teeth because of a car accident she was in and she couldn't afford to get it taken care of at the time. She writes about the lack of respect you get working in the service industry and how obnoxious it is. She writes about the logistical struggles of working multiple jobs and having those schedules overlap and trying to make enough to bring home money to pay for rent, etc. Everything she writes about rings true and yes, sounds horrible. I am well aware of how privileged I am--even more so after reading her book. I can't honestly imagine losing a car because it got towed and I couldn't afford to pay a couple hundred dollars to get it out. I think that is the main benefit/positive aspect of this book--how it raises awareness of privilege in the audience of wealthier Americans. However, she is so bitter and angry about it as she writes that it's hard to see who her audience is. She's obviously writing FOR richer Americans, but she spends all her time making fun of them and cussing at them and telling them sarcastically not to expect good service. I thought she was refreshingly honest about her bad decisions that brought her to poverty, but she also obviously had bad luck (like a flood in their apartment that eventually got them evicted, etc.). While she said many times "This is just me, I'm not speaking for everyone," the way she talked made it seem like she WAS trying to talk for all poor people and say that most of them feel the way she does and struggle the same way.

Overall, there were some great points in the book and I can definitely see it being useful. But her overall angst and attitude made it annoying to read after a while, plus, she used the f-word maybe every other page. I'm glad I read it instead of listened to it, because then I could speed through the parts that were repetitive and annoying. It was a very quick read, which was good. It didn't deserve more energy than the few hours it took to get through.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book #10: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I read about this a few months ago, but forgot about it. It sounded vaguely familiar--it's a memoir by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who discovered that he himself had cancer, and suddenly had to face all of his own questions about the meaning of life and death that he had been helping his patients to navigate through his training. He was in his last year of his residency when he was diagnosed, so he never fully finished his training, and he had a lot of questions about what he wanted to do out of his life and how he should spend his time after knowing about his cancer. I thought that his writing style was beautiful and very poetic--he was an English major and had a master's in English before going to medical school, and he spent a lot of time reading literature, which you can tell through his writing style--and I loved how he clearly spent a lot of time thinking about his responsibility as a communicator to his patients, not just as a quick and skillful surgeon. His view of the morality of being a doctor and talking to patients about their diagnoses and procedures makes me hope that all doctors feel that same way--overcoming the dulling of their senses that must eventually come when dealing with hundreds or thousands of patients over years, trying to be sensitive to their questions and fears and needs. I loved how he was so open and honest about his struggles and attempts to live a meaningful life, not just thinking "I'll beat this cancer!" but "How can I live meaningfully even knowing I might die from this cancer?" The most poignant part of his story was that he and his wife had a baby a few months before his cancer came back and he eventually passed away. She was only eight months old when he died--and I am so sensitive to things about babies right now. I cried my way through reading the epilogue, written after he died, by his wife, about how he passed away and what they have learned and done since then. But it was a very well-earned cry. This book was not very long--it went by quickly--but it felt deep and meaningful and inspiring. The best kind of read.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book #9: Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

I vividly remember when I picked this book up at the Durham Library annual book sale and bought it on a whim. It was a total judging a book by its cover--I think the pink made it seem like it was less hefty than it was--and it's sat on my bookshelves for the last 3-4 years with me feeling bad about not having read it. One of my goals for this year was to read ten books which I own without having read, though, and so I finally made it through this one. (And now I am planning to go sell a bunch of these books to Half Price Books, including this one, because I don't see myself reading it again--although I enjoyed it.)

This is a very well-researched and interesting biography of Marie Antoinette, starting with her parents and childhood and ending, obviously, with her execution during the French Revolution. The fact of the book--which Fraser starts with on the very first page--is that Marie Antoinette actually DID NOT say, "Let them eat cake" like everyone thinks. That quote was already floating around as some other princess having said it, centuries before Marie Antoinette was in power, so there's no way it was actually from her. The other reason that she never said it was because it would have been totally out of her character, because she was sympathetic to the poor and concerned about their plight (but not enough to cut back on her expenses or lifestyle). Fraser gives a very sympathetic view of Marie Antoinette and shows that she was actually a relatively good, kind person, who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, thanks to her mother's (the Empress of Austria) over-reaching ambitions and attempts to use her as a pawn in a treaty between Austria and France through her marriage to Louis XVI. Marie Antoinette was only fourteen when she was shipped off to France as a bride, and she was obviously immature and unfamiliar with the customs of that court and her role there. She was not very smart (it seems) and never truly grasped her role as the go-between Austria and France (as it was intended when her mother shipped her over there) vs. her role as the Queen of France. She was also very expensive, spending millions of livre a year on clothes and re-furnishing apartments--but, as Fraser is always careful to point out, she wasn't any more spendy than any of the other aristocrats of her time. She was actually in between a rock and a hard place, because it was part of her role as the Queen of France that she look and act the part and uphold a lifestyle that the people expected, but they also resented it for her as well. But she was a good and dedicated mother, and she developed a lot of courage and backbone through the years of trial and struggle leading up to her execution. It is obvious through reading about the last few years of her life that she was unfairly mistreated and given no chance to defend herself, that the people were determined to kill her without any evidence. One of the most heart-wrenching things to me was that they took her son away from her and brainwashed him against her to get him to accuse her of incest during her trial--and after everything else she had suffered, that seemed like it was probably the final straw, because she had always cared first and foremost about her children and their well-being. Every single witness to her execution talked about how brave and quiet she was walking to the guillotine.

This book was very interesting, but it was hard to keep track of all the people and there wasn't enough explanation of all the major goings-on of the French government and the Revolution (Fraser expected you to already know what was coming). But it was easy enough to skim along and get the main points. It started to drag once they got arrested, but I really enjoyed the first half of the book and learning about the court of Versailles and their customs and outrageous lifestyle they had there. Overall, definitely a worthwhile read--but it was a hefty book and I don't think I'm going to read it again.