Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Bossypants" by Tina Fey

Summary: Fey's humorous look at her career and reflections on life.

Musings: I'm a big fan of 30 Rock and was eager to read Fey's new book.  In some ways I think I expected Fey to be much like her 30 Rock fictional character Liz Lemon: talented but neurotic and self-deprecating; kind of a mess.  And though Fey would probably claim to be neurotic at times, the image I got of her from Bossypants is undeniably one of someone skilled, accomplished, and self-assured.  I'd thought she'd be someone I'd want to buddy-up to, but truthfully, I don't think we'd be friends (and that's no criticism to her at all).  She seems like someone who respects skill and work but doesn't take crap.  I just can't imagine her shooting the shit.

Bossypants is also more toned down that the absurdity of 30 Rock, which I think is what makes her seem real and truthful.  She's candid (but only about what she wants to be) and she throws in silly lines, but she's also very sincere about her work and beliefs.

My favorite parts of the book were about her work on SNL and 30 Rock, though I think her reflections on motherhood and judgments that come along with it were spot on.  As Fey points out, only in comedy does a white girl from the suburbs count as diversity, and because of her success as a woman she has to face tons of stupid questions of "what it's like?" and "how does she do it?"  In these moments I loved her feminist attitude--she's smart but not tee-totaling, and her main concern is doing what she wants to do.  Here's from the opening of the book:
Ever since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, "Is it hard for you, being the boss?" and "Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?" You know, in that same way they say, "Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?" I can't answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case it is not. I've learned a lot over the past ten years about what is means to be the boss of people. In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way. (5)
Bossypants ended up being exactly what I wanted--something funny, witty, and smart.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary" by Andrew Westoll

Summary: This nonfiction book explores the world of Fauna Sanctuary, a home for chimpanzees retired from biomedical research.  Westoll recounts the lives of these chimpanzees and their slow process of recovery from the physical and, perhaps more importantly, psychological torture experienced over years as test subjects.

Musings: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is called a "big-hearted" book, and though I tend to resist the cheesy, the description is apt.  The stories Westoll tells about the difficult lives of the chimpanzees and their impressive recoveries, illuminated through anecdotes of victories in the relationships between the chimps and their keepers and the chimps and each other, are indeed moving and heart-warming.

Westoll is not an impartial observer, having lived and worked at the sanctuary for several months, and though he is firmly on the animal rights side, he does not sugar coat the chimps' lives.  They arrive at the sanctuary with all kinds of psychological damage from being removed at infancy from their mothers, isolated, knocked down, restricted, and tested upon for years.  They can be violent, both toward their human caregivers and to each other.  But they are also individuals with full-fledged personalities who respond, like humans, to kindness, autonomy, and respect.

Perhaps what is most moving is the chimps' relationships with one another.  Although researchers have studied the social nature of chimps for years, it's fascinating to read about their care for one another first hand and note the important role that supportive chimp friends play in each chimp's recovery.

Fauna Sancutary concludes with a strong argument against using chimpanzees in invasive medical testing, and Westoll employs both moral and medical reasoning.  Most surprising, he argues that chimp research has been largely ineffective as a way to prevent and cure human diseases and that the high price of chimp testing is wasteful.

Westoll's narrative is best when it focuses on the chimps in the sanctuary and somewhat drier when he waxes philosophical.  However, he does an excellent job of providing an insider's view into the complex and difficult work of rehabilitating chimps.  Through this window into their lives, it's difficult not to see why preventing further cruelty to these animals is important.

The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary will be published in May 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Matched" by Ally Condie

Summary: The Society in which Cassia lives is perfect and arranges everything in its citizens' lives--from when they die (exactly on one's eightieth birthday) to whom they will be Matched with for marriage.  Cassia's excited for her Matching ceremony and thrilled when she learns she is matched with Xander, her best friend since childhood.  But when Cassia opens her dataport to see her match's picture, instead of Xander she sees a picture of Ky--another boy in the neighborhood.  Cassia finds herself drawn towards Ky, but doing so means disobeying the rules of the Society.

Musings: Matched is a book that would probably be good for teenagers who typically read contemporary YA (high school romances and friendships) and would like a generic love story with a dystopian feel.  However, for fans of the dystopian genre, Matched is dull and unoriginal.

Matched is extraordinarily similar to Uglies (though it lacks its more interesting concept) and Delirium (though Delirium at least made me feel something in the romance), and in its worldbuilding it goes no further than the most basic totalitarian government: restrictive thought, false utopia, controlled life decisions.  Cassia's a generic protagonist; she's happy and content in her controlled life until--dum dum--she sees Ky's photo and somehow goes all gaga for him.

Most of the book is Cassia agonizing over her decisions and coming to the startling realization (wait for it): that she should be able to make her own decisions! Yeah.

I skimmed through the last third so quickly that you'd think I'd have to have missed something, but now that I've finished, that doesn't appear to be the case.

Not one where I'll be picking up the sequel.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman

Summary: Subtitled "A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures," the nonfiction The Spirit Catches You details the intersection of western medicine and native culture through the life of Lia Lee.  Lia, the youngest daughter of Hmong immigrants, develops a seizure disorder.  Both her doctors and her parents wish to save her life, but each believes in markedly different means of doing so, causing conflict that has lasting repercussions.

Musings: The Spirit Catches You is an interesting book, both for its look into Hmong culture (of which I knew nothing) and for its nuanced look into cross-cultural misunderstandings and the danger they can pose.

The life of Lia is undeniably tragic, but Fadiman is careful to show that her sufferings are not due from fault, abuse, or neglect on either side.  Instead, both sides are unable to recognize the others' intents and motivation.  The doctors want to use modern medicine, and they look down on the parents for their reluctance to do so and their failure to follow Lia's prescription routines.  The parents want to heal their daughter through some medicine--though strictly determined by them--but also by traditional healing practices which utilize beliefs in spirits.  The refuse to administer medicine and procedures with which they disagree.

Fadiman explores the nature of these cultural misunderstandings, and she also attempts to understand if they could be surmounted.  Unfortunately, the obstacles are many, from the Hmong's lack of English and American acculturation to the doctors' failure to recognize the family's situation (how could they administer a complicated prescription routine when they are not literate?). 

The book spends a good amount of time on the Hmong people, their nomadic lifestyle, their work for the C.I.A., and their difficult immigration to the United States.  Although all this information is important in understanding the family's belief systems and actions, the history chapters sometimes read too much like textbook to me.  Despite the Hmong's tragic and complicated past, I had a hard time paying attention.

I was more engaged when the story focused on Lia and her family, though I was frequently frustrated.  Misunderstandings and problems seemed to arise at every corner, and though many people placed blame, there was little to be done to improve the situation.  Of course, much of Lia's story is a story of frustration, so my feelings as a reader are probably apt.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down would be good reading for anyone interested in medicine or cross-cultural studies.  It was written in the '90s and based on events that occurred largely in the '80s, so it would be important for anyone looking for more information on the Hmong in America to note that undoubtedly changes have occurred since the book's publication.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Ship Breaker" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Summary: Nailer is a ship breaker, part of the crews that work in Bright Sands Beach outside what was once New Orleans, breaking apart the large beached oil tankers for scrap.  Like all ship breakers, Nailer's life is hard, but his is made especially difficult by his ruthless alcoholic and drug-addicted father.  After a particularly fierce storm which shuts down the scavenging for a few days, Nailer and his fellow crew member Pima go scavenging and discover a wrecked clipper--one of the beautiful and expensive ships that Nailer has never seen close up.  When they explore the ship, they find a "swank" girl, nearly dead.  Soon Nailer's life becomes inexorably woven with this girl's.

Musings: I enjoyed Bacigalupi's recent adult novel The Windup Girl and was especially impressed with his strong world building.  Bacigalupi does not disappoint in The Ship Breaker, where he creates not only a believable post-apocalyptic New Orleans, but he also utilizes interesting characters and a fast storyline.

Nailer's difficult life is fully detailed, from his work in ship breaking to his bond with his crew and his conflicted feelings about his abusive father.  Nailer is an excellent protagonist--he's good at heart, but he's not an angel, and he struggles with mixed and contradictory feelings.  The secondary characters like Nita, Pima, and Tool are also fascinating but are given less attention, and I did almost want more from them (particularly Tool).

Although the novel is set in the future, it does a good job of straddling the line between the recognizable and familiar (the degradation of poverty; unsafe working conditions) to the new and fantastic (half-men half-dog creatures).  There are aspects that are only partially explained (such as the myriad new religions or cults like the Harvesters), but that doesn't get in the way of enjoying Ship Breaker.

In the end, what won me over most was the fast-paced action and sympathetic characters.  I don't know whether Bacigalupi intends to write more about this world, but he's created an interesting enough set-up and characters to certainly warrant a return.

***Though Ship Breaker does not qualify, for me, for the POC Reading Challenge because Bacigalupi is white, the main characters of the novel are all characters of color from a variety of backgrounds.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer

Summary: For an assignment as a journalist, Foer attends the U.S. Memory Championship.  There he is surprised not only by what the competitors can achieve (memorizing the order a deck of cards in a few minutes; memorizing huge lists of words or numbers), but by many of the competitors' assurances that they are not particularly special--anyone, with training, they say, can be capable of staggering feats of memorization.  Foer decides to spend the next year training for the Championship while exploring the nature of memory itself and humankind's relationship and understanding of memory throughout time.

Musings: I'm coming to find out how endlessly fascinating I find the human body.  It's simply "us," and yet it's so unique and there's so much we don't know about it.  Moonwalking with Einstein delves into just one small aspect of one part of the human body--this elusive concept of "memory"--through both research and personal narrative.

What first grabbed my attention is just how far memory can go when pressed.  We feel like we're forgetting things all the time, and yet there are people who, for example, have memorized tens of thousands of the digits of pi.  At the beginning of the book, Foer is skeptical that such feats can be learned; it's easier to assume that such people are simply extraordinary.  And while they might be extraordinary in their willingness to train, Foer also shows that memorization skills can be taught and steadily improved upon. 

At its most basic, large memorization involves turning the items to be memorized into images.  Our mind retains images far better than it does words or digits.  Various techniques exist for memorizing large quantities of information in a short amount of time, and once you learn them, heavy memorization almost seems like a trick.  That's not to say it's easy, but rather that it is an acquired skill, not an innate ability.

I tried out the most basic technique (the memory palace) myself, following along with Foer to memorize a list of 15 random "to-do" items.  It took me about 10 minutes to memorize (including reading the chapter describing it), and it is absolutely and completely effective.  I remembered all 15 items at the time, an hour later, and I still remember them today--two days later.  In 10 minutes I probably could have also learned the items by rote, but I've no doubt I would not still remember them today if I had.

I was giddy and excited by what I did, but I also had the same feeling following that Foer did.  So what?  It may be fun to impress friends at parties with outrageous memorization, but is there any point?  Does it really help with anything when we have technology and even pen and paper to do the remembering for us?

This is a question that Foer spends much of the book trying to solve, and I'm not sure he comes to a clear answer.  He does posit that we learn best through association, and in order to best associate, memorization of a wide variety of things can be useful.  He also explores humans' relationship with memorization over time, from the favored manner of learning in schools to the inhumane rote tedium it's often labeled as today.  

Moonwalking with Einstein didn't leave me convinced of the importance of memorization, but it did completely absorb me and encourage me to wonder more about what our brains are able of accomplishing.  Foer effectively integrates his own experiences training for the Championship with historical and modern research, which is the kind of nonfiction I like best.  It's an entertaining and worthwhile read.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Summary: A collection of short stories that take place primarily in Pakistan and are loosely connected through the wealthy Pakistani landowner K.K. Harouni.

Musings: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders has been favorably compared to the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-American short story writer.  Although I could see some similarities in their exploration of relationships and the types of conflicts they present (though issues of "old world" vs. "new" are more subtly interwoven here than in Lahiri's work, where they often take center stage), Mueenuddin's work actually reminded me more of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami.  It's hard to pinpoint exactly why, since Murakami writes about the fantastical, but something in the writers' atypical narrative arcs (particularly in Mueenuddin's early stories) rang similar to me.  Perhaps it's because neither is afraid of writing a story without a climax or a clear resolution--instead both trust the reader to think without a neat ending.

Although each of Mueenuddin's stories has a different narrator, a similar theme runs throughout all eight presented in In Other Rooms: the crushing nature of hope.  Time and again, characters dare dream above their current situation, whether it's a young woman looking for love, an American girl desiring to be accepted by a Pakistani family, or a poor servant hoping to serve a wealthy family.  Each of these characters allows for the possibility of reaching his or her goal, and most even taste some part of success--which makes the inevitable downfall all the more heart-breaking.  It's a depressing motif, though it doesn't make the stories difficult to read.

In Other Rooms is a short book, at a little over 200 pages, but its wealth comes from its intricately drawn characters who are developed in the reader's mind through quiet detail.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the Back to the Classics Challenge (a Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) Winner or Runner Up category).