Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Spirit Catches You And you Fall Down

The Spirit catches You And You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman

5/5 stars.

I haven't read a work of fiction in a looong time mainly due to the fact that I have been reading books about pregnancy and babies to get ready for my son coming in April. Finally I decided to get back to reading something non-baby related. I first saw this book on the shelves of the university bookstore's social work shelves. Since I am interested in social work and multiculturalism, I borrow the book from the library. I was not disappointed! The book relates the true story of a Hmong family caught between their beliefs and the expectations of the Western medical world. Lia Lee is a little girl who suffers from epilepsy. Her parents believe that these episods are caused by a spirit, which, as the title indicates, catches you and makes you fall down. For the American doctors, epilepsy is epilepsy, period, and it should be treated with medicine. Lia's family would rather use a shaman, doesn't understand English, cannot read, and therefore cannot give their daughter her proper medication. What ensues is a sort of battle between Lia's family, part of a very private, insular, and proud immigrant community, and Lia's doctors.

What I found fascinating was the misunderstandings between the parents and the doctors. Both have strong opinions about the cause and cure of the illness. Neither can convince the other one. It happens everyday between American families and their American doctors, right? Families do not want vaccines, do not think their children should be under medication, etc while the doctors are adamant that there's only one way to see a certain ailment. Imagine this struggle with people who don't understand each other's language and culture. The author, who is a journalist, does a remarkable job of interviewing all parties to the story. The book tries not to take sides. It is as neutral an account as possible, and it gives the book depth and meaning. I loved reading about the Hmong history and culture and I also loved reading about the way the doctors and social workers understood Lia's case.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in medical anthropology, social work, or immigration.

And for those who might think I only give great reviews, I just read Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and, though I won't write a review, only give it 2.5 to 3 stars.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

In the Neighborhood - Peter Lovenheim

Full title: In the Neighborhood, The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time.

3.5/5 stars.

After a murder-suicide happened in his street, the author, Peter Lovenheim, realizes that the tragedy might have been avoided had the wife been able to reach out to her neighbors. Unfortunately, people on his street do not know each other. To remedy this, Peter proposes to sleep over at some neighbors' and spend the day with them, to create a sense of community, and to be sure that his neighbors know they can reach out to him, and he to them, if they are in need.

The book itself was not that interesting, since it mainly related the author's sleepovers and his neighbors' life. From a narrative perspective, the content was a bit disappointing -it's fortunately a quick read. However, from a conceptual point of view, it was fascinating. Now, I am admitedly biased, as I am struggling to feel that I belong in Seattle and in my new neighborhood. So the effort of one person to make his neighborhood a community of people who know each other really drew me to the book. While reading it, I asked myself what kind of community I would want to live in, what kind of neighborhood I'd like to move to next. My downstairs neighbors have a great community back in Texas. I wish I had that here.

So the book doesn't offer solutions -well, unless I want to go ahead and spend the night at my neighbord (no, thanks!)- but it's a ncie snapshot of what our lives have become when we barricad ourselves behind walls. It's also a call to be more mindful of what our neighbors might be going though in their lives and to offer support if the opportunity arises. Interesting. Not earth shattering, but definitely mind opening.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

All Over the Map - Laura Fraser

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

As most memoirs go Fraser comes across a bit self absorbed but that, I've found, goes with the territory. She is honest and down to earth. Even taking on topics that can be dificult to address, like sexual assault. Although aside from her personal experience and one article she wrote on human trafficking in Italy she stays in the land of self.

Laura hopscotches the globe from start to finish, often using her travels as jumping off points for her story. While she is successful in her career as a travel writer and has many close friends to keep her company, it is the company of a man she craves. This once divorced woman in her mid 40's talks openly on the struggles of life as a single woman of her age, the lack of men out there willing to be her base and loneliness. As the book, and years, progress finding a partner becomes secondary to the self discoveries she makes along the way.

This book would be great read for a book club. It would also be great if you are in need of some adventure in your life!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Committed - Elizabeth Gilbert

4/5 stars.

Everybody has heard about Eat, Pray, Love. You may have avoided reading the book and you may avoid watching the movie when it comes out later this month, but you have certainly heard of the book. Who hasn't? The book was reviewed and its author interviewed in every major publication, from the NYT to Oprah. It was a very good book (I enjoyed it immensely). When my friend lent me this book, I thought "okay, do not be disappointed if it's not as good as EPL." Turns out, this book is also very good, in a different way. It focuses on one topic -marriage- and is more serious than the first one, as it provides information about the history and sociology of marriage and married people.

The man Gilbert loves, Felipe, is from Brazil and is an Australian citizen. One day, coming back from a trip abroad, the US customs detained Felipe and told him he could never go back to the US unless he and Gilbert married. That was a problem, since both of them decided that they were fine living together without being married, thank you very much (both went through painful divorces). I find the title particularly good, since Gilbert end up committed to marriage, but fears that the institution might trap her (as in "committed" in a real hospital/institution). Elizabeth Gilbert takes us on her very personal journey of coming to terms with being married, since it is the only way she and Felipe can live together in the US.

Her insights into marriage are fascinating. I learnt that the early church didn't want people to get married in order to stay pure (this still applies to priests and nuns and monks). I loved reading about the fact that though governments tried to control marriage (who can get married to whom is just one example), ultimately the intimacy that happens behind closed doors only belongs to two people. I enjoyed discovering other cultures' idea of marriage: the Hmongs, for instance, live in community and get much of their happiness from this sense of belonging, so they don't expect their spouse to fulfill their every need.

The book is easy to read, definitely interesting, and, as in EPL, Gilbert's tone is personal, funny, and touching. I highly recommend Committed. I give it only 4 stars because I feel that to deserve 5 a book has to inspire me and has to leave an indelible mark. This book is really enjoyable, but might not make it on my all time favorites list.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lunch in Paris - by Elizabeth Bard

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

I really want to say that I loved this book. I love memoirs. I especially love memoirs that tell about adventures abroad and when they have recipes..bonus! This memoir, however, I did not love. The story line was mostly predictable, as most of these types of memoirs tend to be. Her writing was at best average and her adventures were less than noteworthy. Where did the book lose me? With Elizabeth, I just didn't like her. I found her elitist and arrogant in a way that I couldn't get behind. Again, usually not a problem. I often felt as though Elizabeth thinks herself above her audience and that didn't work for me. It was little comments like how she was living an "extraordinary" life in Paris and it would be "ordinary" to live back in New York. There were many more little remarks that were subtle but just enough to catch my attention.

If like me you enjoy memoirs about foreign locales and recipes give it a go. Just don't expect anything riveting!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What is the What - Dave Eggers

Sorry we haven't posted lately. I haven't been reading anything ground breaking. I have spent the last month reading mystery books. Nothing to write about! A month ago I finished What is the What and really liked it. So here is a delayed review.

3.5/5 stars.

We have heard so much about Darfur and the massacres happening there. It seems that some people are fed up with Sudan and pretty much every other world misery thrown at them -that's compassion fatigue. Angelina Jolie just wrote an op-ed urging Obama to do something about Darfur, and I am not sure anyone noticed. Thsi book is interesting because it is about Sudan, but not about Darfur. Atrocities also happen in the south of the country -now more than ever, since elections are looming.

Valentino Achak Deng was a little boy when his village was ransacked by the government's militia. He had to flee, leaving behind his family -not sure whether any of them survived- and his friends, and started a long walk to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, then in Kenya, where he stayed 10 years before being authorized to emigrate to the US. I found that the most compelling parts of his story were not the bis about his walk -though they were certainly interesting- but the bits about his life in the camp and in the US.

Life in a refugee camp is not what we imagine. When you stay in a camp for 10 years, you get organized, you go to school, you flirt with people your age, etc. Pretty much you try to have a life as normal as possible. But social hierarchy was strong, even in the refugee camp, and boys without a family were at the bottom of the ladder. So Valentino had to find ways to survive and thrive in this environment.

Life in the US for a new refugee is definitely not what we might imagine. I don't know actually what one imagines, but I was taken aback by the difficulties these men and women encounter. I watched a documentary, "God grew tired of us", which highlighted some of these challenges: find a job, go to school, figure out how everything works, from electricity to getting a driver's license to using micro waves to eating new food. Usually, life in the US means work 2 menial jobs and go to school if time permits. This is not at all what these refugees imagined life would be like, and it is not what some immigration adversaries have in mind either ("taking your jobs away?" Give me a break!). Also, relationships with the African American community are not easy (in the first scene of the book, Valentino is held hostage in his own apartment by two African Americans). Finally, it seems that anytime Valentino said he was from the south of Sudan, people would lose interest -"oh... you're not from Darfur..."- and that refugees expected too much of their mentors in the US -as Valentino said, they have no boundaries to their demands- and can make people who wanted to help them tired and weary.

This is what struck me the most. There are a lot of refugees all around us, and this book made me want to help them get acclimated to the US. Have I done anything in the last month? No. Will I? probably. I hope after reading this book you will know more about what is happening in the Sudan and I hope it will be a call to action.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Confections of a Closet Master Baker by Gesine Bullock-Prado

3 out of 5 stars

This is a book that I desperately wanted to love. After all, I am a total foodie and nothing helps me devour a book like lustful descriptions of my all time favorite, the pastry. Gesine did a delightful job recounting her story. A Hollywood cog burnt out on Hollywood life, discovers a love of baking, moves to Vermont with her Husband and on the fly opens a bakery. She recounts her struggles in becoming a baker and small business owner, as well as, shares a little of her personal life. I was fascinated to read about her mother, a beautiful German opera singer, who sadly died to young. I loved reading about her experiences in Germany, with her family, the traditions they shared and the food that came to shape her. I especially enjoyed the part when she went on a sugar bender through the neighborhood. Each chapter ends with a mouth watering recipe, which I loved! She did have a poor me tendency, which after awhile I found bothersome. But in all, it was a fun (and quick) read. Oh and by the way, she's Sandra Bullocks sister.