Books


The Moral Bucket List by David Brooks – NYT Sunday Review

This Sunday in The New York Times, there was an article titled “The Moral Bucket List” by David Brooks. It is so similar to other things I’ve been reading and thinking lately, that I thought I’d share it with you in case you missed it. In the article, Brooks talks about those happy people you come across who seem to radiate a lightness of spirit. I typically refer to these people as “contagiously happy” people. They are the type of person you just want to be around and who make you feel valued. In the article, Brooks goes on to explore the things that make up these people and gives a short list of the things he thinks we can each do to build this kind of happiness within ourselves. His list includes being self-aware and humble, working on your weaknesses, accepting help from others, and taking risks. For more insight about these things, I’d recommend taking a gander a the article. Here is an excerpt to get you hooked:

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a version of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were. The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative.

The Language of Food

foodWhenever I read books about food, such as Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I begin thinking deeply about my own food choices and vowing to make improvements. For this reason, I decided that this month’s health focus could be prodded on by at least one “fun” book about food in addition to all of the books I’ve picked up for research purposes. I chose “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu” by Dan Jurafsky, which I happened upon in my library’s new nonfiction section. Not only does this fulfill my requirement of being about food, but it also appeals to my own interest in linguistics, so I felt it was a perfect fit.

This book was a quick read that was enjoyable and fun. Not only do we get some fun linguistic knowledge, but also some interesting history of food trivia that could come in handy later. We learn such tidbits as ketchup originated in China, as well as the fact that it is we Americans, rather than the Europeans, who are still using the correct meaning of the word entree. Throughout the book, Jurafsky also includes recipes, which is always a fun addition to a book, especially a book about food.

The Complete Guide to Detoxing Your Body

detoxI’m sorry guys, but I hate, hate, hated this book. I’m sure I’m in the minority of people who pick up this book and then decide they dislike it. I am just SO over all of the vegan, gluten-free, nut allergy, hoo-ha that is shoved down our throats. I picked up this book because I wanted recipes and a schedule, which it provides, finally, in Chapter 9, but by that point I just wanted to throw the book out the window. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are interested in all the whys associated with deciding to detox, but I have to say that if you are buying this book, you’ve already made that decision. You don’t need to be convinced. At least, I don’t anyway. So, in fact, this book actually made me decide NOT to detox because I was so angry at it. If you want to detox, just take Michale Pollan’s advice and eat whole foods, stay at the edges of the grocery store, and avoid processed foods. Done and done.

rawiczI nipped this book from MB while we were in Mongolia and could not put it down. It is the true story (although many have questioned its veracity) of 6 men’s escape from a Russian prison during WWII and the long trek that took them through the outer reaches of Siberia, into Mongolia, the Gobi, Tibet, the Himalayas, and eventually into India. I had hoped that more of the book would be about Mongolia, as I was in Mongolia at the time of reading, but it was in fact more about Russia for much of the first half of the book. We start at the prison, where Rawicz was taken as a prisoner of war. He had been in the Polish cavalry and went home to visit his family who lived very near to the Russian border. After several months of torture, he is eventually transferred to a work camp, one of the harshest in Russia, where he later plots his escape.

This is the type of book I lovingly call “a boy book” because it is a story about survival and beating the odds against some of the worst conditions possible. There is very little emotional description in the book, although there are parts that will make you shed some tears. However, unlike many “boy books” I have read in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Some of the old timey words in the book had me looking through the dictionary more than a few times, but otherwise this is a compelling story that you just won’t want to put down.

snowflowerAfter doing some research about Wang Ping’s Aching for Beauty, a book I was unable to finish earlier this year, I found many recommendations for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. As it turns out, Lisa See was inspired to write this book after having read Aching for Beauty and writing a review about it for The Los Angeles Times. She became interested in the practice of foot binding, but also in the briefly mentioned nu shu, a secret writing used by women to communicate their feelings to their mothers, sisters, and friends without fear of their husbands or fathers finding out. This book is about the secret (and public) lives of women in the China of the past, where women were marginalized and treated more like livestock than like human beings.

I would categorize this book as historical fiction, as it recounts with great accuracy the practice of foot binding and the history of nu shu. Some of the wording and trite sentiments may seem strange to westerners who have no first-hand experience with China and the Chinese, but I found it charming because it reminded me so much of things my students would actually say. The story itself is sad and sometimes painful to read, especially the descriptions of foot binding, which I am assuming came from her research into Wang Ping’s book. Lisa See did her research and even went to the birthplace of nu shu to interview the women of the village to write a fairly accurate description of the place and the time period. She even interviewed a 97-year-old woman to get some historical perspective. It is not clear whether her story is at all based on this woman’s own life. However, the book is told from the perspective of Lily, now in her 80’s, who describes the events of her life.

The story is mainly about two women, Lily and her laotang (lifelong friend, literally translated as “old same”), Snow Flower. The two are put into contact at the age of 7 by a matchmaker who discovers that Lily has perfect feet for foot binding. Snow Flower is introduced to her to become her laotang in the hopes that both girls can win a high marriage despite Lily’s current low standing as a farmer’s daughter. If her foot binding goes well, she could have the perfect fair of golden lotus feet and marry into a wealthy family, securing safety and prosperity for her entire family for the future. In the years that follow we see how her relationship with Snow Flower develops and changes. I do not want to give away too many details as there are some surprises, so I will leave it at that.

I personally didn’t think the book was incredibly well written. I wasn’t interested in the characters or their plight until more than halfway through the book, when things really became interesting. There were also several instances where foreshadowing was used, but then nothing ever seemed to be made of those warning signs we were given throughout the book that something terrible was going to happen. It kept me on edge and had me feeling confused when these bad omens she talks about do not actually lead to bad things happening. Perhaps I misread it?

If you are interested in foot binding and the traditional treatment of women in China, I would suggest this book. It gives a lot of information, along with having a good story to follow. Just be aware that you may need some patience to get through the first bit.

I went to the Philippines recently and was looking for some fun, easy beach reads. These are a couple of the books that were suggested to me and that I actually read despite my usual distaste for all things pop culture.

mindyIs Everybody Hanging out without me? by Mindy Kaling – I love, love, love Mindy Kaling, and that love affair began with this book. Because of this book, I bought the album Blue by Joni Mitchell and fell in love with the song “California.” I also got a strong case of paranoia about one-night stands and learned that I am not the only one who cannot commit to a relationship unless it has the makings of a romantic comedy.  I would say this is a highly relatable book for most women and if you like Mindy Kaling’s humor, you will like it even more in book form – and you will be able to hear her voice in your head as you are reading. It’s a little disconcerting, but just goes to show how well she knows herself and is able to convey her voice to the world, even on paper.

Life as I Blow it by Sarah Colonna – Somehow I thought this book was by Chelsea Handler when I first saw it on blowitthe shelf in my office’s English books library. Turns out, it is not by Chelsea, but by one of the writers from her show. I’m not sure this was my favorite book ever, but it is a fun easy read for the beach. There are a couple of really funny essays in there, along with a lot of stories about guys being jerks to her and some awkward sex stories.

bossypantsBossy Pants by Tina Fey – Who doesn’t love Tina Fey? This is sort of a memoir about Tina’s career. I like her ability to laugh at herself and her strong opinions about women in comedy. After reading this book I felt that Tina Fey was much more multi-dimensional and I appreciated her frankness in the book. This is another quick read, but a fun one.

prettyspittingPretty Woman Spitting is another memoir about a foreigner living in China. This one is of a young American girl who came to China to teach English for a semester. She only lived here for six months, but a lot happened during that time and she managed to see a bit of the country. The author, Leanna Adams, lived in an even smaller town than me during her time in China, giving her a more intimate look into the lives of her Chinese students.

I liked this book because it made me laugh – mainly because so many of her experiences are so familiar to what I have experienced in China. There were about 100 times while reading the book when I said, out loud, “Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.” In fact, I tell everyone I know that if they want to know what my life in China is like, then they should read this book. However, it is not all funny anecdotes, there are some sad bits as well that had me crying, so prepare yourself.

goodearthThe Good Earth has been one of my favorite books since I first read it at age 14, although I never re-read it until just last week. Before I recommend it, I wanted to be sure that it really was as good as I remembered it being. It was.

Pearl S. Buck, although not Chinese, lived in China for much of her life and so had an intimate knowledge of the Chinese way of life and Chinese traditions. While the world that she describes has mostly disappeared from modern China, the story is timeless and still has a very poignant ending applicable to today’s China.

The story is set in the China of the last century, with vivid imagery and a glimpse into the life of the everyday Chinese people. There is not the mystery and intrigue that was often associated with books written by foreigners about the Orient, but instead gives a realistic impression of China and its people. It is the story of the hard-working farmer, Wang Lung, and his struggles to become successful. We see him evolve from a poor farmer to a landowner and businessman. Meanwhile, we see how his success changes him and how his evolution has set his children on a different course in life. The person who remains unchanged by this evolution is his wife, the stoic O-lan, who is always in the background and who is even more hard-working than her husband. While the story mostly focuses on Wang Lung, my favorite character has always been O-lan, who never complains despite their hardships and who always has an answer for how to handle a difficult situation.

I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so I will leave it at that, but I would highly recommend this book. Choose a version that has an introduction or biography about Pearl S. Buck for some additional perspective.

achingEver since I arrived in China I have been interested in the ancient practice of footbinding. I see all of these tiny Chinese women in my town stumbling around town in stiletto heels and platforms and always wonder to myself if this obsession with adding height and making their feet look teensy tiny is somehow leftover from the culture of footbinding, even though the practice has been outlawed for nearly a century. Therefore, when I saw Wang Ping’s book about footbinding, I had to buy it immediately.

The book’s description reads: “When Wang Ping was nine years old, she secretly set about binding her feet with elastic bands. Footbinding had by then been outlawed in China, women’s feet “liberated,” but at that young age she desperately wanted the tiny feet her grandmother had–deformed and malodorous as they were.”

Unfortunately the cover description is about the most interesting part about the book. I was barely able to get through a couple of chapters before I gave up completely on reading it, despite my early enthusiasm for the subject. The book reads like a master’s thesis, which it probably is. I had hoped that it would include some personal insight into the practice. Instead, as is common for students in China, the book borrows heavily from other sources, constantly citing literature and historical interviews with women who had their feet bound. Once I realized this book was more of a research paper about footbinding, I was still on board for awhile. I tried to push through because I wanted to know about the history and culture behind the practice, and I hoped there might even be some analysis or some insight into feminism in China. I do not know if she ever gets to this point because, as I said, I gave up on the book after a couple of chapters. The focus is mostly on the fetishization of small feet and the painful bonding between women that footbinding brought about.

I am still interested in this practice and would like to read more. I think that I will seek out the original sources that Ping borrows so heavily from in her book. I have also read that there is a fictional book about this subject that is much better (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See), which I will probably download on my Kindle. I would not recommend this book unless you are planning to do a master’s thesis on footbinding or the treatment of women in pre-Mao China. Or if you have lots and lots of patience and perseverance.

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