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.

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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.

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.

There are hundreds of books about China in my office at the university. Some are fiction, most are nonfiction. With such a large selection, it has been difficult to choose what to read. In the beginning I stuck with travel memoirs, my genre of choice when traveling. However, the longer I stayed in China, the more I became interested in specific aspects of the culture and history – mostly having to do with the environment and the treatment of women. I have been wanting to write some reviews about these books for awhile in case any of you are interested in learning more about China, its issues, and its people.

ImageFirst up is When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts. This book is  dense and will take awhile to get through, but it is also fascinating. Watts had been working as an environmental reporter in Beijing for several years when he decided to explore different parts of China to see what was really going on in terms of environmental degradation. What he found is shocking – at least for those who have never been to China.

Watts not only talks about the toll on the land, water, and animals, but he also talks about the human toll. He talks about the get-rich-quick schemes that exist throughout China that allow a handful of people to become rich, while thousands of others end up in cancer villages or, even more shameful because it is so preventable, AIDS villages. He also describes the cash grabs and the obsession with status symbols that are far too common in China today. You will also read about what happens to our plastic bottles and our leftover electronics, not to mention where they come from. After having lived in China for a short time, I was not surprised to read about the corruption and the laissez-faire attitude of the Chinese government. The obsession with GDP and the lack of regard for their citizens is appalling at best. The thing to remember though, and Watts makes this clear throughout the book, is that what is happening in China today does not only effect China. It effects the entire world. If you are concerned about the environment and the future of our planet, I would highly recommend this book.

Note: I have read several reviews about this book on Amazon and many people have written that the author has too much of a doomsday approach and exaggerates the severity of the issue. I have lived in China for only 1.5 years, but I have traveled through much of the country and have seen first-hand just how bad the pollution and environmental problems are in some areas. Watts is very even-handed in his approach to writing about the issues facing China today, and I especially appreciate that he does not let the West off scot-free. He makes sure to point out how the West has a huge hand in what is happening in China (and other developing countries) today because we have cleaned up our own countries only by exporting our pollution to where our citizens will not see it.