{Review}: The Vegetarian

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Vegetarian is full of powerful and graphic imagery but nothing gory, nothing overly disturbing as alluded to in the many rave reviews of this book. I wondered if something was lost in translation.
The words that come to mind when I think of this book, post-read, are minimalist and sparse. Yet the imagery is vivid, and in sharp relief. Each word has been carefully selected, each phrase carefully turned. There is a distinct lack of superfluity.
At the core of this novel is a woman who we don't really get to understand on her own terms. She is defined by her relationship with others. Her husband is quietly unsatisfied with her, though he cannot say she is a bad wife. Her sister pities her, and feels responsible for her. Her father cares little until he cares too much, refusing to understand her.  There are three voices in this book, and none of them belong to Yeong-hye, as central as she is to the book. 
Yeong-hye commits herself obsessively to being a vegetarian, as the result of a dream. The confusion,  wrath and indignation this elicits from her family is outsized. The more she is excoriated for not conforming, the deeper she digs her heels in, turning herself inside out and driving herself insane.
But is she really insane? Or is that an identity foisted on her by those around her as way of understanding her refusal to be like everyone else? It's hard to tell in this novel. We get the sense that she has discovered something about herself and has become attuned to her own sexuality, in a way that was never revealed to her husband. An inverse relationship develops. As Yeong-hye begins to fall together,  those around her who were so sure of themselves begin to doubt themselves and fall apart.

{I received a copy of this book for review purposes from Blogging for Books. This post contains affiliate links.}


Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Where do I even begin with this?

I'm only a little ashamed that I was  finally spurred into action when I saw that haunting photo of Alan Kurdi. I can't look at it or think about it without welling up. What really hit home about that photograph is that the little boy, who looks like he is sleeping, was the same size as my Micah. The full enormity of what was happening hit me. Until then, the noise about conflict in the Middle East, or anywhere really, was just that--noise. It was nothing new, it had nothing to do with me. Things would go back to normal soon. 
But even if they did, I couldn't go back to normal after seeing that photograph and imagining my own little boy in that baby's place. 
Then, there was another photo. In this one, a woman, who looks strikingly like my sister--long brown hair, wearing that army green jacket that was ubiquitous this past season, slender legs in blue jeans--sleeping on the floor of the train station in Budapest, with her children asleep around her. It sent me over the edge.

I know now that I needed to begin with my moral imperative as a human, as a Jew, as a mother, as a sister. 
I reached deep into my Jewish history and saw that image of masses of refugees on a boat, this one from Europe during World War II. They sought safe harbor and were turned away, sent back to suffer and perish under a threat that no one took seriously until it was too late. 
Never forget, we say now. 
But what about "Learn"? Did we learn anything? Not soon enough. 

My sister and I began to talk about what we could do. We'd heard that the US was taking in refugees. We thought it would be as easy as saying, "I have two spare futons in my basement. Come stay, let me take some of your burden, and lift your spirit and help you feel whole again." Should be easy, right? 

Not quite. Finally, we found a group in a nearby town that was organizing and raising funds to sponsor a family of refugees. We raised a whole bunch of money, then waited. And waited. And waited. We got the call about four weeks ago, and the family arrived two weeks ago. It's been a whirlwind of activity, starting from securing a place for the family to live, then scrounging up donated furniture and just about everything else you need for a family that is setting up house with nothing. The actual logistics of this process pales in comparison to the enormity of the emotional implications of this whole thing. We can assume that refugees who enter our country have suffered some kind of trauma, though the extent of it may vary and may or may not match up to our imagination. My empathy engine has been kicked into overdrive. Outwardly, refugees may appear to be in a normal state--maybe very tired or nervous, but underneath, surely there is an churning pool of post-traumatic stress and unprocessed emotions. Another person in our area who has helped to settle numerous families told us that refugees are in survival mode. They are survivors and they continue to survive.  This is a highly stressful and volatile state of being.  I have no idea what life was like for our family before they arrived here; only that it must have been very, very difficult. They left their home country three years ago, and had been living in a capital city in a neighboring country before they were granted refugee status and admitted to the US. My empathy is rooted in my ability to imagine what it would be like to flee a war-torn country with my small children in tow. Just normal, day-to-day living with kids is stressful enough. Take away the stability of home, add in the terror of violence, the insecurity of precarious safety, the threat of an oppressive regime. Whatever you and I can imagine is probably only a fraction of the reality because that's just the plot. The emotional stuff is intense, and cannot be fully felt through empathy.

I admit, that a lot of this is just as much about and it is about them. There's some guilt assuaging going on here. How many times have I skipped over the international section of the newspaper? How many times I have scrolled past pleas for donations? Convinced myself it's enough to know, and to share this post and that post, and donate $10 or $1. Said to myself, and out loud, too, "Oh, that's too bad. I feel so sad. What a terrible thing. Those poor people," then moved on. Shallow compassion. No action. So, to take this small action, this tangible act of compassion marks a turning point for me, having gone from talking to doing, something, anything, working this one small piece of the larger puzzle, okay with the knowledge that I can't help everyone, but I can help these five people. I think that is what causes inertia--this feeling that we can't help everyone and being overwhelmed by the knowledge of how many people need help, that doing one small thing can't possibly be useful or valuable. But there are so many of us capable of opening our arms and our homes that we can each take a small piece, step back and see that together, we've taken on a whole.

(After I wrote this, I read a great quote from Cory Booker and I just had to add it here.)
I don’t want people to think, “It’s such a huge problem, what can I do about it?” We can’t allow our inability to do everything undermine our determination to do something. 

There's no overstating how overwhelming it all is. The magnitude of what is happening here is overwhelming. Watching this refugee family gain new footing, and eager to get traction, eager to reclaim their independence, and get on with normalcy and knowing that these things take time, their frustration is palpable. Throw in the language barrier and it becomes difficult to fully help them shoulder the work they have cut out for them. It's overwhelming for them, and overwhelming for us. We want things to happen fast, but they happen slow, subject to red tape and bureaucracy and scheduling, so much out of their control and ours. It's hard to go with the flow. They've come so far, been through so much and now they are here, ready to hit the ground running so they can stop running. And the finish line is not even in sight. Who knows if there is even a finish line or where it is?

It's easy to imagine the future, to have faith and to know that this is just a season, that someday, in the near future, they will be a family just like any other family. Going to work, going to school, buying groceries, entertaining friends, paying bills, signing report cards, driving to soccer games and school concerts, fighting, laughing, playing, loving. It's harder to know what emotional fall-out lies ahead, and if they will ever stop surviving and start thriving instead.

For now, we can link our arms through theirs and keep them aloft as they step over the threshold, peering into a hazy future.

{Review}: Lust and Wonder

Monday, March 28, 2016

Augusten Burroughs has an enviable knack for introspection and self-awareness. He has also has a writing voice that made me wonder at first if I were reading fiction or a memoir--at some points, I actually was not 100% confident Lust & Wonder was a memoir! Burroughs manages to make himself a sympathetic character, though I have a feeling that if I knew him in real life, I probably would not stand him. And he knows it. A funny, self-deprecating story that had me rooting for a marginally unlikeable person, I was genuinely disappointed when I reached the end and there was nothing more to read. 

Lust & Wonder is out from St. Martin's Press on March 29th but can be pre-ordered on Amazon. 

{I received a copy of this book for review purposes from NetGalley. There are affiliate links in this post.}

{Review}: The Best Place on Earth

Have you ever been to Israel? I went when I was 15, and even in my self-absorbed, navel-gazing teenage state, I knew that Israel was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. It was the first foreign country I'd ever travelled to (Canada notwithstanding) and I've been to many others since then. Still the most beautiful place I've seen.

Reading Ayelet Tsabari's collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, I pulled heavily from my mental image bank to transport myself to the setting of her stories. While the stories were an enjoyable read, I found them to be somewhat shallow in imagery and flat in character development. There's a layer of gloss over the text that makes it feel like a rom-com or chick flick. In fact, I think I would very much enjoy a screen version of these stories.

Though the stories lack the grittiness needed for more compelling storytelling, the 11 stories are connected by the common thread of main characters that represent groups that have been traditionally marginalized--women, immigrants, non-Israelis, and the poor. Unlike a rom-com, there are no neat endings in this collection. The reader is left to create an epilogue for the characters.  But that's par for the course with marginalized people-- they lose control over their stories, and their voices are co-opted by people (readers, in this case) who are not them.  Empowered characters get to tell readers how it ends, but in this book, the characters become muted.

I came to that conclusion after I finished reading the book, but during,  I was fully engrossed in the collection and finished the book in two days, so it's worth a read, if only for the opportunity to consider what responsibility an author has to her disenfranchised characters.

{I received a copy of this book for review purposes from NetGalley. This post contains affiliate links.}

{Review}: The Prime by Kulreet Chaudhary

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What was it that possessed me to request this book for review? I don't normally pick diet books, preferring to read actual literature and knowing that most of what it inside diet books is freely available on the Internet. Maybe it was the phrase "spontaneous weight loss." Maybe it's because I caught up in the "new year" frenzy to do something, anything differently than how I was doing it before. Who knows?
It's not a secret that I struggle with my weight, and I know I'm not alone. More specifically, I struggle with cravings. Overall, my day to day diet is not terrible. It's a mostly vegetarian diet with actual vegetables in it. I don't eat a lot of processed food. Give me sugar and carbs, though and it feels like I've gone out of my mind. Even when I'm mindful of what is happening, I have to slap my own hand to come to my senses. If you remember, awhile back, I reviewed Gretchen Rubin's Better than Before. In that book, I learned that I am an Abstainer. As long as I don't have even one piece, I'm not tempted. But give me a taste, and all is lost.
The sticking point is those cravings. If I could master control over those, I think I'd be golden. The Prime , written by a neurologist, is based on the premise that you need to first "prime" or cleanse your body of the things that cause cravings. The word "cleanse" always gives me pause-- was this going to be another bit of quackery that required me to spend a shitload of money on mystery powders that make nasty shakes full of who knows what from who knows where?
That misperception died pretty quickly once Chaudhary explained that rather than changing or overhauling or eliminating things for your daily diet, you tap into Ayurvedic principles of eating, using ingredients commonly found in Indian households. She recommends using a combination of spices and herbs to clear out your gut and improve your gut health, drinking bone broth, and ingesting only warm foods and drinks. She also tethers physical well-being to mental well-being.
The first part of the book, when Chaudhary tells the story of how she came back to Ayurvedic principles after being derailed when she became a teenager, ditching her family's traditional diet for a more American one, a habit that followed her to college and beyond, is compelling and engaging. After that, Chaudhary delves into the tradition behind Ayurvedic principles and how it applies in a weight loss context, which I found fascinating and useful. After that, it became hard to maintain focus and I found myself fast-forwarding to the sections where she describes implementation because it becomes repetitive at some points. Overall, the book was a good read, and because of Chaudhary's credentials, it seems more creditable than other diet books out there. I suppose the true measure of the book's worth comes from trying out The Prime, and seeing what happens. Here goes nothing.

I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books, for review purposes. This post contains affiliate links. 

{Review}: Miller's Valley by Anna Quindlen

Saturday, January 30, 2016

This is my first experience with an Anna Quindlen novel. She's an author that is on my radar but somehow, none of her books made it to my TBR list. When this book came up on NetGalley, I admit that I judged this book by it's beautiful cover, so I leapt at the chance to read my first Anna Quindlen novel. I only wish now that I had a paper copy of this book. (The book is available for pre-order and will be released on April 5th of this year.)

Mimi Miller, of Miller's Valley, comes from a respected but not wealthy family in a town that is being eyed by the government for a dam project. As the threat of both natural and intentional flooding looms, the people of Miller's Valley carry on, living out their lives and waiting for the inevitable, doing nothing to speed it up or slow it down. This is not a novel full of dramatic twists and turns, though there are moments where the reader does feel that it might go that way. This confirms my belief that, despite what reality shows and the evening news would have you think, most people live perfectly ordinary lives, full of triumphs, joys and tragedies. This is a novel about one human experience, that while we may not be able to relate to setting or time or plot, we can certainly relate to on a higher level-- reaching crossroads in our lives that force us to choose a direction, to shun or embrace opportunity.

With it's rich imagery, expertly drawn characters and Mimi's storytelling voice, I found myself immersed in her world, not willing to leave until I knew the outcome. I will say that I found much of the ending to be superfluous and long-winded, but that does nothing to damper my enjoyment of this novel.

I received a e-galley of this book for review purposes from NetGalley.  

{Review}: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Stop me if you've heard this before. It's been a long time since I wrote a blog post. I don't what the point of this is anymore. etc. etc. etc. 

The point is that sometimes I have things I want to say and I like to share them, and hope other people don't mind too much. Actually, I started a blog post earlier this month about my new Word of the Year but then I got interrupted by needy children, and when I went back to finish many days later, I FORGOT WHAT MY WORD OF THE YEAR WAS GOING TO BE. No joke. I think it was going to be Patience, but I'm not 100% sure about that. I'm hoping I have it written down somewhere. Anyway, let's move on because this post is supposed to be a book review.

I'm the most annoying kind of writer--the kind of writer that thinks about writing all the time but never actually writes anything. I love to read about writing, which is why I requested a review copy of Dinty W. Moore's Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy.  (Two things: Sorry, Blogging for Books, for taking so long! And also, sorry, Mr. Moore, I'd never heard of you before reading this book...) It seemed like a fun book and I totally was judging this book by its cover when I hit the request button. I finally picked it up the other day, resisting the siren call of my iPhone and Two Dots to whip through the book. I finished it in two days, which apparently passes for "whipping through" these days, though in the past, it meant mere hours. Whatever.
The premise of the book is that writers wrote in their questions about essay writing to Mr. Moore, and Mr. Moore wrote letters back, each followed by an essay written by way of example. It took me awhile to decide whether the letters were real, and as of this writing, I'm still not sure... BUT I really admire the way Mr. Moore was able to crank out these neat little essays to demonstrate the various conundrums presented by advice seekers. Sometimes I give away the books I get for review, but I'm keeping this one on my shelf as inspiration. You really can write an essay about absolutely anything and I would be well-served by the reminder every time I feel like I have nothing to write about.

{I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. This post contains affiliate links.} 

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