Thursday, June 30, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Andrew M. Greeley

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

Last week I was weeding the biographies at the library and came across a book about the author Andrew Greeley. I had totally forgotten that he existed, but man I ate his books up like candy when I was in high school. They all featured priests having moral struggles, usually relating to sexy ladies, or at least that's how I remember it.

In The Brother's Wife, for instance, the father of two brothers decided that one of them would become a cardinal and the other would be president. The father even chose a wife for the future president. But when he goes to war and becomes missing in action, dad tells his other son he'll have to leave the seminary to marry this girl who, despite his religious leanings, he had always loved. It's all very screwed up, but at the time I totally loved these books. I'm sure it had something to do with growing up Catholic, but not really being totally sold on Catholicism.

I'm glad I came across that biography at the library so I could take this little trip down memory lane. And no, I wasn't tempted to read it - I just tossed it in the bin with all the other unwanted books.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Ten Books I Want To Read in the Second Half of 2016

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is a freebie! I usually don't even do these because I'm embarrassingly uncreative and can't come up with topics. But today I thought of one!

I'm currently reading my final book for my TBR Pile Challenge so I'm starting to think about what I want to read after that. (Ok, I'm constantly thinking about what to read next, but not usually with this much freedom.) I no longer have a formal To Read list, and my real life book group (as opposed to my work book group) is on hiatus. But I do have a list in my head of some of the things I'm looking forward to reading in the near future.

1. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
I managed to grab a Speed Read copy of this the other day so I'm hoping to start soon! It's a Pride and Prejudice retelling, which I'm a little wary of, but I've heard glowing reviews from people I know who have read it.

2. Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I've been wanting to read this for ages, but just haven't gotten to it. Or every time I think of picking it up, the library copy is out. I'll make it a priority soon though!

3. Dreamland: the true tale of America's opiate epidemic by Sam Quinones
Ok, not exactly fun reading, but this is an issue I want to learn more about. My friend Kevin (who reviewed it for the Christian Science Monitor here) said it was infuriating and that everyone should read it.

4. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Although this novel doesn't sound like something I'd normally pick up, I heard about it last year on the Books on the Nightstand podcast and have been eagerly anticipating it ever since.

5. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
I also heard about this on that same podcast episode. It's a sci fi thing that sounds very intriguing! I'm a little bummed that it's apparently the first in a series (you know how I don't like commitment) but I still want to read it.

6. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
This is also on my list of most anticipated books for the second half of the year. I suspect it will be a lot of fun!

7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Also on the above-mentioned list, I am DYING to get my hands on this. I entered a Goodreads giveaway for an advance copy, but I'm also on hold at the library already even though it's not out until September.

8. A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
This is the only play I have left for my Bardathon Challenge, but I've been putting it off because I wanted to save it for midsummer. 

9. A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara
I really don't know if I'll read this before the year is over because it's really long, and I tend to put off long books. But I do really want to read it.

10. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I read this a couple of years ago, but I just nominated it for my library's Community Read and I can't wait to read it again!

I can't wait to see how many I actually read before the end of 2016. Anyone want to place bets?

Monday, June 27, 2016

An Untamed State

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (2014)

While Mireille is visiting her parents in Haiti, along with her husband a baby, a planned trip to the beach turns into a nightmare. Armed men stop their car outside of her parents' gated property and take Mireille away, asking her father for a huge ransom. As she predicts, he refuses to do business with thugs, and Mireille is imprisoned for thirteen excruciating days.

This novel is divided into two parts. The first, longer part ends when Mireille's captivity ends, and the second part is about the aftermath. Unsurprisingly, she is badly hurt and changed by the experience, which causes rifts with her loved ones who don't know how to help her. It all felt brutally honest and wasn't easy to read. She was horribly repeatedly assaulted by the men who kidnapped her and you really get the full impact of it, though thankfully most of it wasn't described in great detail. It was more about her experience of the events than the events themselves. Those experience inform the second part of the book when she is freed and returns to the US with her husband and child. But they remain distant, and it is not easy to bridge that gap.

Mireille's relationship with her husband Michael was one of my favorite things about this story. They were very happy together before the kidnapping, despite their very different backgrounds, but even a relationship as strong as theirs can't recover easily from something like this. Mireille couldn't ask for what she needed, or express her love for her family, and Michael didn't know how to help and became impatient. It all felt very real, and explored an aspect of marriage not generally touched upon in novels that I've read.

In many ways, this book was different from anything I've read. I think I've only ever read one book that took place in Haiti, for one thing, and it was a completely different story. But the subject matter as well - the daughter of a wealthy Haitian being kidnapped for ransom - is pretty unique. Gay has a style all her own as well, and her strong feminist slant was recognizable from her book of essays I had previously read.

Honestly, I can't think of one criticism of this book. I didn't want to put it down, even though the subject matter made it difficult to read at times. But I became so invested in Mireille's safety and recovery, there was no turning away. If you've been thinking of reading this, don't put it off like I did. I have no idea why this book hasn't gotten more attention, but I'll certainly be recommending it.

An Untamed State is my ninth book (out of ten!) for my TBR Pile Challenge, and I'm reading the final book now. I'm shocked that I'll finish this challenge halfway through the year, but of course I have plenty of other books I want to read so I don't anticipate my reading slowing down at all.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Knitting

It has been a loooong time since I've posted anything about knitting. It's actually been quite a long time since I've really done any knitting, but then I started watching tv again. I picked up my East Neuk Hoodie while watching season 1 of The Returned, though it was a bit tricky since that show is subtitled. But once I moved to the new season of Orange is the New Black, things have really got moving. I've even taken it on the bus a few times, though it's getting unwieldy.

Have I told you about the East Neuk Hoodie? I don't think I have. I mentioned it briefly at the end of my last knitting post, which was way back in February. It's from the Fall 2014 issue of Knitscene, which had a whole section on modern ganseys. I love a gansey, and the one of the cover kind of stole my heart. It's a hoodie with a front pocket, and I've just finished the pocket.

The one in the issue was made in purple, and you know I love purple, but I was determined to make this in mustard yellow from the first moment that I saw it. Finding just the right shade was not easy (especially since my go-to yarn store closed down a couple of years ago) but I went to the one remaining yarn store in my area and looked at all the yellows until I found just the right shade. Of course they didn't have enough of it for my sweater. So one of the employees tried to talk me into a lesser mustard yellow until I finally asked if they could just order me some more of this one. They did, and it was a good choice. 

Knitting sweaters seems very unpleasant for summer, but I have air conditioning and I really want to be able to wear this in the fall. Here's hoping I can keep up the pace! Once I finish OITNB I might need a new show to watch in order to keep up the knitting so please give me your recommendations!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Lois Duncan

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

You may have heard that Lois Duncan died last week. There wasn't a lot of fanfare, but for those of us who were teenagers in the 80s, she was an important part of our formative years. She wrote young adult books before that was even a thing. We mostly read adult books - for me it was Stephen King and Danielle Steel, a strange-sounding combination now, but that's what I read. At that time there were very few books that had been written with a teen audience in mind: those were mostly written by Lois Duncan, Caroline Cooney, and S.E. Hinton.

Duncan's most well-known book is probably I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was made into a movie in the 90s. Others that I remember are Summer of Fear and Stranger With My Face. But the one that has stuck with me the most is Killing Mr. Griffin, which was published in 1978. In this story, a group of high school students want to get back at their mean teacher by kidnapping him to scare him. But then he dies! Of course, rather than going to the police and telling them the truth, they decide to cover it up and it all gets way more complicated. I loved this book.

There's apparently an updated version of this book that includes references to Google and cell phones, but wasn't completely updated and apparently the modern-day details just seem incongruous with the rest of the book. So if you decide to read it, be sure to look for the original version!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Real Happiness

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: a 28-day Program by Sharon Salzberg (2010)

This is one of the four books that Dan Harris recommends in 10% Happier. This beginning guide to meditation defines what meditation is, describes its benefits, then lays out a 4-week plan to get you started. Each week begins with a preview which describes the general idea behind each sort of meditation. Then the meditation sections walk you through each variation of that kind of meditation. This is followed by a FAQ and with reflections and the takeaway. The themes of the four weeks are concentration, mindfulness and the body, mindfulness and emotions, and "lovingkindness."

The first week is all about concentration, and asks us to focus on our breath (the basic kind of meditation that I've been doing), the sounds around us, or by being aware of thoughts we are having (without getting distracted by them - that's the tricky part.) In the second week we are asked to be mindful about what is going on in our bodies and the sensations that we are experiencing, and it includes a walking meditation. The third week is all about being aware of your emotions and realizing that they are temporary. The final week focuses on what Salzberg calls "lovingkindness" which means that while meditating you consciously feel compassion towards others, which is basically like sending good vibes.

I didn't intended to use this as prescribed for 28 days, so I didn't focus on these different meditations from week to week. I just wanted to learn more about meditation in general, because I knew there had to be more to it than just counting breaths and trying not to get lost in thought. I tried listening to the CD for the first meditation, but it was basically the same as what was in the book and for me it was a bit distracting. My experience with guided meditations has been pretty mixed so far in general, but if it works well for you, this is probably helpful. Otherwise, you can just read the meditation bits in the book before meditating.

This hasn't really changed my beginning practice yet, but it has given me ideas about where to go from here. Some of it may never be useful to me, but there are several kinds of meditation new to me that I will probably use. This book would likely be useful for anyone starting out with meditation who needs some guidance. I found it pretty easy to read and understand.

Do you meditate? If so, are there any books, blogs, or other sources that you have found helpful? I'm taking suggestions!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Top Favorite 2016 Releases So Far This Year

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is the Top 10 favorite 2016 releases so far this year. So far I've read 14 books that were released in 2016, though I read 3 of those in late 2015. I guess they still count? Since I haven't read a ton of 2016 releases, and six of them stood out, I'm going with my top 6. These are roughly in order by how much I liked them, and the links go to my original posts about them.

1. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

2. The Crown by Kiera Cass

3. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

4. The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

5. Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

6. Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey

What are your favorite books published so far in 2016? Are any of mine on your list?

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Dollhouse

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis (2016)

The most famous resident of New York's Barbizon Hotel for Women was Sylvia Plath, who spent a month there in 1953. But in this forthcoming debut novel, Fiona Davis takes us back to the previous year when a young woman named Darby McLaughlin arrives for secretarial school and ends up involved in a tragedy. In 2016, a journalist named Rose is living in the same building, which has now mostly been converted to condos. But some of the same residents from the old days still live on the 4th floor, including Darby MaLaughlin. When Rose learns about Darby's past, she is determined to write a story about it, no matter how reclusive Darby is. The novel moves back and forth between these two different stories until we find out the truth of what happened on that fateful night.

I often pass over the galleys I receive because I have so many books I already know I want to read that I don't want to put them aside for a book I know nothing about. But I was drawn in by the setting of this novel. A couple of years ago I read Pain, Parties, Work, which was about Sylvia Plath's life in New York during the summer of 1953, during which she lived in the Barbizon, and I was eager to return to that world.

Unfortunately, this novel fell rather flat for me. Of the two stories, the 1950s one was the real meat of the novel, and the 2016 story felt like it was written as an afterthought. Nothing that happened in that part of the story felt realistic to me. Rose never felt like a real person, and her choices didn't always make sense. I didn't care at all about her stupid married boyfriend, who was also completely two-dimensional. The dialogue felt artificial and flat throughout the book and there was too much telling rather than showing. In Rose's obsessive search to find out the truth about what happened, she temporarily thought she discovered something that so quickly turned out to be a red herring that I have no idea why it was even included. This whole story felt contrived, and though I see the value of including this present-day story, it was poorly executed.

Also disappointing was the over-used technique of beginning the story with the major tragedy, which is an obvious ploy to keep readers interested. Although this works well in some books, it's turning into a cheap trick that is overused and in many cases I think it's because there's nothing else that will propel the reader through the story. That was definitely the case with this novel. My need to learn about Darby's involvement in the death of the hotel maid was basically the only thing that kept me going.

The 1950s story wasn't perfect, but it was far better than the 2016 one. I liked learning about the Darby's arrival at the hotel, her struggle to make friends, and her adventures at local nightclubs with the hotel maid, Esme. Esme was constantly convincing Darby to go out to the club when Darby knew she should be studying, and she was an incredibly pushover about it every time. This aspect of their friendship got a bit tedious, but I did like the rest of that story, especially when Darby developed an attraction to a talented cook at the nightclub, a guy named Sam who had traveled extensively and was very adventurous with spices (and that's not a euphemism.)

I was never able to become lost in this story, even the 1950s one, because none of it felt quite real enough. I mentioned many of my issues above, but also some of the sentence-level writing was troublesome and pulled me out of the story. For instance, a dog was described as having "quite the bitchy personality," which was rather colloquial phrasing that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, when present-day Darby was introduced to Rose's love interest/coworker, she responded, "Jason Wolf. Quite the name." It was similarly awkward phrasing that didn't quite fit, but also...what is supposed to be so unusual about the name Jason Wolf? I have no idea.

Since it's not out yet, there aren't a lot of reviews on Goodreads and mine is one of the few low ratings. I gave it 2 stars on Goodreads (which means "ok") because I thought the writing was so poor, but the whole idea was pretty good which made it extra upsetting that it wasn't executed well. Reading it wasn't all unpleasant, but at a certain point I did just push myself to finish so it would be over with. I didn't want to stop because I wanted to find out the truth of the story (see: "cheap trick" above.) I suspect I'll shy away from galleys I know nothing about for a while in favor of choosing books that I know I want to read.

The Dollhouse will be released in August. I received my copy courtesy of the publisher. I was not compensated for this review.

Friday, June 17, 2016

My Brother Sam is Dead

My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

Tim Meeker's older brother Sam runs away to join the Continental Army and fight against the British. His father is a Tory, loyal to the King, and is very upset about this. Tim doesn't know what to think - on the one hand, he admires his older brother but on the other hand he respects his father. Who should he believe? After Sam leaves, he doesn't have much time to think about it because he has to help around the tavern and take care of the livestock, doing Sam's share of the work as well as his own. But as the Revolutionary war comes closer and closer, it becomes impossible for Tim and and the rest of his family to stay out of it.

Since this is a classic, and the title tells you as much, it's not a spoiler to say that Sam dies. What's interesting though is that the way he dies isn't heroic. Plenty of soldiers died on the battlegrounds, but plenty also died of illness or were executed for crimes. We see several such deaths in this book, which definitely doesn't glamorize or romanticize war. In fact, there's an interview with Christopher Collier at the end of my edition in which he says that any book that is honest about war is anti-war because any book that glorifies war isn't telling the truth. (This interview was in 2005 and he also says that he wishes George Bush had read this book.)

Today we think of the Revolutionary War as something that was necessary, and it's a given that we should have separated from England and become our own independent country. But it wasn't clear at the time and not everyone in the American colonies agreed. The Revolutionary War was complicated and nuanced, like every war, and the authors did a great job of representing the issues. Another thing we might forget is how young people were who fought in the war. I think Sam was only 16 when he joined up.

At home, 12-year-old Tim took on a lot of responsibility. I actually thought he was older because I always forget that back then childhood didn't last as long as it does now. (In fact, many young people apparently now think that adulthood doesn't start until they're 30. Gawd help us.) Although people were responsible younger than they are now, the sphere of daily life was much smaller. Tim had never been to a colony outside of Connecticut until he goes on a trip with his father to sell oxen, and they stay with cousins he had never met before, though they're not far away by today's standards. This sort of thing fascinates me!

I hadn't read this book since fifth grade when my teacher, Mr. Furth, read it out loud to the class. It's the only thing I still remember from fifth grade, aside from the contra dancing. We're reading it for the Not-So-Young Adult Book Group at my library, because sometimes we like to mix it up and read classics. I didn't remember much about the book but was afraid I wouldn't like it. It was better than I expected and a quick read. It wasn't a total page-turner with characters that I could relate to - like contemporary teen books - but it was a very quick read that left me with a lot to think about.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (2015), narrated by Euan Mortan

As you may know, Rainbow Rowell's book Fangirl contains excerpts from a work of fanfiction, and Rowell has developed the basic idea of that fanfiction into a novel. The star is Simon Snow, a magician who is supposed to be the Chosen One, but has a terrible time controlling his magic. He goes to a special boarding school for magicians where he rooms with a vampire named Baz. Simon and Baz have been enemies since they met and they're both convinced that one of them won't come out of this relationship alive. But in their final year, Baz doesn't show up in the fall and Simon is super jumpy, expecting him to turn up unexpectedly at any moment. He's already having problems with his girlfriend, he receives a strange ghostly visitor, and is now convinced that his missing roommate is surely up to something.

Part mystery and part romance, this fantasy story is a departure for Rowell and I was honestly a little hesitant to read it. I've read Fangirl twice and though I love it, my least favorite parts were the Simon Snow passages. But obviously that is a lot different when it's fully developed into a whole novel.

Simon and Baz are great characters and I loved every moment I spent with them. Especially Baz! He's the presumably evil vampire and, despite being his nemesis, is hopelessly in love with Simon Snow. I loved the way that Baz continued to insult Simon even as he was attracted to him. Like staring at Simon thinking about how much he wanted to kiss him, and noting that "his lips are hanging open (mouth breather.)" He is dark and surly and sarcastic and I love him more than any other character I've read about recently. Simon, who is lovable in a totally different way, sought stability in his future with his girlfriend Agatha, and when she broke up with him he felt quite lost. He had no family of his own, just Agatha and his best friend Penelope. He was awkward and easily flustered, and I imagined him in constant, charming disarray.

The plot revolves around Baz's mother who was killed when he was just a baby, by the same vampires who turned him into one. Simon learns new information about this event, which leads to he and Baz working on the mystery together, bringing them ever closer. This all happened in a magic world where many of the spells are based on nursery rhymes or common sayings. Spells have more power if they are based on something that lasts over time as opposed to, say, an advertising jingle. The big enemy here is called the Insidious Humdrum, which looks like Simon Snow when he was younger, and is stealing magic from all over Britain. (Did I mention this takes place in England? The British-isms make it even better!) Other characters include the troll-like numpties, a female goatherd named Ebenezer, and the powerful Mage who is also the closest thing Simon has to a guardian. It was all deliciously fun and I would not be at all upset if it was the beginning of a longer series.

Carry On was almost a 5-star read for me, but I was a little less enthusiastic about the end. It was good in many ways but there was one major thing that I expected to be resolved and I was a little disappointed that it was just left hanging there. And I wanted more of Simon and Baz together once everything else was done. But that is really just a minor criticism in what was otherwise just as wonderful as I should expect from Rainbow Rowell. The audio narrator, Euan Mortan, did a great job of making these characters come alive.

Like all of Rowell's books, Carry On made me super happy in a million ways. It's clever and witty and made me wish the characters were real. If you read it, just be aware that it starts out slow, but it is absolutely worth it to stay the course. I know that in a way it's a riff on Harry Potter (and it really made me want to read that series again!) but it really is its own world and characters. When I finished my first instinct was to start it all over again, but instead I'm just going to wait impatiently for Rainbow Rowell to publish another book.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ten Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2016

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week we're posting our most anticipated new books being released in the second half of 2016, something I've been mostly avoiding looking at. I'm trying not to get overwhelmed with everything I want to read, but I'm also excited for new books by authors I love! There were already a few I knew about, but I took some extra time to look for forthcoming books so I could make my list.

This list is ordered more-or-less by my level of excitement.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Sept.)
This novel from the author of Rules of Civility is about a guy sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. I love Amor Towles, I love Moscow, and I've stayed at that hotel. I'll definitely be reading this one!

2. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (Oct.)
I'm afraid it won't compare to Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but I'm willing to find out.

3. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Sept.)
New Ann Patchett! I don't even know what it's supposed to be about but I'm sure it will be fantastic.

4. The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics (Sept.)
I loved Daughters Unto Devils SO MUCH, so I can't wait to read this one!

5. Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty (July)
I really liked The Husband's Secret, and loved Big Little Lies.

6. The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis (August)
This is the only debut on my list, and I only know about it because I received a galley in the mail. It takes place in the 1950s at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York, which is where Sylvia Plath stayed that summer she spent in the city. I'm sold just based on the premise.

7. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Sept.)
I didn't even read her last book, but somehow I'm really looking forward to this one. I loved Room and Slammerkin.

8. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Oct.) 
A new Margaret Atwood book is always an occasion for celebration (even if I am really behind on her books), but this is especially interesting. It's part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which are retellings by various authors. This one is a retelling of The Tempest, so now I'm adding The Tempest to my list of Shakespeare plays to read this year. (That list just keeps growing.)

9. My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier (Nov.)
The only book by her that I've read was Liar, but although I didn't love it at the time, I keep thinking about it. This new one is about a guy who is convinced that his little sister is a dangerous psychopath and it sounds pretty creepy!

10. Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King (Oct.)
Some of her books are very weird and this sounds like maybe one of the especially weird ones. It's A.S. King, so I imagine it will be fantastic.

I have a few others that I think are worth mentioning, so I'm going to slip those in too. In July we'll have a new historical novel from Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, which I loved because it took place in 17th century Amsterdam. The Muse takes place in 1960s London and 1930s Spain, which is maybe not as exciting to me but her writing is so good that might not matter. Crime writer Tana French will release The Trespasser in October, which will be the 6th in the Dublin Murder Squad Series. Finally, Nicola Yoon, author of Everything, Everything is releasing her second novel, The Sun Is Also a Star.

Are there any books you're especially excited about that coming out later this year? Tell me about them in the comments!

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman (1997)

In the 80s, a family of Hmong refugees living in Merced, CA had a baby who began having seizures when she was very young. Their doctors prescribed medications for Lia, but they did not understand the instructions or didn't trust the medication and failed to dose her properly. Her seizures worsened, and the relationship between the family and the medical establishment continued to be complicated. The result was ultimately tragic when Lia eventually had a seizure so bad that it left her in a vegetative state. Whose fault was it? Could it have been prevented? Anne Fadiman spent many hours interviewing the Lee family, Lia's doctors, social workers, and others involved with the case. She also interviewed people from the Hmong community about their culture and history in hopes of better understanding all aspects of this situation.

The Lees treated their daughter with traditional methods and rituals, believing that illness was related to the soul. In Lia's case, they thought her soul had left and they thought the medications prescribed by the American doctors did more harm than good. It was difficult for them to understand the treatment not only because of the language barrier, but also because of the huge cultural rift. For instance, the Hmong people don't tell time the same way we do and being told to give Lia medication at certain times of day was not an instruction they could make sense of, and since they couldn't read or write in any language, writing down these instructions wasn't helpful.

The doctors were very frustrated with the Lee family. They knew that Lia's condition would worsen if her parents didn't give her medications properly. They tried different ways of communicating the instructions to help them remember, but nothing seemed to work. Sometimes the Lees would just decide to change the dosage and supplement with their own mysterious treatments

It was clear that everyone involved cared about Lia. It's true that the doctors didn't really ask the family for their perspective on her illness or treatments to better gauge their understanding. And it's true that the Lees didn't comply with instructions. But the doctors wanted what was best for her, and the parents obviously did too. They adored this kid - this was a couple who had around a dozen kids, and it was clear that Lia was their favorite. They weren't deliberately sabotaging her health. Fadiman does an excellent job of presenting the story in such a way that gives credit to both sides, acknowledging that everyone made mistakes, but everyone also tried to do what was best in their own way.

Perhaps nobody should be blamed for the outcome, but that doesn't mean it wasn't preventable. Many discussions took place about better ways for the Hmong and Americans to communicate and to work together, which continued to be important in a community in which 1 in 5 people were Hmong. American doctors assume they will be respected and listened to because of their positions, but the Hmong don't have a cultural context for medical doctors and so don't automatically assume they know what they're talking about. Lia's prescribed medication regimen and its frequent adjustments would be confusing even to a literate American. The Lees weren't stupid, careless people - they were simply from a culture without complicated bureaucracies, and the life skills in which they excelled in their village in Laos weren't transferrable to the United States.

Although the books contains important lessons about cross-cultural communication, I would argue that many of those lessons would apply in any situation. For instance, some recommendations to improve health care for Hmongs were "minimize blood-drawing" and "allow relatives or friends in the hospital room around the clock." Having spent some time in hospitals when my mother was sick, I am baffled by some of the rules and the constant checking of vitals and drawing of blood, which interfere with such basic functions as eating and sleeping. How can anyone get better under such circumstances? Thinking about this time also made me sympathetic for the Lees when I remember how confusing it was to listen to the doctors, and to try to keep straight everything they said. My family would talk a little later in the day, and would all remember different things about the conversation and try to piece it all together. And we are Americans and English is our first language. We had no need for shamanic rituals or animal sacrifices, but apparently they make the Hmong more comfortable with accepting medical treatments they need, so why not?

Fadiman provides a lot of background information on the Hmong people and their history, but it could have been more concise. Parts of the book were a bit of a slog. Still, it was a fascinating story and it left with me a lot to think about.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Bury Me Standing

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

Since I've been inexplicably reading a lot of nonfiction recently, I though I'd focus on a nonfiction book for today's TBT. In my early post-college years, I surprised myself by picking up Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca. The cover is striking and I think I didn't realize until I saw it that Gypsies were real, at least in the modern world. The author spent four years with the Roma people in Eastern Europe, traveling with them and learning all about their history and culture.

I think I was drawn to it because the Gypsies of my childhood were so exotic and mysterious and stereotypical, and I wanted to get the real story. It was quite a while ago that I read it, but I do remember thinking that it was very thorough (though not impossibly long or dense) and I learned a lot. Since then I haven't come across any other books on this topic so I don't know how this compares to any that might be out there, but I definitely found it interesting and think of it now and then, even if I can't remember any of the details. I've been especially reminded of it recently while reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, another book focused on a culture very different from mine, and which I'll tell you all about very soon.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015), narrated by the author

In this award-winning book about race, Ta-Nehisi Coates interweaves stories about his life with American history and commentary about being black in the United States, all told in the form of a letter to his son. I feel like the last person who has gotten around to reading this book, and it's very short so there's just no excuse not to. But I picked it up once and started reading and realized that it is basically a very long essay, which somehow was a huge stumbling block for me. Then I heard that the audiobook was very good, so I downloaded it and had no problem listening to the whole thing.

This is a big departure from my usual fare, and definitely different from what I listen to on audio. It's not a story, though it does contain stories. The book grew out of many things, perhaps most significantly the reaction of Coates's son to the Trayvon Martin verdict. Coates is also haunted by the memory of his friend Prince Jones, a fellow student at Howard University who was shot by the police. He also recounts his childhood in a rough neighborhood, traveling to Europe for the first time, and other important parts of his life.

Coates talks about race as a falsehood, and refers to white people as "people who believe themselves white." He compares his youth to that of his son, who has grown up with a black president. He focuses on the body, frequently saying "my body" where others would say "me," emphasizing the way he is being judged by his skin. He describes injustices ranging from wary glances to police brutality.

I'll admit I sometimes lost the thread a bit because so much of it was about concepts rather than a story (it really is a long essay), but then Coates would recount a specific event or time in his life and that always brought me back on track. I was most surprised by how poetic this book is - the writing itself is almost lyrical in parts, but he reads it with such passion I couldn't help but be swept up in it. He was absolutely the only narrator for this book. If you're thinking of picking it up, I highly recommend the audio version.

Monday, June 6, 2016

10% Happier

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris (2014)

Dan Harris coanchors Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America and several years ago he had a panic attack on live television. In an attempt to get control over his stress, the agnostic, skeptical Harris delved into the world of meditation. Sifting through books that approached meditation from a decidedly spiritual viewpoint, interviewing people with pseudo-scientific views, and even attending a 10-day retreat, Harris finally came up with a version of mindfulness that works for him. 10% Happier is both a memoir and a self-help book.

I was totally unfamiliar with Dan Harris, despite the fact that he's a news anchor and I went to college with him (he graduated 2 years before me, and I have no idea whether or not we ever met.) But this book has been everywhere and keeps catching my eye because who doesn't want to be 10% happier? Then I attended the MLA conference a few weeks ago and went to a panel about mindfulness that mentioned this book. Sold!

In the opening pages Harris says, "Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment." He goes on to interview such prominent figures as Eckhart Tolle and the Dalai Lama in his quest, and I was happy to see that he basically picked and chose what worked for him and ignored what didn't. This is tremendously validating for those of us who want to reap the (many!) benefits of meditation but can't buy into all the touchy-feely spiritual journey type of talk. The best part about this book was how he brings this arguably life-changing practice into his regular life. He didn't quit his job or move to an ashram or anything like that - he stayed the guy he is, with the same job and same wife, but handles everything a bit better.

I really liked the story of how he tried to get himself back on track, especially the ten-day meditation retreat he forced himself through. Being a news anchor assigned to stories on religion was a great way for him to learn more about the spiritual aspect of meditating while also providing fodder for his show. His interviews and conversations with people like Mark Epstein and the Dalai Lama provided additional perspectives and were fascinating in themselves. The book title came from his struggle to explain his new habit to people without them assuming he had gone a bit kooky. When asked why he meditates, he started answering "Because it makes me 10% happier." Nobody is going to argue with that.

I had already begun meditating a couple of weeks before reading this book, just using the simple instructions I learned at the library conference. So it was great to get Harris's advice and perspective, as well as suggestions for further reading. I'm hoping to learn more by reading some of the books he recommends.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Pit Bull

Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey (2016)

As its title suggests, this brand new book is all about the pit bull, the history of the breed, and its changing place in American society. Dickey presents a thorough overview, compiled from extensive research and interviews with veterinarians, dog trainers, rescue staff, and activists both for and against breed-specific legislation regarding these recently-controversial dogs.

What even is a pit bull? There are four different breeds that are considered pit bulls: the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, and American bully. Some of these breeds are recognized by professional kennel clubs and others are not. More importantly, dogs are frequently misidentified. In one study, shelter staff misidentified dog breeds 87.5% of the time. This is because such a small part of a dog's genes determine how they look and most dogs are mixed. So even if a dog looks like a pit bull, it might be mostly something else. Conversely, an actual pit bull might look more like another type of dog. This is important because breed is usually determined not through a genetic test, but just by looking. And if your dog looks like a pit bull, you can be screwed out of rental housing or homeowner's insurance. Or maybe your neighbors will assume that you're a drug dealer and not invite you to their barbecues.

When many of us think of pit bulls, we think of aggression, biting, or even dogfighting, which is what they were originally bred for. Pit bulls are notorious for biting people, eating babies, and all sorts of violent mayhem. Dickey tries to get to the bottom of actual data about pit bull bites, but there just aren't real statistics out there about dog bites. If someone goes to the ER for a dog bite, they are asked about the breed of dog; this field is often left blank, but if it's filled in, it's done so by the victim or a family member. In other words, the breed of dog is being identified by a bystander rather than a canine professional. Then if the dog responsible is described as a pit bull it is usually all over the news; if it's some other breed, it is barely reported at all. Just to keep things in perspective, only about 35 people are year are killed by dogs, which is nothing compared to all the other ways in which we die.

Dickey also goes into the part that race has played in the image of the pit bull (the dogs were common in early hip-hop culture) and the huge number of pit bulls left to drown during hurricane Katrina - along with their African-American owners - because people couldn't take their pets with them, and many of the rescues wouldn't take pit bulls. Some people, including the president of PETA, have dismissed pit bulls as being only owned by pimps and thugs, insulting pit bulls right along with their owners.

There is just so much in this book that is interesting! Of course, dogs' behavior is largely determined by how they are raised, and some of the experts in the book point out that dogs aren't really allowed to act like dogs anymore. They are expected to take all sorts of treatment from people and not react at all, which maybe is expecting a bit too much. Some of the most publicized deaths from dogs (pit bulls and other breeds) happened when children were left alone with dogs. Kids behave erratically and have a tendency to tease and provoke, and animals can be startled by their behavior. The good news is that most dog bites are completely preventable by, say, not leaving toddlers alone with dogs. In all the furor and breed-specific legislation, something important has gotten lost, which is that for all the dogs you hear about that maim and kill, there are thousands who do not. There are a ton of pets dogs in the United States, and not very many serious bites.

I think the question at the heard of this book is: are pit bulls different from other dogs, or are they the same? Given the information about how wrong we are about breeds, and how mixed most dogs are, I'd have to come down on the side of dogs just being dogs and they're all basically the same. Which is what some of the experts interviewed in the book think. But others disagree, such as breeder and trainer Diane Jessup, who is a firm advocate of pit bulls and quipped, "I refuse to face an uncertain future with a fucking Labradoodle."

The last thing I want to mention are a couple of important organizations featured in the book. The Coalition to Unchain Dogs works to subvert the usual way animal welfare is handled. Rather than removing dogs from homes where they aren't getting the best care, they work with the families to improve their dogs' living situations. They help to provide spay/neuter surgeries, veterinary care, and dog houses. They also built fences so families didn't need to keep their dogs chained up in the back yard. Pets for Life, which was started by the Humane Society of the United States, is devoted to providing resources for pets in underserved areas where they don't have access to pet supplies or veterinary care. They do a ton of outreach and many of their clients own pit bulls.

As you can tell from this extensive post, I found this book fascinating and learned a lot! Although I've always been an animal lover, I've never known much about dogs. But I've learned a lot in the past year since adopting a pit bull mix at from a local shelter. (At least they said she's a pit bull mix - who knows?) Although this dog has been a nightmare at times and has cost us lots of dollars in training, I've never attributed her poor behavior to her breed, but rather to the neglect and mistreatment she surely endured for the first year of her life. So I guess this book just reinforces what I already thought, but it's nice to be validated with actual data and information from experts. Bronwen Dickey has revealed a great deal about not only dogs, but American culture. Anyone interested in animals is sure to find something of interest here.