Posted on | April 27, 2011 | Comments Off
Linh Dinh paints a picture of a country that is awkwardly and chaotically sprinting towards happiness.
Dinh, who was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States at the age of 12 in 1975, has already made a career for himself as a poet. He has published five books of poems and two books of short stories, and is already considered a master in his field, having been anthologized in three Best American Poetry editions in the last decade. One of his short story collections, Blood and Soap, was picked by The Village Voice as the best book of 2004. Love Like Hate is his first novel, and a pleasure to read – the voice, words, and characters are as carefully crafted as a work poem or a short story.
The overall structure of the novel reads like a closely intertwined story cycle. Each chapter has a title, and they often feel as if they could stand on their own. The chapters, like short stories, often close with a tight allegory or whimsically drawn-out metaphor. The allegories are especially interesting – one female character’s meditation on the necessity of beauty blossoms into a tale of two women who didn’t develop, and the consequences of one’s acceptance of that fact and the other’s quest for exquisiteness that grew into an addiction.
He opens with a short history of Vietnam since the late 1970’s, but swiftly drops us into the plot shortly thereafter. Though most of the action takes place in and around Saigon, the reader sometimes travels with the characters back in time to their hometowns or forward to the U.S. Gratefully, Dinh is our ambassador who guides us through the character’s lives as well as the customs, histories and locations. This result is the effect of learning while reading, though not in a pedantic way. Dinh add rich details about things which would be mundane to the Vietnamese, but absolutely fascinating to an outsider. For example:
He also noticed something he hadn’t asked for: a jar of fermented shrimp paste. Fermented shrimp paste is used as a dip for boiled pork. Purplish gray, it tastes great – once you get the hang of it – but it smells like garbage. Fermented seafood is inevitable in a tropical country with a long coastline. The ability to eat fermented seafood separates the real Vietnamese from the fake Vietnamese.
The main character, Kim Lan, is a women who survives the Vietnam war and then opens up a sidewalk cafe that flourishes into the late ‘90’s. It would be a mistake to say that she dominates the book. Dinh shows his characters through their relationships to each other, which makes the title of the book feel appropriate long before the reason is revealed.
It’s not always easy to relate the characters: sometimes their goals seem a little shallow. Kim Lan’s dream is to get her daughter married to a Vietnamese ex-pat, and she spends a considerable amount of effort to make her as desirable and American as possible. She’s cruel to her servants, and can’t trust them, a fact that allows her lazy, whoring son to steal money from her and blame it on the help.
Yet Dinh makes all his characters shine. As the opening story unfolds, a Vietnamese transplant to Philadelphia offers a seemingly absurd (and naively hilarious) suggestion regarding her husband’s career, and then an incredible insight into the inherent despair of American culture. The honesty regarding these characters makes them far more realistic, and ultimately more likeable. At points the plot twists are, quite literally, jaw-dropping, and healthy sense of hope for the characters is thoroughly engaged, as well as a greater sense of respect for the day-to-day life struggles of Vietnam.
If I were teaching high school, this is a book I’d assign to my students.
Posted on | April 14, 2011 | Comments Off
Okay, Okay, Okay, I get the message. I’m not that good at writing book reviews. Actually, what I’ve come to realize is that the biggest problem is I didn’t really know what book reviews are for.
Apparently, people don’t read book reviews to decide whether or not their going to read the book. They read the reviews because they enjoy reading them, which I actually find to be a little confusing. I’ve also realized that I don’t particularly like reading book reviews.
So, why am I still writing them? The thing is that I do read a lot of books. I’m in grad school, so I’ve put away a few pages. Some of them are ridiculously ancient. I mean, The Scarlet Letter? Nobody’s really looking for a book review of that tome, unless they’re looking for a free essay.
So, once again I’m stuck. What do I do with this blog? The best I can come up with is the tag line. Do you want to read with me? I read a lot, so I can keep you . . . . uh . . . reading. That’s worth something, right?
So, anyways, Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott. This was the hot book to read last year, if you lived in Chicago. If you don’t live in Chicago, you might have missed it, which would have been a shame. Abbott gives us an in-depth history of Ada and Minna Everleigh, the owners of the Everleigh club, which gave us the term “I’m getting everleigh’d” (which was eventually shortened to “got laid.”
There’s something very subtle about this book. It’s rarely graphic, staying within the social mores of the time. Considering all of the different ministers and Chicago politicians, it can be a little tough to keep track of everyone in the book, but it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book just on the descriptions of different brothels and the lives of the ministers who fought them.
If you ever needed an unconventional model of a female entrepreneur, these woman are it. They decide on a business model (elite brothel) and then do their research by visiting cities until they find one with an appropriate market (Chicago.)
And if you don’t know much about Chicago history, you are in for a treat! Let’s just say, they don’t call us “The windy city” because the weather.
Sin in the Second City is a book of non-fiction, and it reads like a dry novel, which I think is about right for historical non-fiction. There’s plenty of information here, but it’s the interesting kind: Old Chicago’s corrupt aldermen, the ministers who whipped up rallies against the strangely named “White Slavery,” a movement that momentarily captured the nation’s imagination, and then faded out of fashion like the hammer pants.
“White slavery,” if you can believe it, is what we call human trafficking today. The problem back then was that no one could believe that prostitutes could be either a victims or people making an independent choice. This profession, on a whole, had to be one or another. This caused reformers to regularly embarrass themselves in front of Ada and Minna’s “butterflies,” (they only hired women who had decided to go into the profession as a personal choice,) and throw out real cases of coercion because they simply weren’t scary enough.
Ultimately, they win this round, but human trafficking is still a huge, and very scary problem. I think you could read this book to get a little bit more background on today’s situation.
But I think you’d probably enjoy more as a non-fiction yarn of times passed.
Posted on | March 6, 2011 | Comments Off
I’m like sortof published now! Whoohoo!
So if you’re in Bloomington, IL, go check it out!
Posted on | February 23, 2011 | Comments Off
So I had this dream last week about Rahm Emanuel. You know how, when he talks, he pulls you in, as if the deal he’s making is just with you, just for you.
In my dream, I was at my mother’s house. I was dressed for the day, drinking my coffee, when the doorbell rang. It was Rahm. He was standing on the doorstep, his town car parked in the alley. He asked me to come and work for him. Of course I said yes, and we got in his town car and drove all over the city, shaking hands, making speeches, reassuring the people of Chicago that yes, it would get better.
The next day, I woke up very early, but even as I was making the coffee, Rahm was already there.
“I need you again today,” he said, “can you get ready to go?”
I got ready as fast as I could, and we spent another wonderful day together, discussing policies and current events with all the celebrities of Chicago.
The third day, I made sure I got up as early as I could, but Rahm was at my door already. He looked a little concerned. “Megan, your wardrobe really needs an upgrade. I want to keep working with me, but I also want to give you this gift card to help you out.” I’m so grateful, and I tell him to wait while I get ready. I try to really dress up as best as I can. I only have one suit – I hope it’s good enough.
But when I run out the door, he’s gone. I’m devastated, but not surprised. I tried to straighten may hair and it took longer than I thought it would.
I have to find out where he went, so I turn on the radio, and he’s doing an interview with NPR. Where are NPR’s studios located? I call a cab, using my last twenty dollars to get there.
This is where things get surreal. I’m waiting in the lobby of NPR studios, and there’s tons of people. Most of them are kids. The interview finishes, and all the world leaders stream out from the conference room. Obama’s there, and many other recognizable faces. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes out, and gives the kids a thumbs-up. A couple of the kids respond, so he makes a funny case at them. This goes on until he’s doing some sort of weird dance in front of the kids, and NPR has broken out the cameras. I can’t find Rahm anywhere.
I woke up from my dream then, and decided that I needed to follow @mayoremanuel to the letter. Clearly, my subconscious is trying to tell me something.
Posted on | February 2, 2011 | Comments Off
If you’re trapped in a slightly chilly apartment somewhere in the Midwest, and you didn’t make it to the library before the attack of the thunder snow, I have a solution for you.
First – check out “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. We talk about this story all the time in my classes, yet none of my teachers have actually taught it.
And if you like it, buy the book!
Second – prepare to have your mind blown by James W. Perkinson’s “Shamanism, Racism, and Hip Hop Culture: Essays on White Supremacy and Black Subversion.” Feel some horror with me when you realize that this awesome book is out of print!!! It’s a travesty.
Third – As the wind picks up and the lights grow dim, pretend you’re in Rochester’s mansion with Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, it’s got everything you need (horror, adventure, romance) and when the movie comes out this year you can be fully prepared to scream “that’s not what happens in the book!” at the screen.
Posted on | January 18, 2011 | Comments Off
I hope you’ll excuse this post, it’s a little off-topic, unless you happen to be a Google Docs Product Manager.
I’m on a job search right now – I’ve taken a little sabbatical to work on my graduate degree, but it looks like it’s time to get back to the grind.
The small problem is that I don’t have my own personal copy of MS Office anymore – and the major problem is that I never really liked MS Office for Mac in the first place. It just never seemed to work the way I wanted it to.
So I pretty much use Google Docs exclusively, and I have a resume in Google Docs. I thought I’d update it recently, and I was really happy to find that there are Google Templates! And I found a really nice one, and it looked great, and then I had the first fail:
No paint brush! So I have to retype my previous resume from scratch. Not fun.
Downloading the Google Doc so that I could then upload it to the various websites that have to send it to, because I can’t upload a Google Doc – it just didn’t look the same.
I think that if I had gone into the code I might have been able to fix some of it, but the horizontal lines – I don’t think there would have been anything I could have done about that.
If you see a way to make it better, let me know. Until then I’m using OpenOffice, which isn’t entirely compatible with Google Docs either, but it will have to do.
Oh and if you see a job you think I should apply for, send me a tweet.
Posted on | October 7, 2010 | Comments Off
So a little background on this book: I was assigned to read it by the highly erudite book review editor of TriQuarterly Online, but I struggled with the composition of the review, as the book was not what I had expected. As I was preparing myself to create the second draft this evening, Charles (Mr. Erudite Book Review Editor) apologetically approached me and explained that there had been a change in policy, and I could not review any book in translation unless I had a background in that language (in this case, Polish, and technically, no (although I’ve always appreciated it!))
My boyfriend asked me if I felt I read in the book in vain, and I replied that no, I had gotten at least three very deep and relaxing naps that were directly induced by the book. In fact I wanted to title the book review “A Thousand Peaceful Naps,” and allow the content of the review to revolve around how refreshed I felt thanks to the 120 winks caught between the pages.
Okay, you may laugh at this, but seriously, I suffer from some serious insomnia at times, and I usually have a set of books hanging around strictly for the purpose of putting me out. Pilch’s writing, as translated by David Frick, usually got me there within the hour – but I still managed to finish the book! I think that speaks volumes.
I’m not disheartened that my review of this book will not be in TriQuarterly, but I did want to share it with my readers at least. The most important thing to understand is that 1) translations matter: poor translations of older books that are now in the public domain are often reprinted and sold at bargain prices to readers who are rarely getting their $4.99 worth, which is tragic as a great translation can really, well, translate the book to the reader.
And 2) well, this book says on it’s back cover that it’s a comic gem, but there seems to be a discrepancy in the marketing: Eastern European humor is not like American humor. The further east you go, the darker it gets. Hence, uh, more napping than laughing for this uninitiated reader.
I do think that this book has some value to the American reader if s/he can look past that blatant lie on the back cover and focus on the merits. The book describes a time in history where Poland was feeling a bit disillusioned by their current leadership, the First Secretary Władysław Gomułka. He was a communist leader, but started his reign on strong, pro-relaxing-laws note, and even has a “thaw” named after him. As his term continued, soviet pressure kicked in. By 1970, he was running both anti-Roman Catholic and anti-Semitic campaigns, basically attempting to blame religion for communist mismanagement and a stagnant economy. I am hoping the sense of despair addressed in this novel isn’t something that we in the U.S. get to look forward to. But then, of course, I live in Chicago, so if you ask me about our last governor I start to feel what was being so poetically described in this novel.
And WHAT POETRY! Pilch can really make a sentence sing, and his characters are absolutely profound in the way that they each have their own voice, and their own moment, all the while maintaining that normal humanity that makes them absolutely believable. Take for instance, this chapter ending:
“My first dream began, and through its first spaces, over snow-capped mountains, flew an arrow with a silver tip. It circled the world like a Russky sputnik, and the slashed air immediately sealed over it, and there wasn’t a trace of its passing”
In this section, the young narrator is, ahem, losing something. It’s a testament to the subtlety of Pilch’s voice that the moment is presented flawlessly but could be easily missed by a careless or sleepy reader.
The narrator, his family and close associates are really the center of the book – one could easily describe it as a book of characterszzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZ zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ ZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZ zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzpthgh . BHuh? Oh.
My father also suffers from insomnia. I think I will get this for him for his birthday.
Posted on | October 2, 2010 | Comments Off
When I was a young girl my mother and I once took a tour of an old southern plantation, including the quarters where the slaves had been kept. The main house, of course, was beautiful: white pillars in the front, richly colored fabric in the walls, and everyone (I mean everyone) had their own bed room. The quarters were a completely different matter – tiny little shacks with space in between the boards that made up the walls, and a single bed per cabin. If you asked any normal person were they would like to live, they’d say the manor house. My mom said “the quarters,” “Why?” I asked her with shock. “Because they all slept together in the same room.” The thing is, though, that families were regularly separated then. Children were often sold off when they were very young. Men and women were never married; as far as their owners were concerned, relationships between them was only for purposes of breeding. Sometimes, owners would go as far as assigning men to women and taking them to the cabins in the evening. The women who were slaves would often be assigned to the house in the evenings, away from whatever family they had. Within in the house they were very unsafe, as they were owned by their master, they had to submit to the his will and the will of his family’s.
Part two of a series on War, Violence and Suffering features Tony Morrison’s Beloved (Everyman’s Library), a book that I wish was required reading in every high school curriculum. It’s powerful book, but it can also be intimidating. Take, for instance, the opening: “124 was spiteful. full of baby’s venom. The woman in the house knew it and so did the children.” HUH?
It’s easier to get into if you already know a little bit of plot going in, and don’t bother trying to watch the movie to explain it – the dialogue is all performed in whispers, shouts, and thick southern accents.
What you should know, just before you start reading, is that the story takes place on the outskirts of Cincinnati, roughly around the 1870’s, there lived a family – Sethe, the mom, her three children, two older boys (Howard and Buglar) and her daughter, Denver. The lived in the house with their grandma, Baby Suggs. And yes, “Baby” is a strange name for a Grandma but that was what she was called all her life. Grandma is actually the mother of Sethe’s husband, Halle, who had disappeared years before, on the night that He and Sethe were supposed to escape together with their children to Cincinnati and Grandma Suggs’s house. The address to the house was 124 Bluestone road, and is referred to the story often as just “124.”
Reading becomes easy once you get the characters straight, and realize that yes, this is a ghost story. Morrison deliberately throws the readers into the thick of of the haunting. Somehow, though, the ghostliness of the haunting isn’t as spine-chilling as the story of Sethe’s life in Sweet Home and the tragedy that left them with the ghost shortly after she arrived. These stories are woven into the events that occur shortly after the arrival of Paul D, a man that she had known as a fellow slave on the same plantation.
Morrison’s story showcases the continued suffering for those who have lived without freedom, and I think it’s the best book a person can read to really understand a life in slavery. But there’s happy moments in the book as well, and the book ends on a realistically happy note, with a family on the road to restoration.
Posted on | September 11, 2010 | Comments Off
The reason my next blog post took so long to write was that Dr. Maté’s book is a very long read. But it is also very, very good, the kind of book you find yourself reading slowly and deeply to absorb all of the material he provides.
Dr. Gabor Maté has written a book about addiction, and includes perspectives from personal experience as a doctor who treats addicted patients in Vancouver’s East side, and as an addict of work and shopping. His experience gives him the ability to write about working with addicts in a compassionate environment and as someone who is experiencing addiction, the pain that it can cause, and the triumph of overcoming the problems that addiction brings as well as the addiction itself.
The book opens with specific stories of addicts who Dr. Maté has worked with and interviewed. He not only gives us a brief history of what the person suffered, but describes his interactions with a compassion that many people, addicted or not, rarely experience. He neither blames the addict nor bans them to pathetic victim hood – he brings out the ultimate humanity in each person.
The core of the book is a bit drier. Maté explores the neuroscience of addiction as well as the psychology, and also describes his own addiction, which is focused on classical music CD’s.
I have to admit that I gave a hearty laugh when he described what his cravings were for. It’s almost a litle bit difficult to believe that it could be a real addiction until he writes that he owns 5 complete sets of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I would call this the equivalent to owning five different sets of the Harry Potter series for the joy of reading, or 60 lamé stretch pants for the joy of clothes. A shopping addiction is viewed differently from addictions to heroin or cocaine, but I can feel his sense of shame and the disturbance he brings to his family when he chooses music shopping over them.
I was surprised and elated (yes, fully elated!) to read about his theories of addiction and the addictive personality as not genetically received but built upon experiences and environment. As we as human beings mature into adults, we build systems in our brains to experience joy in human connections, self-esteem, and internal incentive-and-reward processes. For instance, I might tell myself that I will eat ice cream after writing this review, as a reward for finishing a project on time. But if I’m letting an addiction to ice cream hinder my ability to write, I might convince myself that I cannot go on until my craving for ice cream has been satisfied. And if I succumb, I will take time away from writing not only to eat ice cream, but also to feel the guilt and shame that I may hoist upon myself if I’m trying to stay on a diet or concentrate more fully on my work.
Maté also provides hope in his discussion of the true addictive power of scheduled drugs. The reality: they are not nearly as powerful as we’ve been lead to believe. Studies of (very lucky) lab rats who live in large family groups with ample resources will often refuse to self-administer powerful opiates, thus proving that among rats, at least, “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou” is more satisfying and appealing than a bump of heroin. This goes against our current political and moral understanding of drugs as the main cause of addiction. Instead of running to drugs and thrill-enhancing activities, addicts are running away form distressing internal states caused by childhood trauma and neglect. Maté backs his statement with evidence of correlations between childhood trauma and incidence of substance abuse among users verses the general population.
In 450 pages there is so much more in this book, including guidelines for one method of overcoming an addiction, information on correlations between ADD/ADHD and substance abuse, and spiritual and religious resources. It’s rare that a book will take a subject such as a crippling and controversial social issue and make it accessible, even more rare that a book on this subject provides an uplifting vision of hope.
I recommend that everyone read this book – It’s a rare book that feeds the heart as well as the mind.
Posted on | August 30, 2010 | Comments Off
I’m taking a break from the literary reviews to chat again about SEO. I just wanted to comment on all of the strange comments that I have been getting, just incase my more literary viewers were curious.
One important practice of SEO is called blog commenting or blog networking. Essentially, you leave a comment on a recent posting (hopefully a nice, relevant one) and a link to your website as well, as most blogs give you a specific field for this. The problem is that a lot of people do this very, very badly. I have a lot of comments that say “great post! Need student loans?” (no) and also “This post is okay – here’s some information on the Tea Party” (double no). Irregardless to whether I care for the comments, my blog is a no-follow blog, meaning the code in the comments section indicates to spiders that they should disregard the links in there. So posting on my blog in the first place is a waste of time.
WordPress asks for my approval for each and every comment, which is a bit of a pain, but does allow me to keep the spam and the riffraff away. As soon as someone posts an intelligent comment, I promise I will let everyone know.
keep looking »