Sunday, January 27, 2008

6. Kabul Beauty School

Subtitle: Beneath the Veil of Afghan Women
by Deborah Rodriguez with Kristin Ohlson, audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunn

This book was mesmerizing but irritating. Mesmerizing, because Deborah Rodriguez can tell a good story. Irritating, because Deborah Rodriguez behaves so stupidly.

Rodriguez was a hairdresser in Michigan in her second bad marriage in 2002 when she joined a Christian humanitarian group and went to Afghanistan as a nursing assistant. While there, she found that her beautician skills were more in demand (especially among Westerners now in Afghanistan), and that Afghan women miss the beauty salons they had before the Taliban came into power. The book chronicles Rodriguez’* efforts to start and run a beauty school for Afghan women, to empower them to run their own businesses and gain some freedom from the controlling men in their lives.

*One of the most irksome things about the book is that Rodriguez makes it sound like she was almost totally responsible for starting and running the beauty school, which was NOT the case. Rodriguez appeared in the 2004 documentary The Beauty Academy of Kabul, which makes it clear that six women were involved in the establishment of the school, although Rodriguez eventually took over its operation. I get really exasperated with people who don’t give credit where credit is due.

Worse, Rodriguez’ brash personality and egotistic actions made me cringe. She displays little cultural sensitivity, smoking, drinking, cussing, wearing lots of makeup, punching a man and yelling about him “grabbing my a**” in a public market (embarrassing and endangering her friend and translator in the process), and threatening the terrorists who live next door. While she may not have been intentionally trying to offend, her brazenness may have made things more difficult for the very people she was trying to help.

Rodriguez’ feminist actions make it unbelievable that she would marry an Afghan man 12 years her junior only 20 days after meeting him. He has another wife and seven daughters in Saudi Arabia, and Rodriguez becomes upset when “Sam” doesn’t tell his parents about her, and when the first wife becomes pregnant with and gives birth to a son. What was she expecting in this “marriage” (which she admits she entered into for companionship, protection, and sex)? Even more appalling was her involvement of her visiting teenaged son in her attempts to help an Afghan girl who was being sexually abused – he offers to marry the girl! What kind of lessons about marriage is she teaching her son (who, along with the rest of her family of origin, did not learn about her Afghan marriage until they read about it in the paper)?

Nevertheless, I found the book compelling despite its annoyances. Rodriguez (probably with much help from her co-author, journalist Kristin Ohlson, whose own book sounds intriguing) does tell a good story in typical confiding-hairdresser-gossipy style. Rodriguez seems to care about the Afghan women she meets and shares their heartbreaking stories. She also provides a glimpse into Afghan customs and culture – the opening chapter on Afghan wedding rituals was fascinating! The book’s appeal was heightened by the audiobook reading by actress Bernadette Dunne, who had just the right voice for the self-assured Rodriguez.

This book would generate some interesting discussions for book clubs, particularly those that have read other popular books set in Afghanistan, such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, and/or those who have watched the documentary mentioned earlier. Here are some other websites that would be useful in a dialogue on the book: - Random House Publishing’s website on the book, including a video interview and printed Q&A with Rodriguez. (5/12/07) (6/1/07) (6/17/07) (1/5/08)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

5. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See

This is a sad story of friendship and tragedy, set in the 19th century in a remote part of China. Author Lisa See, who is Chinese-American, did extensive research in China to provide the cultural and historical background for her story.

The narrator, Lily, is an 80-year-old widow looking back from 1903 on her long life. She describes in detail the process of her footbinding at age 7 (which killed her younger sister). She also details her education, particularly in nu shu, or “women’s [secret phonetic] writing.”

Shortly after this, a prominent matchmaker suggests for Lily a laotong, or “old same” match with a girl from the clan of a potential husband for Lily. Snow Flower shares Lily’s birthday and other characteristics, but is of higher social standing. As laotong, they can be friends for life, and a close bond develops between them over the next ten years, the only real highlight in lives lived mostly in an upstairs room. They send nu shu messages to each other on a fan when they are apart.

At 17, Lily marries into a prominent family from Snow Flower’s village, and a month later Snow Flower marries. Lily finally gets to visit Snow Flower’s family of origin, and learns the truth about her friend. Lily’s feelings of betrayal color her relationship with Snow Flower (and others) from then on, but their friendship continues. Many years later, after a typhoid outbreak and the Taiping Rebellion further changes their lives, a misinterpreted nu shu character on the fan causes even more sorrow and regret.

Descriptions of many other Chinese customs, folktales, and the numerous ceremonies and festivals were fascinating. I thought it was particularly interesting that a woman continued to live primarily with her family of origin until she first became pregnant, and even after that spent numerous festivals with her natal family. I also thought it was interesting that in their dialect, the word for “wife” is the same as the word for “guest” (page 112), the word for “child” sounds the same as that for “shoe” (page 90), and the first character in the word for “mother love” means “pain” (page 4).

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a fascinating and heart-rending book that was hard to put down, with a message about true friendship that applies even today – accepting your friends they way they are, not as you wish them to be.

ETA 9/17/08: I "re-read" this book in order to lead a book club discussion on it via audiobook. The version was abridged, but did not leave out anything pertinent to the main story (with the possible exception of the fact that Lily chose - to avoid bickering - concubines for her husband late in life, to increase his prestige in their city and to please him). The narrator was Jodi Long, who does a great job expressing the emotions of the main characters, especially during foot binding, but who has a slight lisp which is distracting. This story, though, continues to grow on me, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

4. The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold
(also the audiobook read by Alyssa Bresnahan)

When this book first came out (2002), I was a little hesitant to read it. The subject headings were “Murder victims’ families – Fiction” and “Teenage girls – Crimes against – Fiction,” so I figured it was just another murder mystery or true crime story, genres I don’t particularly care for. However, another group in the online book club I now belong to was reading this book, and I finished The Glass Castle so quickly that I decided to start this one. I’m so glad I did – there’s so much more to the story than murder and crime!

The book is written from the point of view of Susie, a 14-year-old rape and murder victim of a man in her neighborhood, whose body (except for an elbow) is never found. Author Alice Sebold was raped at 18 (which she writes about in her memoir, Lucky). In an interview at the end of the audiobook, one learns Susie was based on another girl who had been raped and dismembered in the same location (a tunnel) as Sebold’s rape. The narrative perspective of a dead girl looking down from heaven gives us the opportunity to see different ways of handling grief, as exhibited by Susie’s family and friends.

I liked Susie's heaven. It’s kind of the way I picture heaven; different for everyone. In the same interview, Sebold said she stayed away from others’ ideas of heaven. She wanted a sense of heaven that is individual for everyone, “where no one would feel alienation.” She didn’t want it to be perfect: “there would be some struggle after death before you reached another level where you understood…the ramifications of death…those people who are still alive on earth and what they’re going through and being able to let go of them.” Sebold’s/Susie’s heaven is “multifaceted and in that way it’s as dynamic as earth.”

This is a fascinating story. There's no mystery on who committed the murder, but a lot of suspense on whether or not he is going to be caught (and that denouement is priceless). The characters are well-developed and one really cares how they evolve (although once again a mother, in this case Susie’s, reacts disappointingly, like Nora in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter). The views of death, grief, and heaven are thought-provoking. I definitely recommend this book for mature teens and adults.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

3. The Story of Forgetting

by Stefan Merrill Block

This is an ambitious first novel dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The book alternates between two narrators, 68-year-old Abel and 15-year-old Seth, interspersed with the story of a fictional land called Isadora, and partly-scientific information about a strain of early-onset Alzheimer's.

In my advance reader’s edition, the chapters on Isadora are in italics, and those with the real and pseudo-science are titled “Genetic History Part …” (1,2,3,4, or 5). Abel’s and Seth’s narratives are clearly identified by their names. I found it interesting that the subtitles for Seth’s chapters (Abstract – Background Research – Problem – Hypothesis – Procedure – Data – Results – Data Analysis – Conclusion – Future Directions) mirror the organization of a science experiment write-up or a research report.

Seth, an awkward loner, is trying to interview the sufferers of this strain of early-onset Alzheimer’s that live near his home in Austin, Texas. He hopes to learn more about his mother’s past and his own prospects with the disease. His mother has been struck by the illness, and even his father knows little about her background.

Abel is a lonely hunchback whose homestead north of Dallas is being encroached by suburbia. He reminisces about his mother and twin brother, both of whom had early-onset Alzheimer’s, as well as his brother’s wife, with whom he may have fathered a daughter he hasn’t seen for 21 years.

It’s probably predictable where this is heading, and indeed, once the reader learns the name of the mother and the daughter, it’s pretty clear. I found the first part of the book moved slowly and I was easily distracted, but the story picked up after this point.

Block does a marvelous job with the characters of Seth and Abel, the latter particularly amazing because Block was only 24 when he wrote the book. I found Seth to be a very realistic 15-year-old, reminding me of my own precocious and nerdy son at that age. Both characters elicit empathy.

I also enjoyed the book's settings. Block was spot-on with his characterization of the expansion of the Dallas area, especially into the plains of the north. And the "Westrock" outside Austin sounds suspiciously like the West Lake Hills area.

In my opinion, the sections on Isadora are the weakest part of the book. In an afterword, the author states he wrote these while in college, and they have the feel of being forced into the story. The metaphor of a land of no memory is fitting in a story on Alzheimer’s, but the passages themselves are too long and are distracting.

I particularly enjoyed the science-based “Genetic History” chapters and was impressed that Block included citations to real publications in his narratives. Block has worked in cognitive development and memory labs at various universities, and I felt I learned a lot about early-onset Alzheimer’s. It was clear to me that the genealogy he described (Mapplethorpe and his descendents) was fiction. Perhaps the mythology of that section made Isadora seem even more unnecessary.

My only other gripe with the book is the frequent use of meaningless sentence fragments outside of conversations, for example: “But.” “And then.” While his first novel isn’t flawless, Stefan Merrill Block has a gift for characterization, and I will be interested in reading his future endeavors.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

2. The Glass Castle

by Jeannette Walls

I read this memoir for an online book club I now belong to. The author is the second of four children of an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother who can't seem to hold down steady jobs and are constantly moving the family (at least 11 homes by the time the author is four). Numerous incidences of child neglect bordering on abuse are recounted in the book, which is set in the 60's and 70's. Yet, the author (perhaps because she is writing from the viewpoint of herself as a child at the relevant age) shows no bitterness towards her flaky nonconformist parents. This makes the memoir refreshing when compared to others where the author's anger is apparent (Running with Scissors comes to mind).

It's also possible to view Walls' unconventional upbringing as the source of her strength, and her parents as simply creative, unconventional people with a sense of adventure who didn't believe in spoiling their children (in any way). That's probably the best thing about this book – there will be many different reactions, because the author has written objectively and left it up to the reader to pass judgment on her parents.

I highly recommend this book. It's generating some great discussion in the online book club. It's especially interesting to see the children's growing awareness, as they get older, that their family's adventures are not normal.

1. Skinny Bitch

by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, audiobook read by Ren'e Raudman.

I picked up this audiobook at the library on New Year's Eve because of the catchy title. How I wish I had checked the reviews of the book first. The title as well as the front and back covers gave me the impression that it would be a sarcastic, motivating pep talk for developing a healthier lifestyle in the new year.

WRONG! This book is animal rights propaganda advocating a vegan lifestyle. NOWHERE is that indicated on the covers! You get about two chapters in and are hit with a long diatribe against all animal foods. I ended up skipping though most of these sections.

The value of what I did listen to is offset by the anger I felt at being misled by the covers' false advertising. Even the illustration on the back cover (of a woman with a dumbbell) implies that the importance of exercise in weight loss will be mentioned – and it never is. The more I listened, the more I grew irritated at the authors' frequent swearing and foul language. That gets old after a while and makes the authors (a former model and former model agent) sound like children who keep cussing just to annoy others.

Don't waste your time or money on this one.

Revitalizing and Revamping

I had to set up this Blogger identity long ago to be able to post in the UNT-SLIS Houston LISSA blog. I haven't done much with it since then, other than use the identity to join the posting teams for The Newbery Project, our Library Online Lounge public blog at work, and our private library staff blog.

I started writing about the books I've read in my Live Journal in the middle of last year, but I don't get many comments there, so I decided to make this unused identity my book blog. It also gave me a chance to play around with some enhancements like the LibraryThing and Flickr widgets. Now let's just hope I can keep up with it. Hope you enjoy!