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Legends of the Hidden Temple

I’ve had this one as a (misspelled) placeholder post for awhile, and in the coming weeks, I hope to go through all the ones like this that I have (and there are quite a few) and update them, so don’t be surprised if you experience some deja vu.

A few weeks ago, I finished a book I randomly selected from a shelf in the library, The Temple Goers, which is the first novel by Indian writer Aatish Taseer.

The back cover blurb is one hundred percent misleading; the event mentioned there doesn’t occur until about the last quarter of the book, and it’s not really the focus of the story. The story centers on the very unlikely friendship between returning Indian expat Aatish Taseer (no relation to the author of the book), and Aakash, a personal trainer who has some…shall we say, interesting hobbies. Aakash takes Aatish under his wing and reintroduces him to Delhi, but to a different Delhi than where the latter grew up. They go from high society parties to sordid sex dens to the eponymous temple, a portion of the book which the author describes in extreme, painstaking detail a ceremony which lasts all night. Other plot complications include Aatish’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanyogita – who’s obviously got a thing for her boyfriend’s new bro – and Sanyogita’s aunt Chamunda, a politician who allows Aatish to live in her apartment while he is in Delhi.

Overall, I would describe it as fair, maybe better than average. Some of the description is long-winded, but other parts are so delicious that I just had to put the book down and sort of fantasize. It’s less the story of Aatish than it is of the city in which he grew up, which looks completely different to him as an adult. As far as genre, it incorporates a but of magical realism, but I’d probably call it gritty neon realism, because the reader kind of feels like they spent the whole book shuffling from one crazy scenario to another, like barhopping in Cancun. The message of neocolonialism – which I didn’t even pick up on until reading some reviews, is really present; as much as the characters want to break down barriers, they are constantly putting each other in categories and on levels. In a society that is post caste-system, The Temple Goers shows that Delhi society just can’t seem to break free of classism, even if it’s not determined by outsiders.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Taseer’s writing and I’ve already picked his next book up from the library.

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Nepal Done Right

Anyone else read Three Cups of Tea?

Wasn’t it awful?

If you didn’t like that, or if you did by some stretch of the imagination, I’d recommend my most recent read to you – Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan. 

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Basically, Grennan succeeds in all the areas Greg Mortenson doesn’t. This riveting book centers on four main events: the author’s first trip to Nepal and his stint at Little Princes Home for Boys; the author’s subsequent return and establishment of his own children’s home along with Farid, another volunteer; his journey to the rural region of Humla to find the parents of the aforementioned children; and his relationship with Liz, which is truly a love story for the ages.

The book reads very quickly. I felt like I really got to know Grennan, and appreciated his acknowledgment of his flaws and missteps, from his encounters with the authorities to his failed attempt to catch a helicopter (which frustrated me to no end). He paints Nepal neither as a spiritual mountain paradise nor as a poverty stricken slum, which feels honest. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, but they all seem distinct, especially the children.

Warning: you will tear up while reading this book.

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Blogiversary + Book Reviews!

Can’t believe I forgot about my blogiversary, which was this week. So, happy blogiversary to me! I wouldn’t be here without all those who read/follow me (1,722 and counting! Tell your friends!) so a great big thank you to all of you.

I’ve been getting quite a lot of reading done this month, in between playing apps, watching Twin Peaks, and trying to avoid any and all responsibility. I’ve actually managed to finish a grand total of 17 books. Here’s the list, and the ones in bold I will post about (or already have, so stay tuned.

  1. Gisela Konopka, Courage and Love
  2. Amulya Malladi, The Mango Season
  3. Scarlett Thomas, Bright Young Things
  4. Esme Raji Codell, Sahara Special
  5. Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler
  6. Joseph Gangemi, Inamorata
  7. Catherine O’Flynn, The News Where You Are
  8. Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  9. Tom Miller, The Panama Hat Trail
  10. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven
  11. Aatish Taseer, The Temple-Goers
  12. Conor Grennan, Little Princes
  13. Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
  14. Gail Tsukiyama, A Hundred Flowers
  15. Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
  16. Madhur Jaffrey, Climbing the Mango Tress
  17. Prem Kutowaroo, In Search of Love

So, see you next month! (Which is in about five minutes.)

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Just Mormon Up

Today’s weather was so beautiful that I sat outside for around four hours, finished three books, and started two more. In all, I’ve finished 16 books so far this month, and I’ll recap some of them for you. One of my nonfiction choices for the month was Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer.

Under the Banner of Heaven contains two parallel through-lines: one, a history of the LDS Church and its various schisms and offshoots, and two, the story of the Ron and Dan Lafferty, two brothers who killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her baby daughter Erica at their home in American Fork, Utah, in 1984, based on a prophecy they received.

This book was eye-opening and hard to put down, even in some of the more boring stretches detailing the lives of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the like, all of whom lived more than a hundred years before the main events of the book. I preferred the chapters which were about 20th century Mormon life, like the chapters on Debbie Palmer. The author, who is Mormon himself (but not of the FLDS or Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, those who practice polygamy), really gets into the heads of the people involved and the bystanders, painting a vivid picture of the hazy events of that fateful day in 1984. In addition, he not only illuminates the life of Brenda Lafferty, who was much more courageous and wise than her situation allowed her to be, but also the Lafferty brothers, and exactly when and how things took a turn for the dark in their lives, specifically, Dan and Ron. Though what the brothers did was reprehensible and vile, Krakauer bifurcates their stories to show the different paths that led them to that point, and how the brothers changed after the brutal murders. It is interesting to get into the minds of killers, and even though their reasons are bizarre and corrupt, it’s interesting to see everything that those around them ignored. You wonder what might have happened if one of their wives or one of their accomplices had intervened and stopped it from happening – would things have settled down, or could it have possibly led to even more deaths of innocent people? Not to trivialize Brenda and Erica, and the possibilities, or sympathize with the killers, but the fact that these two brothers remained locked away in prison with their bizarre ideas left space for the rest of their family to cope and heal. People have done a lot more without being incarcerated for any significant length of time.

Overall, Under the Banner of Heaven is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re into true crime, religion, or American history, this book should definitely be at the top of your list. There is a quote in the book about the inability to write a fictional book about Mormons because their lives are strange in and of themselves, and this book is proof of that statement.

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If You Give An Italian A Typewriter…

I’ve been getting quite a bit of reading done over the past few days, and I’ve actually finished nine – count ’em – nine books this month. Not all of them were spectacular, and I won’t write reviews for all of them, especially since for a few of them I’ve forgotten a lot of key details, but one that I finished a few weeks ago and found particularly interesting was If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

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A curiously unpretentious take on pretentious literature, Calvino’s book is a postmodern story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The book is written in two styles, alternating between chapters. The first style is in second-person, detailing the reader’s journey from a bookshop, where the wrong book was purchased, leading to meeting a girl, and a professor, and on it goes. The second style, in alternating chapters, are random chapters from different books with different titles, locations, and subjects, usually not having anything to do with one another. It took me about halfway through the second chapter to realize this, and also that all the chapter titles, when read one after another, form a complete sentence (albeit long). Even though the second style got confusing, I was more attracted to the first style, seeing the reader’s journey through the book and all. It had a choose-your-own-adventure feel that is not too common in most books today. And the prose, while flowery in parts, didn’t get too flowery and usually circled back to the point within a page or two. It was a fun adventure, but the type you go on once but you’re glad you did and you got home safely.

I thought to myself, “you know, this is kind of like what David Mitchell tried to attempt with Cloud Atlas, only a lot cleaner, crisper, and better.” Ironically, when I looked up the book’s Wikipedia, the two names I see listed other than the author? David Mitchell, and…Scarlett Thomas, AKA one of my literary idols, who adores this book. So it gets some points for association, most definitely, but I did close the book feeling satisfied, so that’s the important thing.

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Castaway on Angsty Island

Hey y’all, I actually finished a book. Well, two, but this entry will focus on just one of them, Bright Young Things, by the lovely Scarlett Thomas.

Bright Young Things is about six British twenty-somethings who go in for a job interview but end up stranded together on a mysterious island, with no idea why they are there or how they got there. We learn a little about each of them before they arrive: Anne is an uninspired, sarcastic virgin with Peter Pan Syndrome. Jamie, a mathematician, has a job and a girlfriend but wants out of both. Thea is a working-class girl who is woefully unaware of most of the modern world. Bryn is a dreadlocked drug dealer who could’ve “been a contender” had he just applied himself. Emily is a recent graduate with a degree in art who has turned to being an escort for money. And Paul is a soon-to-be-laid-off computer programmer who wants to drain his company’s coffers and distribute the wealth to random people. They all see the same ad in the job section of the newspaper (which shows you just how long ago this book was written), apply for the job, and go to an interview, where the last thing they remember is being offered a cup of coffee, shortly after which, they wake up side by side on an island.

The island’s mysteries get curiouser and curiouser. They weren’t meant to starve or freeze to death; there is a house with a kitchen full of food, drinks, and other supplies, and six bedrooms fully outfitted with bathrooms and fresh clothes. Despite being city kids, they even manage to locate and repair a generator. Over the course of a few days, they get to know each other better and attempt to figure out the answers to their questions, namely, why were the six of them chosen to be here, and how will they be able to escape?

It seems like it could be the premise for a touchy-feely book, where everyone undergoes a great personal journey. Well, in truth…it is, and it isn’t. While they all do find out a little bit more about themselves, it actually unfolds more like a tale of six strangers actually stranded on an island, complete with panic, arguments, side-taking, resolutions, and ultimately, working together. For a bunch of supposedly “bright young things,” they’re proven to be horribly inept at most of the basic survival skills, which – let’s face it – probably most millennials would be as well, myself included. They do have occasional moments of clarity, but they’re all very flawed and human. Even though there are only six of them, it is hard to keep track of them at times, and there are a few plot holes. For example, in the Truth or Dare scene, the author mentions “Paul’s secret” but we never find out what it is, and in one of the later chapters, Emily runs off and no one knows where she went, yet a few pages later she’s back with the group, eating dinner, with no explanation of how/when/why she returned. As a reader, we know that there are limited places she could go on an island, and being a social creature, would eventually return to the house, but I had to flip back a couple pages, and…nope. they make a big deal about her running out of the house but nothing is said about her return.

Overall, although it’s not my favorite Scarlett Thomas book (which seems to be a popular opinion among Scarlett Thomas fans, at least according to Amazon.com’s page on it), it was still a page-turner. Hopefully, in the future, she’ll write some sort of follow up which gives us a bunch more questions and too few answers.

This book review was brought to you by me wishing I could escape to that island. And FWIW, I’m totally Jamie, except not as mathematical but way nerdier.

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To Whom It May Concern

I got through today’s normal load of classes and dance classes, but at least I’m commitment free until Monday. Wahoo!

I forgot to mention that the other day, I went to the library’s bi-annual used book sale, and against my better judgment, purchased about 10 books. The first one to catch my eye was entitled Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Once I started reading it, I literally could not put it down; I think I was 150 pages in before I realized my latter was getting cold.

Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel detailing the life of a frustrated, overworked college professor. Jason Fitger teaches creative writing at Payne University, a fictional college in the Midwest. He seems to attract students – and other people, later in the novel – who are in need of recommendation letters. He doesn’t hold back, giving his absolute honest opinion of everyone despite the application or his relationship with the person. Through these letters, we learn not only about the ridiculousness of the letter of recommendation (or as it’s called, the LOR), and how little Payne University cares about its English department (to the point where he needs a hazmat suit to go to his office), but about the less snarky and more serious side of Jason. We learn about his strange relationships with his ex-wife, Janet; his true thoughts on his co-workers; and the demons with whom he’s been living since his flash-in-the-pan success as a graduate writing student. Although the book is mostly lighthearted and funny, it takes an unexpected, dark turn in the final few pages that alters Jason’s outlook on the world, forever.

I related to this book in so many ways. Like Jason, I am in an underfunded humanities department in a Midwestern university. Even though my office is not a biohazardous area – I actually kind of like it – I am sure that there are graduate students who do less and have it way better. It is frustrating, however, that in none of the classrooms in which I teach do I have a smart board, or a way to show a video without needing to lug a projector around and waste 5 minutes of class time setting it up and praying that it works. I have not been in very many academic buildings, but it does seem like the ones which house the humanities are, in a word, neglected. The rooms in Vilas have TVs with VHS input, for crying out loud, and today  as I was setting up to teach my 1:20 class, in comes a building inspector to identify and document a small leak in the ceiling. And it’s not even on the top floor of the building. Science labs and athletic facilities, however, get tons of funding poured into them, with the money coming from tuition and who knows where, since we seem to be in an eternal hiring freeze.

Jason also deals with the flurry of emotions and stresses that seem inhabit just about every university discipline. Everyone I know in the university workplace is overworked, underpaid, and treated like the end of a loaf of bread that no one eats and either ends up in the garbage or in the back of a cupboard growing old and moldy. It’s a rare moment when people are joking around, and usually it’s to distract from the stress of an upcoming deadline or a massive, soul-crushing workload that makes you wonder why you’re in this line of work in the first place. It’s just like – while we’re here, trying to make ends meet, slaving away over funding forms and project proposals, and trying to navigate the politics of the higher-ups, college presidents are out shopping for their new lakefront homes and football coaches are appearing on radio shows and getting massive endorsement deals. Now you tell me, who deserves to get paid more? And yet, in almost every state in the USA, the highest paid state employee falls into either the category of university president or collegiate athletic coach.

Also, like Jason, I seem to get called upon for recommendation letters quite a lot. Every time I mention the subject to another grad student, they say that they never get requests. I guess either I’m popular, available, or a pushover; you take your pick. And I have not been afraid to write some really honest ones. At one point, when I was recommending a student for a program in Israel, I deleted an entire paragraph and just wrote something like: “Listen. I’ve been on an Israel program, and even though Jaclyn Rosenberger (name changed) isn’t an A+ student, she’s no trouble at all. From what I know of her, she is a sweet and genuine person, and not a crack addict. She is well-behaved, polite, and would probably be easy to live/work with. Bottom line, she would not cause you or your program any problems because I can’t see her fucking shit up, so just let her into your program and let’s be done with it.”

I wonder if she ever got in.

This book review is brought to you by all the recycling I’m too lazy to take out but will save the environment…eventually.

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Three Somali Women

I haven’t been reading nearly as much as I’d like to, but I managed to finish one last book in the month of February: Nadifa Mohamed‘s second book, The Orchard of Lost Souls.

Unlike Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women, the three women whose stories are explored in The Orchard of Lost Souls aren’t three incarnations of the same women; however, like in Albee’s play, they are three women in different stages of life. First, Dipo is an orphaned street child looking for direction; Filsan, a general’s daughter who has followed dutifully in her father’s footsteps only to discover how her male peers truly see her; and Kawsar, an elderly widow whose one act of rebellion incites the action of the entire novel.

Like her previous novel, Black Mamba Boy, Mohamed’s prose is full of local color and flavor, even though it doesn’t travel nearly as far geographically, with the characters never leaving metropolitan Hargeisa in Somalia.

 

 

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Cell Ethics Tango

Hey look! I actually finished a book!

**Originally published 1/31, republished 2/5**

It managed to take me until this past weekend, but I actually finished 2 books this weekend, bringing my January total up to…five! The one I’m going to review here is the critically acclaimed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

This book, part scientific history and part family history, tells the story of the long-unknown Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal, biology-defying cells held the answers to treating and curing many diseases, and are still alive today, sixty years after her death.

The science-y part goes like this: In 1951, a woman called Henrietta Lacks, of Turner’s Station, South Baltimore, Maryland, passed away from a cancerous tumor. A procedure was done before her death by her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, George Gey, to preserve some of the cells from the tumor, in hopes they could be kept alive after her death long enough to study them and use them for some lab testing. Gey was astonished to find that not only did the cells keep living, but they kept multiplying at an alarming rate, so much so that he couldn’t keep them all in his lab. Henrietta Lacks’s cells, known as HeLa, were soon distributed to labs around the country and beyond for further study and experiments, with a lab built in Alabama for the sole purpose of studying them. As far as what HeLa stood for, or who HeLa was, Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek kept quiet, only revealing that HeLa was a woman, and not denying rumors that her name was “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson,” but definitely not admitting that she was African-American; segregation and Jim Crow laws were still rampant, especially in the Southern United States, and views on African-Americans were not favorable. Even a hospital as renowned as Johns Hopkins kept people like Henrietta in a “colored” ward away from white patients. In time, HeLa became the strongest cell line in the world, contributing to cancer research, flying on NASA’s space shuttles, and all the while, passed around freely within the scientific community. And through it all, Henrietta’s surviving family members didn’t see a cent, and lived in poverty without health insurance despite their late mother’s pivotal contribution to modern science.

The family story part, in my opinion, is more interesting. Much like Henrietta’s cells, it’s divided into two parts: “Life” (pre-1950, during Henrietta’s life), and “Death” (in the 2000s, from the start of Rebecca Skloot’s research). In life, we learn what there is to learn about the hazy details of Henrietta’s short and sad life. Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920 in Clover, Virginia. Her family was among the poorest of the poor in their community, and quite inbred, causing major health problems. Henrietta herself perpetuated that cycle by marrying and having children with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Together, they had three sons – Lawrence, David Jr. “Sonny,” and Joseph “Zakariyya” – and two daughters, Elsie, who was born disabled and died in a Maryland mental institution as a teenager, and Deborah, who managed to break the cycle, receive some education, and eventually become the co-protagonist of Skloot’s book. After the birth of her fifth child, Joseph, she fell ill with cancer caused by a nasty bout of syphilis and, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, died in 1951. Fast forward fifty years to the “Death” chapter, where Washington-based writer Rebecca Skloot develops an interest in Lacks and attempts to contact the surviving family members. Eventually, she gets ahold of Deborah Lacks. Initially, Deborah is tickled at the idea of a book about her mother’s life, especially since she wants to know more about her, having few memories of her own, but eventually becomes suspicious of Rebecca and wary of the idea. Over a period of several years, Rebecca becomes acquainted and even friends with Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family, gaining their trust little by little and helping them go through the necessary steps to unravel the mystery of what happened to their mother/grandmother/sister/aunt, figure out what exactly her cells were capable of, and attempt to make peace with Johns Hopkins and the scientific community at large, who they find deceptive and distrustful, all because of a piece of paper the functionally illiterate Henrietta signed which gave the hospital all the rights to her cells. Some things end up getting resolved nicely, but there are still many question marks left in this continually evolving story.

This book brings up so many emotions. You feel shame for the plight of this woman, the lack of care for her life and death, and the consequences her family faced. You feel anger at the scientific community, yet you feel proud in the fact that you’re learning all of these previously hidden facts and secrets that deserve to see the light. You cheer whenever Deborah has an epiphany – from learning that her mother has not, in fact, been cloned, to finding a photo of her sister Elsie,, to learning how to use the Internet – and get frustrated whenever Deborah relapses into her suspicious ways, or when Rebecca hits a wall in her research. The issues it brings up are myriad and essential – what are the biomedical ethics involved here? What type of responsibility did Gey, Kubicek, and Johns Hopkins Hospital have to the family? Would it have been different if Henrietta were a literate, well-off Caucasian woman? What improvements could be made for the deplorable quality of life for people like Henrietta and Deborah? And can the Lacks family ever truly find peace, be repaid, forgive and be forgiven – and how?

Even if non-fiction or science isn’t your thing, this book is incredibly worthwhile. It shows that inside every human body, there is a soul to discover, and around every human soul, there is a body that deserves to be given a chance.

In salad-related news, the blades on my Sharper Image vegetable chopper broke off. I’m glad I picked out all the metal from my salad before eating it. Oh well, back to the cutting board.

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Here We Go Loop-de-Loop…

As I mentioned in my last entry, I finished reading Hollow City by Ransom Riggs yesterday afternoon in Colectivo Coffee on State Street.

I read its predecessor, the fabulous Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a few years ago, so I was nervous that I’d need to put the book down to go back and reread the first one, but as soon as I started it, I immediately got right back into the story where I’d left off, with Jacob and crew on the sea. Not to spoil too much of the story – like my calendar did – let me just say that it is a spectacular adventure, even more exciting than the first book. I could hardly put it down. Although no great distance in traveled in this book, but the characters’ hops backwards and forwards through history is just as fun and fascinating. Some of the characters who sat on the sidelines in the first book get some more attention, most notably Horace, Hugh, and Enoch. We also get to meet a plethora of new characters, peculiar and not, from Addison the talking dog to Althea the ice girl, and travel to some new and exciting loops. The place where they ended up was exactly the place in time I thought they were going.

This book review was brought to you by Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, Mississippi, there are plenty of Great Americans, but it’s not like we get a day off for Barbra Streisand’s birthday.