Monday, February 20, 2012


Bossypants – Tina Fey

Although she may be one of the most well-known comedy figures of pop culture, Tina Fey spends her entire books trying to convince you that everything was either an accident or good ol’ blind luck, and all those pictures where she looks so beautiful? Photoshop. She dedicates a significant chunk of one chapter to praising Photoshop, and, along with all her other arguments, I find myself fully convinced by her reasoning. Except her theory on going on a cruise – I still disagree with her there.

Fey begins telling her story from her summers spent at a church theatre camp, to her extremely un-romantically involved college years, the drudgery of her one and only desk job, and her many, many, many failures before she ended up on NBC. Along the way, she gets married, has a daughter, and offers her opinion on everything from towel animals to how to achieve the maximum fun on the annual Christmas celebration that includes both sets of in-laws, and her personal advice for love, sex, and beauty.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t think Tina Fey would be so well-informed on various aspects of life. She makes well-reasoned feminist observations about topics ranging from the role of women in comedy to political campaigns to being a working mom. Fey is obviously a genius of a writer, and the books reads so easily you could probably multi-task while reading it. You could, but you wouldn’t want to because you spend the entire book marveling at how normal she actually is despite all her fame, and drawing attention to yourself by uncontrollably laughing out loud at her ridiculous metaphors, dead-on descriptions, and satire. It is almost impossible to put this book down. I kept wanting to rush through to know what her next brilliant observation would be, but it actually took me a long time to read this book because I really wanted to savor every word. Yes, brilliant, I think, is the best way to summarize this book.

The Giver

The Giver – Lois Lowry

Jonas lives in one of many Communities that have existed in Sameness for as long as the generations can remember. As a result of Sameness, all decisions are taken away. Children are closely monitored by a committee until they are assigned a job to fill for the rest of their life in the Community. Adults apply for spouses, married couples apply for children, and anything that does not belong is Released. All decisions are made by the Committee of Elders, and when the Elders are truly stumped, they go to the Receiver, who holds the memories of the entire world so that the Community does not have to live with emotions, music, animals, love, pain, and even color. Jonas, instead of being Assigned to a job, is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory.

As Jonas progresses through his training, the memories he receives become increasingly complex and his resulting emotions become difficult to manage. Jonas causes a stir in the middle of a group of children playing a game because he has the memory of warfare, whereas they know nothing about the basis of their game. He becomes frustrated with his family, the rules of the Community, and the pretense of choice that the world has agreed to live with.

Among all the dystopian stories that are currently so popular, The Giver is one of the original dystopias. Lois Lowry is a children’s writer, so her book is aimed at adolescents, but Jonas never strikes me as a child. His naïveté and innocence are apparent in different situations in the story, but it is hard to believe that he has such insight and wisdom as such a young age, which I think is also a strategy of the book. Lowry reminds us not to disregard children merely because they are young – children still have the power to create change. They have a unique perspective on the difficulties of life which allows them to find solutions that adults may not think of.

The Giver is a poignant story about how to handle a life full of hardships, and even why hardships are necessary to a full life. The entire range of emotions and behaviors available to human beings offers endless possibilities for relationships, growth, pain, failure, and change. Although we may all lament the difficulties we sometimes face, would it really be better to live without them?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart – Achibe Chenua (I think – I can’t remember for sure who the author is)
Things Fall Apart tells the story of a man in an evolving African community. By his hard work farming yams, strength as a wrester, and bravery as a warrior, Okonkwo earns status, titles, and prestige in the village of his father. He sits on the council that oversees all disagreements and arguments in the village, and has three wives with multiple children. However, Okonkwo is quick to anger, and strong in his opinions and judgments. After Okonkwo accidentally kills a boy during a funeral ceremony, he is banished to the village of his mother for seven years to erase his wrong-doings from the village. Okonkwo serves his “sentence” in a new community, all the while thinking about how to make a triumphant return to the village of his father so he can regain his position. While living in the village of his mother, though, things begin to fall apart, and do so completely when Okonkwo returns to the village of his father. The traditional spirits and gods of the tribe run into Jesus, and while the first missionary to the community is patient, calm, and tolerant, his replacement takes a heavy hand toward villagers who reject the new belief system. As tradition meets colonization, Okonkwo internalizes his anger at the village’s inability and unwillingness to fight for their way of life. He ultimately hangs himself from shame about himself, his position, and his village.
As with pretty much everything in my life, I couldn’t help comparing this book to my Peace Corps experience. I looked at it as a PCV, and understood why you have to make small talk with people before you come to the real reason for wanting to talk to them. I understood the ceremonies, the food, and how some things will never make sense to someone outside the community. And I compared myself to the two missionaries at the end of the book, and found many similarities between my work and the approach of the first missionary. I think my personal context helped me understand the book more because I felt that there were many things that weren’t fully explained. Spirit children came up in the book, but they weren’t called that in the book, and the only way I knew what they were talking about was from reading about spirit children in The Famished Road.  There was also an entire midnight chase across all the villages in the community that culminated in nothing but a night of lost sleep, and I was unsure of what to make of that. It was a great book though. It is a quick read, a nice glimpse into village life, and a strong commentary on colonialism.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Body Project

The Body Project – Joan Jacobs Brumberg
The Body Project is a historical analysis of how the body of the American girl has transformed over the past century with the changing social mores from the repressive Victorian era to the largely uninhibited 1990s. Brumberg, a feminist historian, analyzes how the evolving concepts of sexuality and beauty impacted the female identity as a girl encountered adolescence. She traces various aspects of the body and adolescence, focusing mainly on menarche, notions of physical beauty, and the concept of “sexual activity” and how they added to the various “body projects” for adolescent girls over the past century.
Brumberg bases her book on scholarly research and excerpts from girls’ diaries and journals over the past century. This combination allows the reader to see the impact of social changes on the individual psyche. I found it very interesting to see how systemic changes, such as medical definitions, lead to new behaviors and treatment for girls. For example, while acne has never been a life-threatening disease, it was never taken seriously until WWII and later military engagements. Since acne more often affected girls than boys, doctors made no special effort to treat it, but as it increased in severity for men serving in tropical military locations, causing scarring and infections that interfered with their service, doctors began to more aggressively address this skin problem. I also found it quite interesting how bodies became more associated with specific products that, in the past, had been marketed only for adult women, but began marketing toward a specific “junior” audience as the age of adolescence decreased. Additionally, the evolution in what products were available, and how widely available they were, was something I had never really thought about before.
Throughout her analysis, Brumberg keeps track of the social movements at play over the course of the past century, but she acknowledges in her conclusion that her analysis applies mainly to middle-class white girls. Brumberg argues that neither the Victorian attitudes nor the latest sexual revolution is an obvious improvement over the other, and she points out the value and shortcomings of both eras. While the Victorian era was constituted of very modest ideas that treated girls as asexual beings, it had a built in support structure in terms of protective and nurturing female relationships. Girls today may have more freedom and more choice concerning every aspect of their body, but they lack advice and direction from role models that can lead to more informed actions. Her argument is worth considering as we move ever forward in pursuit of freedom and equality.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Brida – Paulo Coelho

Brida is the story of one woman’s search for magic – for meaning in life, to find a way to love others, and how to relate to the world. Set in Ireland (read the introduction – I’m not sure if this is a true story or not), Brida tells us about the spiritual journey of the main character, Brida. She sets out looking for a path to follow. She finds the Tradition of the Sun, which in turn leads her to the Tradition of the Moon, commonly known as witchcraft. As she learns the secrets of the tarot, practices ceremonies and ritual dances, and learns to listen to her soul in an effort to awaken her Gift, Brida struggles with the difficulties of trying to pursue one path in light of vague lessons and a personal desire to remain free to choose any path. The story culminates with her Initiation into the Tradition of the Moon. She learns to combine both male power (the Tradition of the Sun) and female transformation (the Tradition of the Moon) into Wisdom that helps her to understand that we can’t understand the world.
Brida is a great story in places, but it didn’t grab me like The Alchemist. Personally, I think the idea of magic and tarot cards and rituals are fun, but I have a hard time accepting them as reality. While I can relate to her story – especially the part about not wanting to limit herself to one path when there are so many other potential paths to take – I never really felt connected to the story the way that I did with The Alchemist. Brida goes through personal struggles, deals with disappointment, and has difficulty making decisions – everything from normal life that people can always relate to – but I was never really grabbed by a sense of pathos. I never got pulled into the story. I can relate to her, but I couldn’t relate to the book. What is the shape of the overall story? What is her primary struggle and why do I want her to overcome her challenges? There was too much emphasis on the magic and the rituals, and not enough information about Brida’s life, so I felt it lacked direction and connection. However, Paulo Coelho is still an amazing author, and it was a fairly quick read, so I would still recommend it if you find it lying around somewhere.