Category: Book Reviews

Maid – Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

Maid - Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive
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Published: January 22, 2019
Stephanie Land writes about poverty in America, being a single mom, being on welfare, and surviving intimate partner abuse. She writes about her experience working as a maid while she supports herself and her daughter and studies to be a writer.

When I read this book, I knew right away that the reactions would be polarizing. There will  be a lot of people who will hate it, and a lot like me who will identify with it somehow. I think that people who have never been poor will benefit a lot from reading it. The very first chapter of the book drew me in an kept me reading, and it made such an impact on me because the scenario she described there is somewhat familiar. If you’ve ever been poor at some point in your life, many of the things she wrote here will resonate with you.

The  book goes back in forth to her past and present. She didn’t grow up poor, but it showed how a series of events and decisions led her to a path of poverty. She shows what being poor in America looks like for many people, and it’s far from the stereotype that people on welfare are all lazy. More often than not, those who work hardest are paid least for their backbreaking labor.

Land writes about the stigma of being poor, that feeling of never doing enough, and the debilitating guilt of not being able to provide better for her child. She writes about some things that some people may not understand or identify with, like why poor people may often spend their money on what others may consider frivolities. She writes about how being poor means that you’re one unforeseen expense away from spiraling out of control. An accident, an illness, any sudden expense may upset the budget that’s already stretched extremely thin and end up in homelessness. Every moment of every day is lived on a precarious edge. For some people, losing a month’s paycheck is a hardship; for some, it sets off a series of events that will take a long time and a lot of effort to recover from.

She writes about the attitude of people towards those like her who are on welfare and uses food stamps, and honestly it made my heart ache. It’s so easy to dehumanize people who are poor without even bothering to learn why and how they got there.

Being from a third world country, it fascinates me how many welfare programs there are in the US. They’re not perfect, and there are so many paperwork to submit and hoops to jump through before you can qualify for them, but they’re there. People can really apply for them and these programs can be very instrumental in helping people get back on their feet. It’s so different from the experience of being “third world poor”, where there’s no single real, functioning welfare program in place. I read about these programs with a hungry heart, wondering if my country will ever get to the point where the government cares for the most vulnerable members of society.

The writer does not romanticize poverty, though she does recognize that the things that are the sources of happiness in her life are those that can’t be purchased with money. It’s not whole chapters of whining, but an appeal to see struggling people as people. To really see and have empathy for them and not just dismiss them. She writes about having to fight for every single dollar as she lives among what seemed like inaccessible prosperity around her. She writes about how alone she feels, not just because she had separated from her abusive partner and is raising her daughter alone, but because practically all of her family had checked out of her life. She also writes about the sprinkling of people she encountered who treated her as their equal, who respected the work that she is doing and the effort she is making to survive. To them, she’s “Stephanie”, not just “the maid”.

I really loved reading this book. It’s one of those books that you wish was a lot longer than it is.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead

The Valedictorian of Being Dead
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Published: April 23, 2019
Blogger Heather B. Armstrong found some level of internet fame when she got fired for something she wrote in her website. She has always been open with her struggles with depression, which has been ongoing from the time she was young, but in 2016 she found herself in a dangerously low point of severe depression. Some spoilers ahead.

I’ve followed Heather B. Armstrong’s (yes, always with the B) blog (dooce.com) for many years, since  before she even had her first child. I loved a lot of things about her early writings in her blog–the photos of her dogs and her family, her hilarious writing style, the template design (at a time when people were only beginning to discover WordPress, she and her then-husband were already making awesome designs on their blog templates)–but the thing I loved best was how she wrote about her family and her depression. In a sea of picture-perfect bloggers, she was among the few I was reading back then who made an effort at some measure of authenticity. At that time, I thought she should write a book. What a gift that she wrote specifically about her depression in this memoir.

The book chronicles in alternating chapters her daily challenges as a person with clinical depression and anxiety, and the highly experimental treatment that she went through in order to get out of that deep valley she couldn’t seem to climb out of for almost a year. I think you’ll appreciate the things that she wrote in the book if you also followed her  blog, especially in the early years. The title, for example, is a kind of private joke shared with the readers of her blog, where she wrote that she’s an overachiever even in the worst things. I can still remember that blog entry about being the valedictorian in constipated bowel movements, that was equal parts hilarious and terrifying.

There were parts of the book about her family, particularly her dad and her ex husband, which I thought must have been very difficult to write, and I applaud her bravery for writing it. The book made it clear that people who do not suffer from depression or anxiety can never really know how it feels, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to empathize. Heather described the day to day challenge of living with depression, and how familial love played a big part in how she copes with it. The way that she described her depression, even while injected with typical Heather B. Armstrong humor, draws you in and gives you a glimpse of how immensely difficult it must be, and how cruel it is to add more pain to that kind of suffering by not believing it or by being insensitive about it.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is how she talks about her mother, the Avon World Sales Leader. I wish everyone in the world had a mom like mine, and I guess Heather can also say that about her mom. The  book feels like a tribute to this wonderful woman and underscores the very valuable role of family.

If you suffer from depression and anxiety or have a family member or friend who does, or if you really just want to be a better human being by understanding it from the point of view of someone who lives with it daily, I recommend that you read this book.

An American Marriage

An American Marriage
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Published: February 6, 2018
Roy and Celestial are the embodiment of the American Dream. He's a sales executive and she's an up and coming artist. However, their upwardly mobile life is interrupted by tragic circumstances neither of them ever thought would happen. This review contains some spoilers.

Please note again that this review will contain some spoilers. I’ll try to write a short review without revealing significant spoilers but if you don’t want to know the plot of the story, please don’t read any further.

This  book is part epistolary, part narrative written from the point of view of three major characters in the story. It’s about the unraveling of a marriage by the two characters, Roy and Celestial. The story is quite tragic because it also speaks about how the problem of race is an ever-present reality for people, and how being thrown in the system can irrevocably change your life in an instant.

Roy’s incarceration shows how a life can be upended by the prospect of spending over a decade in prison. People can start out promising a lot of things to each other, but a 12-year prison sentence puts a full stop on future plans. The letter exchanges between Roy and Celestial show how good intentions often don’t survive the reality of being separated physically, of the stigma of having an incarcerated loved one, of the emotional and psychological anguish of the situation. The exchanges show the different kinds of pain for the incarcerated and the one waiting on the outside of prison bars. It shows how tenuous human connections can be, and that the institution of marriage means very little when the bedrock of the relationship is shaken to the core.

The book also shows how difficult it is to reintegrate back to your own family and  back to society after being incarcerated for years, and how displaced people are after being released from prison. It’s sad how Roy struggled against feelings of alienation, or not belonging anywhere, of not knowing where to pick up after this major “interruption” happened. He’s a free man, but he couldn’t go “home” because home is simply nowhere to be found now. The house, the structure, might still be standing, but he has lost his place in it when he lost the love of his wife. The institution of marriage cannot enforce love between husband and wife, and despite emotions coming to a boiling point, Roy eventually realizes that Celestial doesn’t love him anymore, and he saw no point in forcing himself on a wife who is now only a wife on paper.

It’s an engaging story, and the writer has a beautiful way with words when describing deep emotions and memories. Despite how things turned out for Roy and Celestial, I actually liked the ending. I also liked the first person  narratives because it gives the readers an opportunity to at least see things from the perspective of Roy, Celestial, and (later) Andre. The story shows how a lot of things can really fracture a marriage.

Infidel

Infidel
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Published: 2006
A brilliant, captivating memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounting her traditional Muslim upbringing in Somalia, then Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. It recounts her intellectual awakening and self-emancipation and the cost of her life's advocacy. (SOME SPOILERS BELOW)

I found this book both hard to put down and hard to read because of the writer’s story. I find Ayaan Hirsi Ali very brave to even write this memoir. I am unsure of how I feel about the part of her belief that Islam needs to be reformed because I am unfamiliar with the teachings and texts of the religion. But taking this book as a memoir and basing her arguments on all that she has witnessed and experienced living in different Muslim countries, I find her arguments compelling.

Her story offers a rare look into a window that isn’t always open for us to peek into, as outsiders. Her writing is clear, concise and rational. Writing this book came at great personal cost to her, and I respect that a lot. There are many things about her life that one can consider a fortunate turn of events that helped her along her journey to her intellectual awakening–the fact that her father insisted on giving his daughters an education, that he was often away which meant he could not arrange her marriage early in life like what happened to her peers, that she was educated and found access to books, etc. Books became her window to a different culture, one where a woman isn’t her father or husband’s property, where she has the right to make her own decisions on her body and on other aspects of her life. These books planted seeds of hope and longing for a way to exist for herself instead of for others.

Her arguments against Islam’s claim to be a religion of peace are passionate but very clearly laid out and supported by her own experiences and the histories of the countries that she called her home at some points in her life.

The courage to write this book and put her beliefs on paper in order to include the reformation of Islam in political debates is hard won. It must have taken great courage to put her religion, undoubtedly the cornerstone of her life, under scrutiny. It’s an eye opening book, and it makes me think about the things that I take for granted in my daily life, living as a woman in my country where I can choose who (and if) I marry, have a career if I want to, go anywhere on my own and assert my right to my own body.

A very compelling read, no matter what your political and religious beliefs may be.

Blankets

Blankets
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Published: July 1, 2003
A coming of age autobiographical graphic novel written and illustrated by Craig Thompson. It's about his childhood memories and traumas, the Evangelical church that shaped much of his childhood and influenced his young adulthood, and his first love.

As far as I can tell, this is the first graphic novel that I ever read, and only because a friend recommended it. There’s much about this story that I found I could relate to. The character describes his childhood traumas in such subtle but graphic details, without a lot of words but in a very impactful way nevertheless.

He writes about his relationship with his younger brother, which is equal parts loving and competitive.

He writes about his disillusion with organized religion, particularly his family’s religion. As somebody who grew up in Sunday School, I can truly understand what he is trying to describe. Even if you didn’t grow up in Sunday School, I suppose you can still understand his message. How his concept of God was rooted more in fear than in love. How church took up a whole lot of family time. How Christians are sometimes out of touch and out of reach, unable to truly connect with people who need them. How church can sometimes be filled with overused platitudes but, again, being unable to truly connect with people who are in pain.

For the writer, this resulted to a break with his relationship with his church, not necessarily with God. As he goes through young adulthood, he had a hard time reconciling his very natural, normal feelings with his Christian faith. My issues with organized religion was not resolved the same way his was, but I can definitely see where he is coming from.

A bulk of the story is also about his first love. It’s cute, sweet, heart wrenching, tummy twisting all at the same time. Even the family issues of the girl he likes are described in such beautiful details, albeit without so many words. Going through all the stages of this first love brings back memories.

The illustrations were fascinating. Each page is a work of art that I really enjoyed looking at. It lent the story more emotions, like the writer is showing in both words and drawings the nuances of each moment. I think I enjoyed most the pages that had no words. The author had a way of using “silent” pages to let you breathe and feel for a moment before you move on. It’s quite beautiful.

Overall, it’s a beautiful book. I appreciated both the story and the artistic effort that went into each page.

Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction
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Published: September 4, 2018
A father writes about his son's addiction.

This is such a heart wrenching book to read. From start to end, even in those pages about the very bad moments when it seems all the love should be drained out and emptied because of the hurt and frustration, David’s love for his son shines through on the pages. You read a lot about addiction but people forget that the families of addicts and alcoholics go through a lot too, and I appreciate being able to read such a well-written account of what their family went through together.

The tone of the whole book sounds like a parent thinking aloud. Memories go back and forth. You get the sense that the writer is showing his favorite memories of his son, not the big moments but the small moments that show who he was and is. He also falls into cycles of putting his guilt into words and then rationalizing his actions. I can only imagine the debilitating guilt that parents of addicts feel, and how it’s hard to recognize where their shortcomings as parents end and their children’s personal choice begins.

The author includes a lot of useful information in understanding the insidious nature of addiction in between recollections of Nic’s childhood and his cycles of recovery and relapse.

Overall, there are a few things in the  book that I don’t particularly like (such as the excessive rationalization of his parenting) but if I take the book as a whole, I really like  it. It reads like a gift because I can understand how difficult it must have been to write and to share with the world. I think it’s beautifully written.

I read Nic Sheff’s book Tweak after I finished reading this one, where he writes about his addiction, relapses and recoveries from his point of view. I’ll write a separate review for that soon.

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects
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Published: 2006
Reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown to cover the murder of two girls. Living with her family in their Victorian mansion dredges up unresolved childhood issues.

I picked up this book because I liked Gone Girl. I think that Gillian Flynn has a knack for exploring dysfunctional relationships. The main character of this book, Camille Preaker, is not the usual protagonist that people expect in stories. She’s neither feisty nor virginal, she’s quite unremarkable if viewed from the point of view of the other characters in the book. She doesn’t stand out, she doesn’t always speak out either.

I still like the character because I find her believable. The way that her childhood trauma was uncovered in the book is something I can relate to, and I guess that’s what I like most about the character. She has serious issues that she’s trying to work through and there are many ups and downs to it. The book shows how a child’s fragile sense of self can be damaged by their parent’s actions, which is often just perpetuated family dysfunction.

I also like how the book shows those subtle and not-so-subtle ways that women attack each other and are cruel and spiteful towards one another. I like how this theme winds through the different parts of the mystery, like a thread that is part of what ties the story up. It adds layers of dysfunction to already dysfunctional small town and family dynamics.

While I liked how the author created the web of relationships among the characters, I didn’t like how the crimes were solved. The way the ending was written (more in the style of an Epilogue, a summary of events, rather than unfolding as a part of the story telling) felt like a cop out. Still, I did enjoy reading it, even if it started out slow and ended a little flat.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
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Published: July 29, 2008
Set in post-war London, 1946, writer Juliet Ashton is looking for inspiration for the next  book that she plans to write. She finds this inspiration when a native of Guernsey happens to find one of her old Charles Lamb books and starts a correspondence with her. In the course of exchanging letters, Juliet discovers the endearing book club called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I have always loved epistolary novels. It feels like your imagination is working harder, piecing together the story in your mind as you read letters from different peoples’ perspectives. Epistolary novels has its limitations and challenges, but when done right, it can have add a singularly beautiful touch in the story. Reading this story reminded me of my favorite epistolary novel, Daddy-Long-Legs. The book just radiates warmth and love.

The story is set in a time when London was picking itself up from the rubble of the war. This is the dark thread that weaves itself through the story, this very recently concluded World War II which left very deep scars in the national psyche. The story does not make light of the events of war. In fact, it’s very touching how the details were woven in, such as how people had to make do with rationing of food and clothes, the maddening threat of being bombed, the blackout curtains, the rubble, the separated families… The characters in the book are so endearing that you tend to feel deeply the loss they grappled with in their own private spaces.

I wish that the letters were more descriptive of Guernsey, but it was sufficient to paint an idyllic setting in my mind. The characters were memorable and colorful, and their personal stories about the war were heartrending. Because of the book, I read and learned more about the Island of Guernsey and the 5-year period of Nazi occupation. I learned about how many of their children were evacuated to London, and how some of them were not able to come home after the war.

I loved the story of how the book club started, and I am reminded that no matter how different people are, they can find kindred spirits if they find themselves among fellow readers. I find it heartwarming how the members of the society found comfort and solace in each other and, though not all of them started out as readers, they all discovered the joy of books and sharing ideas. I like that the book shows how much more tolerant people can be when their minds are open and willing to learn and listen.

I enjoyed the love story as well, but I appreciated that it’s not the focal point of the novel. I feel that I would be very much at home with the society, if it had been real.

I enjoyed this book from start to finish. It had me laughing and crying by turns. The wholesome, lighthearted humor interspersed with the very tender recollections of war was unforgettable. The story is a celebration of the human spirit, a reminder that even if there are many dark chapters in the story of the world, there are also good people that shine in such darkness, and that love and friendship can spring up in the most unexpected ways.

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life

Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life
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Published: October 3, 2017
Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend tackle the very common issue of boundaries and how healthy and unhealthy boundaries can affect every area of your life for good or bad.

I don’t really like reading self-help books, but I tried this book out because it’s on a subject matter that I want to understand better. Boundaries is a book that will help you understand what boundaries are and recognize if your boundaries are injured or unhealthy. This book offers a Biblical perspective on boundaries, and confronts the many spiritual-sounding misconceptions about boundaries especially among Christians.

There are important questions here such as whether God intended us to have healthy boundaries, how can you keep your boundaries intact while still being a loving person, how to deal with people who do not respect your boundaries, among others. It talks about boundaries at work, in a marriage, with kids, with friends, etc. I appreciate that the book tackled ways to identified injured boundaries in different settings, and offered practical ways on how to address these issues. It’s not going to be easy, they didn’t offer quick fixes, but the suggestions are Bible-based and practical. Doable, if you’re willing to take ownership of the issue.

I wish I read this book earlier in life. It did, however, bring to my attention how our parents did their best to teach us how to establish healthy boundaries. Many of the lessons mentioned in the book, I recognized from my memory of my parents. Biblical principles are timeless, after all. Overall, this is a very helpful and insightful book.

Marcel’s Letters

Marcel's Letters
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Published: June 6, 2017
While in search for an inspiration for her personal project of designing her own font, graphic designer Carolyn Porter stumbled across some letters from 1943-1944, written in French, by someone named Marcel. She couldn't understand the words but she fell in love with his handwriting. Years later, she had the letters translated and was suddenly wrapped up in Marcel's remarkable story.

Before I even read the summary of this book, the title and the font used on it, particularly the letter M, caught my attention. I love handwriting-style fonts, and this font is quite gorgeous. I delved into the book expecting to read about Marcel’s letters (as in his written correspondences), but I was pleasantly surprised that the book is also about his letters (as in the letters he formed with his hands, his penmanship).

Carolyn Porter wrote about how she found the letters in a flea market, and even without being able to understand a word on it because it was written in French, she bought it because she found the penmanship beautiful. This penmanship would be the basis for her personal project, a handwriting-style font. I can appreciate this fascination, and I love how the author included a lot of technical details about font design without being overly technical about it. Somehow she managed to describe the long and arduous process of making a font without alienating readers like me, who don’t really understand the technicalities. I enjoyed and appreciated how she shared her creative process. It was a lot of work, to be sure, but she didn’t sound overly whiny or defeatist about it. I came away with a better understanding of how a personal passion project can really take years to complete. It’s bittersweet, and if you’re not careful, it can eat up a lot of your time and focus. The details of her passion project were interspersed with the story of Marcel, the man who wrote the letters that became the inspiration for her font.

Marcel’s letters were dated between 1943 to 1944, and they had stamps that had Hitler’s face on them. They were written during World War II and looked like they were sent from Germany. What was a Frenchman doing in Germany in 1943-44? Several years after working on her passion project, Porter decided to have the letters translated. Pretty soon, she found herself immersed in yet another project…that of unraveling the story of Marcel. She detailed all her efforts to trace Marcel’s whereabouts in order to answer that nagging question–was Marcel able to make it home after the war?

This pursuit was itself filled with a lot of challenges and also took time and resources to work on. At times it was already beginning to sound like an obsession. After all, what did it matter if Marcel was able to go home or not, right? But it mattered to Carolyn Porter, and while reading the book and soaking in her thoughts, it began to matter to me too.

I really loved how she uncovered the historical context of Marcel’s time in Germany. I can relate to how she felt. We know of the Holocaust, we know of World War II, Nazi Germany, Hitler, all the millions of people who suffered and died during those years, but we really actually don’t know much to truly care. We don’t have enough of a connection to it to let it inform the way that we live our lives today. The more you uncover the details and the more you are able to somehow put names and faces at a certain point in time during this dark corridor in history, the more it becomes vivid in your mind. It’s like the dawning of understanding, when history stops being a vague collection of dates and events and personalities that we should know but we really don’t grasp, and begins to be clearer and weightier.

Porter’s journey of discovery was fascinating and engrossing. The details of her love for calligraphy, for type, and the birth of her first font was also fascinating. It resonated with me, and I feel like somehow we’re kindred spirits, poring over and admiring written words on paper.

I was afraid at first that it would be a book about a handful of letters stretched and padded into a rambling account to force it into a book, but I loved how the author shared Marcel with the readers. She handled Marcel’s story thoughtfully and respectfully. This is a very pleasant, memorable book. I enjoyed it from start to end.