Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage)Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is such an important and long-overdue book. I've always loved this quote:

Women hold up half the sky.

I've seen it attributed to Madame Mao, Chairman Mao, or as a Chinese proverb. No matter. It's a powerful quote, and it's the basis for this book by Pulitzer Prize winners and married authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof and WuDunn investigate the widespread abuse of women and girls via sex trafficking, prostitution, and slavery (across the globe); rape; "honor" killings; maternal mortality; and neglect of health issues. They also explore issues related to family planning and the "God Gulf," whether Islam is patently misogynistic, the importance of investing in education, and the benefit of microlending.

Stop--don't get depressed yet! Not only do they report on these widespread abuses and shocking inequality across the globe, but they also share success stories and the lives of women who have risen above these horrible situations. The power of this book is in the stories of those individual women. Stories always help to personalize tragedy and help us to understand it better on a personal level. Furthermore, they give tons of suggestions for what we--as a country and as individuals--can do to help.

The authors packed so much into this book that anything I write in a review seems grossly inadequate. Everyone must read this book. The future of our planet and the sake of humanity depend on all of us to stop the terrible abuse of women and girls across the globe. To begin that process, we must understand what is going on. This book is a step in the right direction.

Toward the end of the book, they discuss societies that have come a long way in changing the lives of women. Two such countries they cite are China and Bangladesh. This is not to say that the plight of women in those countries is easy, but only that they have made a great deal of progress over the years by gradually changing their culture and introducing more women into leadership. Imagine my horror when, after just having finished this book, I read Nicholas Kristof's blog post about a 14-year-old girl in Bangladesh who was raped by a relative and then executed for "her" crime. Kristof expresses hope that Bangladesh's "robust civil society" will send a strong message that misogyny is not only immoral but illegal. But as a commenter says, "Can any society be described as 'civil' when misogyny is this deeply ingrained in its social fabric?" Another commenter points out that blaming the victim is not unique to the developing world

Let's hope that the world will one day recognize that women do indeed hold up half the sky and will stop the oppression of half of our population.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention

Buzz: A Year of Paying AttentionBuzz: A Year of Paying Attention,
by Katherine Ellison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Q: How many kids with attention deficit disorder does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Let's go ride bikes!

Katherine Ellison's son Buzz (a pseudonym) was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) not too long before she received the same diagnosis. Not only did Buzz have ADHD, but he had a side order of obsessive-defiance disorder (ODD) to make things even more complicated and stressful. Buzz constantly made waves...from beating up on his brother to demanding extremely expensive toys and constant caffeine. Rock bottom was the day Buzz called 911 after Ellison confiscated his Gameboy as a punishment for beating up on his brother.

Ellison embarks on a one-year journey to chronicle her parenting struggles with ADHD, exacerbated by her own personal challenges. It also happens to be the year when Buzz is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. To demonstrate the up-and-down journey of ADHD, she offers her own experiences:
"(ADHD)...may even illuminate how I managed to win a Pulitzer Prize just three years after being sued for $11 million because of a careless reporting mistake, then realized my childhood dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, only to break my leg by running into a manhole in Managua while chasing Nicaragua's newly elected president--and did I mention that she was on crutches at the time?"

In an effort to bring some peace into their lives, she pursued every option she could find to treat Buzz's ADHD. After desperately fighting against the medication option, ultimately she and her husband succumbed and found it to be helpful. I had to laugh reading the scene where she berates a friend for putting his child on medication, only to eat her own words later when her own family decided to give it a try with Buzz (and herself). (Reminds me of all those sanctimonious people who think that they know what's best for you.) At least she called him to apologize after she realized what an ass she had been. The cry for help that led her to consider trying medication was her son grabbing a butcher knife and aiming it at his own throat. I feel immensely grateful not to have had to deal with this kind of behavior or stress in my own family.

Ellison explores the history and biology of ADHD and investigates a number of alternatives (or additions) to medication. She takes him to a variety of therapists and experts. She gets to know people in the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) support group (and notes its marriage with the drug companies) and meets some authors on the subject (including Blake Taylor, who wrote a book called ADHD & Me, and his mother, Nadine Taylor-Barnes).

She investigates alternative education options and spends a chapter specifically on education and why the public school system is rotten for kids with ADHD. One of the experts she meets believes in "evidence-based teaching," the importance of developing a "sense of excitement and relevance, stories and mystery...and a student's connection with his teacher." The brain has to be excited to be able to learn and retain information. How often do we find teachers above the elementary school age who are able to do this with kids? As much as I sometimes question Chris' 8th grade science teacher's unconventional methods, Chris is way more engaged in science than he has been in the past two years, when he had rotten teachers.

Ellison tries neurofeedback for both herself and Buzz and finds some benefit...but it's very expensive and time consuming. She attends a silent meditation retreat (easier said than done for someone with ADHD). Ellison includes a helpful list of "What Else Worked" in the Epilogue and covers items such as supplements, toxins, exercise, snake oil salespeople (who are everywhere waiting to lurk on worried parents), and education advocacy. The book also contains several pages of notes at the end.

But this is the best thing I took from this book, wisdom from Toni Morrison:
"The author Toni Morrison says that the best gift a mother can give her child is to light up when he enters the room. I think of all the times my mind was elsewhere, dim to him, and now focus on shining extra brightly."
Ellison also makes a genuine attempt to respond positively to her son as often as possible, which takes a concerted effort at times.

This is what I strive toward: lighting up when each of my children (and for that matter, all of my loved ones) enters the room. That's how my boys react when I come home from work--I just need to take a leaf out of their books.
If I retain one thing from this book, let this be it. It's so easy for me to get distracted or stressed out and take our children for granted--the ones that we desperately wanted and waited for. And I'm not talking just about the one with ADD!
Before they received the dual diagnoses, Ellison was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor (a meningioma), followed by thyroid cancer. It seems that extremes follow her wherever she goes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book recommendation from hubby: Words in the Dust

Words In The DustWords in the Dust, by Trent Reedy

I haven't read this young adult novel yet--I'm waiting for our 14-year-old son to get through it first--but am looking forward to sinking my teeth into it.

It's about a girl in Afghanistan who has a cleft lip. My writer hubby loved it and reviews it here on his blog.

I do not recall ever reading a book about a heroine with a cleft lip, so I'm immediately intrigued by that. (I had a cleft lip and palate at birth.)

Stay tuned for my review!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Waves: A series of soliliquoys

The WavesThe Waves by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I am not typically drawn to experimental novels. In the book group we belonged to before we had children, I remember reading John Fowles' The Magus and Vladimir Nobokov's Pale Fire and becoming frustrated with both of those books (for different reasons).

In my relatively new book group, we decided that each member would nominate three or four books and we would vote on one book for each member. The Waves was our book for March, and even though it was difficult to get through, we agreed that we would not have tried otherwise. That's the great thing about book groups--it gets you out of your comfort zone. I do not regret reading it, and it will be a book I will remember for a long time.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf's most experimental novel, is a series of soliloquoys spoken by a group of friends, individually. These people are supposedly friends, but they do not seem to have much of a connection to one another. Apparently these characters represent various personalities in Virginia Woolf's life...T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forester, Lytton Strachey, etc. It's been alternately described as following six characters from childhood to adulthood or taking place all within one day, or being several parts of one consciousness. In simple terms, it's difficult to ascertain exactly what's going on for much of the time. There is very little plot. And the characters talk about each other, but do very little interaction with each other.

The language is masterful, yes, but not in a way that draws me in enough to put up with the lack of plot or connection between the characters. I found myself scanning through so much of the book that I can't in good conscience give it more than two stars. I think if I had read it in college, and had been listening to a professor lecture on the novel's merits, I would have appreciated it more. However, at age 46, I found myself dreaming of what else I could be reading that would be more worthwhile.

It didn't help that halfway through the book, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami hit. I found myself wondering why I should care about the privileged, narcissistic perspectives of this book while people were suffering on the other side of the world.

Even though none of us loved The Waves, it made for an interesting discussion at book group. We found it interesting that although Virginia Woolf wrote some great feminist manifestos, her female characters in this book were the weakest. The males took over the book--perhaps a message in itself.

I find it fascinating that on and, the vast majority of readers rate this book as five stars. (In Goodreads, 43% of readers give it 5 stars, and only 2% give it 1 star.) Many people comment that they've reread this book several times. That makes me feel completely inadequate. Maybe I've just become too old and particular to appreciate this type of book. Or maybe I would appreciate it more at another stage of my life. I found myself looking forward to moving onto a book that is more gripping.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ten great literary villains

In the spirit of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which we saw last Sunday, Portland Center Stage has posted "Ten Great Literary Villains We Love to Hate."

I'd definitely agree with Dolores Umbridge--she was the first one who came to my mind, and she does indeed resemble Nurse Ratched. I'd have to add Count Olaf from the Lemony Snicket series to that list as well...he's one of the most colorfully depicted and creative villains I've read about.

Here he is, played by Jim Carrey (who was the perfect choice for this role):

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Book of Fires

The Book of Fires: A Novel The Book of Fires, by Jane Borodale

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In 1752, 17-year-old Agnes Trussel, an English country girl, finds herself pregnant after she is raped by a boy in her village. Ashamed and horrified by her predicament, she finds herself in a position to steal some gold coins from a dead neighbor and flees to London to prevent any shame from falling on her poor family.

On the way to London she meets a pretty young prostitute, Lettice Talbot, who offers Agnes to get her life started in London. Naive and ignorant, Agnes agrees to meet Lettice later on at her boarding house (nee brothel). However, alone in confusing and very dirty London, she gets lost. As night nears, she finds herself wandering the streets, desperate, freezing, and hungry.

She sees a sign advertising help wanted at a house and knocks on the door. The house belongs to Mr. J. Blacklock, who makes fireworks and is mourning his dead wife. Blacklock soon takes Agnes under his wing as his apprentice.

Many other characters feature in the book--the other servants in Blacklock's house and Cornelius Soul, who provides the gunpowder for the fireworks. Agnes fixes on Mr. Soul is the solution to her problems, but he is not as she thought he would be.

At times this book was a bit slow going (especially with all the detail about the fireworks making), but I enjoyed it. At the time, fireworks were not yet made in color, and it is the quest of color that fascinates Blacklock and Agnes both, drawing them closer together.

Blacklock is an enigma, a dark and brooding character. Some of the characters were not drawn as fully as they could have been. But the amount of research Borodale must have had to do is astounding. The list of references is impressive. She effectively captures the cadence of dialogue, food, setting, and habits of the British in the 18th century. What a lack of options an unmarried pregnant woman had in those days...and telling anyone that she was raped would have only worsened her lot. A very satisfying read!

Friday, March 4, 2011

African-American woman sues Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help

It seems like everyone is reading or has read The Help these days. I read it last year and although I enjoyed it, I could understand why African-Americans gave it mixed reviews. My assessment was: great idea, awkward follow-through and lack of awareness of white privilege.

My book group has selected this book for April, so I'm anxious to hear what others think about the of the members is married to an African-American man, and another comes from the south.

So I was fascinated to discover that Ablene Cooper, nanny for author Kathryn Stockett's brother, has filed a lawsuit against Stockett. She is offended by the portrayal of domestic help in the book and believes that she is the inspiration for the main character, Aibileen Clark. Her employers (Kathryn Stockett's brother and wife) agree.

Besides the similarity of their names, Ablene has a gold tooth and lost her son, just like the fictional Aibileen. It's interesting to note that not only has the book sparked a feud between brother and sister, but Stockett's father seems to think his daughter is only out to make money.

According to the ABC News article, "he also noted that his author daughter, who has moved north to Atlanta, 'is also a New Yorker now.' Stockett, a retired developer and lawyer, said he did not know her phone number. 'Sure, I liked the book. It's fiction. They didn't give me the critics' copy until it was too late,' he said. 'I would have got some factual things changed. But I'm low down the totem pole.' He charged media with 'stirring up the pot' in the dispute between his son's maid and his daughter, adding that the ensuing publicity surrounding the feud would benefit his daughter financially. 'Kathryn will appreciate that she gets a cut,' he said."

Sort of sounds like Stockett's own words in The Help, "Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people."

Have you read The Help? Do you think Stockett overstepped her white privilege?