Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rereading The Red Tent

The Red Tent: A NovelThe Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I reread The Red Tent this month for my Bras, Bibles, and Brew group, and I enjoyed it again the second time. (I first read it after it was published in the 1990s.)

What is most notable about this novel is that it was the first book to use the Jewish tradition of midrash to speculate on what might have happened in the family of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. So little is written about women in the bible, so Diamant imagined what might have really happened in that family and to Jacob's only daughter, Dinah (who does not get any spoken lines in the bible).

Many people get quite agitated about historical fiction that attempts to retell events that actually or supposedly happened. I remember people getting similarly worked up about the Da Vinci Code. People are worried that others do not understand that these books are fiction. Honestly, if people do not understand enough to realize that these are fictional accounts, we probably have more cause for concern.

In fact, in last month's meeting of Bras, Bibles, and Brew, one of the women (who loves children's literature) says that she only reads fantasy--she's not interested in "real stuff." However, then she also said she didn't like The Red Tent, because it didn't really happen the way Diamant dramatizes, and she's concerned that people will believe The Red Tent in lieu of the bible. Like the bible is a factual book? This makes no sense to me.

Diamant brings the bible to life for me in a way that the real thing just can't get anywhere near to. I can smell the animals grazing near the tents...and imagine the way women were treated as second-class citizens, not even worthy of introductions. I enjoyed rereading the stories of women's friendship and how they supported each other during menstruation, childbirth, and other life milestones. I felt heartbroken for Dinah when she had no female friends her own age as a child, and then her grandmother Rachel banishes her only friend (her cousin) because the proper rites had not been followed. I winced when I read that babies born with harelips (or cleft lips, which is what I had as a baby) were put to death.

The only criticism I have of this book--and it's a minor one I did not notice during the first reading--is the weird change of perspective at times. It's told in first person; however, a few times the narrator is omniscient and can describe events that are occurring without her knowledge.

I gave it five stars because of its first-of-its-kind (many other biblical retellings have followed) nature, and because of the way it went into deeper detail about the women in the bible. As someone who does not read the bible literally and is completely aware that so much is not written in the bible (take for example that the bible names only 188 women [many of whom do not get any dialogue], compared to thousands of men)...this book was a welcome read.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace

The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the WorkplaceThe Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace, by Shaunti Feldhahn
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Shaunti Feldhahn, who has a financial analyst background and holds a master's in public policy from Harvard, has become an expert on men's and women's unique perspectives. After writing several books about the inner lives of men and women, and a novel, she turned her focus to statistically analyzing men's perspectives in the workplace.

After finishing this book, I did some research on Goodreads and discovered that this book also has a "Christian" edition. Even though I'm actually a Christian, that would totally turn me off, so I'm glad I didn't check out that version. (Yes, I'm a weird Christian.) :)

Feldman and her large team of researchers interviewed 3,000 men in the workplace over 7 years and carefully analyzed the data. This book is the summary of what they discovered. In short:

It's not personal; it's business. Women tend to have a harder time separating these two worlds, and in general, men see a clear and distinct line. Feldhahn discusses the fact that men's brains are wired to compartmentalize, whereas women's brains have much more free flow. Therefore, it's much easier for men to separate themselves and their personal feelings from their jobs. They are less likely to take things personally, and they are less likely to discuss their personal lives in the workplace. They also work hard to protect themselves from emotional pain.

If men see women operating by personal world rules at work, they can be perceived as lacking self-confidence and self-esteem, being defensive and insecure, not being a team player, and not being mature, sophisticated, or business savvy.

I would have to agree that although certain men can be complete assholes in the work world, in general women are more likely to have personality conflicts. They are also more likely to overreact to things. This is probably because of the different brain wiring and what I've observed in my own sons: males tend to be better at moving on and not letting resentments linger. They are less likely to hold grudges.

Men are concerned that if they let down their guard, the world will stop spinning. According to Feldhahn, men have a secret belief that if they do not perform their best at work, or if they let down their guard, they will lose their jobs and be unable to provide for their families. This fear drives many of the decisions they make in the workplace. As a result, they can be intolerant of colleagues (often women, who are not as driven by this fear) who appear to be distracting them from the task at hand. This focus on results can be a highly positive thing, but it can also be negative because sometimes men do not realize the importance of relationship building in business. To gain respect from male colleagues, it's important for women to demonstrate that they are fully committed to the job and "in the game."

Feldhahn elaborates on the little things that drive men crazy about women in the workplace: the need to get to the point, not overreact, and let it go. Furthermore, men value colleagues who "suck it up" and get the job done, no matter what, without complaining. The downside of the typical man's approach is that he might not take the necessary time to delve into the details, which can bite him in the end.

She also addresses men's inner insecurity and how it can affect women. Men do not like to be challenged openly...especially by women. Part of this is due to sexism, but part of it is also due to a lack of self-confidence and the fact that men are trained to come across as more confident than they really feel inside. She found that most men like to be challenged, but they fear being seen as inadequate. "One of men's most intense emotional needs is to feel adequate and to know they are respected and trusted by others." Feldhahn addresses situations in which men are likely to perceive disrespect, including a direct, brusque approach, asking "why" questions, pushing too much, and conveying exasperation.

Feldhahn also tackles the taboo of addressing the way women dress in the workplace. According to her research, men feel extremely uncomfortable discussing this issue, but most of them agree that dressing provocatively (tight or short skirts, or showing cleavage) is one of the major ways that women shoot themselves in the foot in the workplace. The interesting thing she discovered is that men tend to think that the woman wants them to look at her body rather than pay attention to what she is saying or doing...while in fact, most women do not mean to send this message at all. Their motivation is dressing stylishly or feeling good about themselves. Feldhahn has discovered in her research how visual men are, and that they often focus on a woman's attire to the detriment of her message. This is backed up by brain research. According to ABC's John Stossel (who did a program on this information), "The same part of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) lights up when a young man sees a picture of a beautiful woman as when a hungry person sees food, or a gambler eyes cash, or a drug addict sees a fix."

Feldhahn conducted studies in which she showed groups of men the same video, except for the fact that the woman in the video was dressed differently. When they viewed the video of the woman showing cleavage, they retained far less of the information she was presenting than the group of men who saw the same presentation--but the woman was not showing cleavage. The men she interviewed were uncomfortable in admitting this or sharing it, but most agreed: women are taken less seriously in the workplace when they wear tight or short skirts or show cleavage. (You can view clips of this video in the video segment at the bottom of the post.)

The unfortunate finding is that men often think women are trying to distract them sexually, when in fact this is not usually the case. As one executive shared, "Women have the ability to be completely beautiful and completely appropriate...but there is a line that you cross where it becomes distracting, and another line where it could become sexual..." Consequently, men view women who dress this way with less respect, because they are not taken seriously. It also puts men who want to respect women professionally in an awkward position. In her book, she says that she has created a short presentation that can help explain these findings...and it can be downloaded on her website,; however, the website says this tool is "coming soon." This is highly disappointing, as the book was published in 2009 and it's now 2011.

In summary, the men she interviewed expressed their desire to help women in the workplace and suggested that women project confidence and competence to gain respect. I learned a lot from this book and it will help me approach my male colleagues with more understanding. Oh and no more cleavage and miniskirts!! Haha.

If you are interested in learning more, I suggest you watch this video of Feldhahn on the Today Show, with Donny Deutsch:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Attack of the Theater People: Marc Acito's second novel

Attack of the Theater PeopleAttack of the Theater People, by Marc Acito
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I read the first in this series (How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater) in 2009 while we were at our beloved Sylvia Beach Hotel. In that book, Acito tells the story of Edward Zanni, who is so desperate to go to Juilliard that he and his friends--mostly theater people--resort to embezzlement, money laundering, identity theft, forgery, and blackmail to help him achieve his goals. It's over the top madcap farce with a theatrical twist.

Attack of the Theater People picks up the plot two years later, when Zanni has been kicked out of Juilliard for being too "jazz hands." He ends up becoming a party motivator for bar and bat mitvahs and business events, and soon he's participating in insider trading deals. It's not that Edward does not have any's just that he can't keep himself from getting sucked into unethical and illegal arrangements.

I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the times it was just a bit too over the top for me. But what I found especially fascinating about this book is that since I read the first one, I learned that I know one of the inspirations for one of Edward's extremely loyal, creative friends. (Much of Acito's storytelling is based on his life experiences, obviously spun way beyond what really happened.) This put a whole new spin on the book for me.

Here's Acito--who until this spring lived in Portland but has since moved back to New York--talking about the novel:

You can read more about Acito on his web site or blog.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bossypants: Tina Fey kicks bossy butt!

Bossypants, by Tina Fey
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I didn't notice until I actually started reading this book that Tina Fey has man hands and man arms on the front cover of this book. Ugh!! Shows how (un)observant I am.

Bossypants is part memoir, part show biz story, and nearly all funny. She wanders throughout her life, haphazardly, telling the reader stories and sharing observations.

She starts out by sharing her growing-up stories and photos--I always find it amazing to look at school photos of glamorous celebrities. I mean, who knew? They so clearly did NOT look glamorous in their school photos! Fey had a very normal childhool, raised by two Republican but also tolerant parents. They welcomed all of Fey's gay and lesbian friends through her high school years, especially during the summers when she was involved with a local theater group.

After college, Fey goes off to Chicago to make her millions and begins by working at the YMCA with a coworker, Donna, who loved to complain. However, "do not try to get ahead of Donna and initiate the complaining, no matter how sure she'll agree. Because Donna will leave you hanging every time.
ME: Can you believe they're cutting our lunch down to half an hour, lowering our pay by 10 percent, taking away our insurance, and making us eat dirt?!

DONNA: I don't go to doctors. I like dirt anyway, so...fine by me." 
I know people like this, and they drive me CRAZY!!

Fey begins working at Second City Comedy Club and learns the rules of improv, which she shares with the reader. The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. "Always agree and SAY YES. When you're improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we're improvising and I say, 'Freeze, I have a gun,' and you say, 'That's not a gun. It's your finger...,' our improvised scene has ground to a halt...but if you say, 'The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!,' then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun." Fey then shares that "as an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is 'no.'...What kind of way is that to live?"

Fey shares interesting observations about working with men in comedy, some positive and some negative. When she first started working at SNL, the writers actively discouraged having too many women in sketches and heaven forbid, not just two women alone. (They claimed that people wouldn't want to watch two women in a sketch.) Fey broke a lot of glass ceilings when she became one of SNL's head writers. And then when the sketch of Fey and Amy Poehler and Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton shot the ratings through the roof, Fey was vindicated.

I could have done without the image of men peeing in cups and leaving said cups on the bookshelves in their office. WTF? Are they too lazy to go to the restroom? Why on earth would you want to have pee-filled cups all over your office? Clearly, these men are not married. Or gay.

When Fey moved onto 30 Rock, she had a lot more power about the way things would go (hence the name, Bossypants). People often ask her if it's hard being the boss (as executive producer of 30 Rock). She ponders whether anyone ever asks Donald Trump the same question. She's proud of her "little show," in which all of the people look normal (unlike Friends or Desperate Housewives, among others). "I've never understood why every character being 'hot' was necessary for enjoying a TV show. It's the same reason I don't get Hooters. Why do we need to enjoy chicken wings and boobies at the same time? Yes, they are a natural and beautiful part of the human experience. And so are boobies. But why at the same time?"

During one very insane weekend of her life, she (1) scheduled and shot a critical Oprah appearance on 30 Rock, (2) learned Friday she would be appearing as Sarah Palin on SNL the next day--with almost no time to prepare, and (3) planned and hosted her daughter's birthday party on Sunday. She discusses her ambivalence about the Sarah Palin period...and how her Republican parents' initial excitement eventually turned to dread...and how she feels about women in politics and leadership. When Palin herself appeared on SNL one night, Fey insisted that she be protected from what she was sure would be a studio filled with loud boos. (Palin's first appearance was backstage, so the audience weren't sure if she was there in the studio or not.)
"In my opinion, the most meaningful moment for women in the 2008 campaign was not Governor Palin's convention speech or Hillary Clinton conceding her 1,896 delegates. The moment most emblematic of how things have changed for women in America was nine-months-pregnant Amy Poehler rapping as Sarah Palin and tearing the roof off the place."
This completely resonates with me and is akin to how I recall with fondness seeing our pregnant pastor in the pulpit, preaching to a community of Lutherans and Roman Catholics (who certainly had never had a pregnant pastor before). There's just no way you can not realize that you're listening to a WOMAN when she is pregnant.

In short, this was a highly enjoyable light read and makes me want to go watch all those Tina Fey/Amy Poehler SNL sketches all over again!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

House Rules: Boy with Asperger's syndrome on trial for murder

House Rules: A NovelHouse Rules, by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I finished my June book group selection on the first day of June (not bad, eh?). I really enjoyed this Jodi Picoult novel about Jacob, an 18-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome, who somehow finds himself on trial for murder.

Jacob, an amazingly bright young man, is obsessed with criminal science. For fun, he sets up crime scenes in his house for his mom to solve. His younger brother, Theo, is less amused. While Jacob knocks it out of the ballpark by memorizing lines from movies, the "CrimeBusters" TV show he loves, or scientific/mathematical facts, he lacks the ability to read between the lines, understand subtlety, and engage with others on an emotional level.

Typical of Picoult's novels, House Rules contains a court trial, a variety of characters' perspectives, and a few (small) twists at the end. As I mentioned to my husband, I am astounded at Picoult's amazing prolific catalog of novels, not to mention her exceptional research and preparation for her books. And they are well written, too! Here's an example of what I like about her writing--although somewhat dispassionate (being from Jacob's perspective), doesn't this describe the feeling one has after someone dies?:
"I would like to be able to tell her that, yes, now I get it. When someone dies, it feels like the hole in your gum when a tooth falls out. You can chew, you can eat, you have plenty of other teeth, but your tongue keeps going back to that empty place, where all the nerves are still a little raw."
Here are a few bits that feel a little "off" to me:
  • The mom, Emma's, character didn't always ring true for me. At times she comes across as an overprotective mom, and at other times she seems a little batty (the whole thing about the vaccine link to autism seemed like a sensational add-in that didn't quite fit). She only allows her sons to go on Web sites she prescreens, but she allows Jacob to stay out of the house at all hours without keeping track of where he is? She also seems completely insensitive to the difficult life Theo has to lead. And the other thing that baffled me was why, since she knew her son better than anyone else, why didn't she (or anyone else) just ask Jacob straight up if he did it.
  • The sudden return of Henry (the boy's father) also seemed a bit out of place. Was he just brought in to cause a bit of jealousy? For someone who had abandoned the family years ago and never really knew his sons--and also had a bit of Asperger's himself--why would he just show up to ostensibly help?
  • Prosecuting attorney Helen Sharp is just a bit too one-dimensionally evil and insensitive, and then there's the detective, Rich, who veers from making fun of Jacob's need for sensory breaks to being the one to help him when he panics...kind of like a bully who feels guilty about his actions.
  • I had to laugh at the stereotype of a young, inexperienced lawyer who essentially agrees to work for free. (Oliver shows his extreme naivete when he tells Emma to "relax" when Jacob is thrown in jail.)
On the other hand, I liked so much about this book as well, such as the way Picoult portrays the deep complications of parenting, especially special needs parenting:
"Real mothers wonder why (parenting) experts seem to have their acts together all the time when they themselves can barely keep their heads above the stormy seas of parenthood.

Real mothers don't just listen with humble embarrassment to the elderly lady who offers unsolicited advice in the checkout line when a child is throwing a tantrum. We take the child, dump him in the lady's cart, and say 'Great. Maybe you can do a better job.'
Real mothers know that it's okay to eat cold pizza for breakfast.
Real mothers admit it is easier to fail at this job than to succeed.

If parenting is the box of raisin bran, then real mothers know the ratio of flakes to fun is severely imbalanced. For every moment that your child confides in you, or tells you he loves you, or does something umprompted to to protect his brother that you happen to witness, there are many more moments of chaos, error, and self-doubt.

Real mothers may not speak the heresy, but they sometimes secretly wish they'd chosen something for breakfast other than this endless cereal.

Real mothers worry that other mothers will find that magic ring, whereas they'll be looking and looking for ages.

Rest easy, real mothers. The very fact that you worry about being a good mom means that you already are one."
Picoult detailed her in-depth research and sources for this book, including many kids with Asperger's and their parents. She describes the difficulty these kids have in making friends, and I note some crossovers to ADD/ADHD as well here:
"If you asked Jacob for a list of friends, he'd probably be able to give you that list. But if you asked those same kids for their lists, Jacob wouldn't be on them. His Asperger's leads him to mistake proximity for emotional connection."
At one point, Emma ponders that Jacob will never be able to understand love. I think she's just defining love in a "neurotypical" way here. But I believe the ending demonstrates that Jacob does indeed feel love and emotional connections. He just expresses them differently. I haven't loved all of Jodi Picoult's books, but I did enjoy this one.