Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

Amazingly, because I love books based in Asia, this was the first book I'd read by Lisa See. I'm not sure why it has taken me so long!

I enjoyed this family saga about a Chinese girl, Li-Yan, who was born into a very poor Akha tea family in the Yunnan Province. I'd never heard of the Akha or their strict traditions before, so I was
fascinated to read this story.

The story soon takes a dark twist, as Li-Yan's mother is a midwife, and Li-Yan witnesses a birth of twin babies. Because the Akha follow 100-year-old traditions extremely faithfully, her mother kills the babies (twins are bad luck) and exiles their parents. 

Clever, independent Li-Yan chafes against the misogynist, old-fashioned rules of her tribe, and when her own path takes a difficult turn, she leaves the village.

I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil the story, but I do want to say that Lisa See does an exceptional job tackling the complications of Chinese adoptions...and giving the reader a great appreciation for tea, especially the aged Pu-er tea.

I read this book for my book group, and I hosted the evening we discussed it. I ordered Chinese takeout and remembered I had intended to buy some Chinese tea for the occasion. On the off chance, I raided our tea cabinet, and what did I find? A box of Pu-er tea, which my husband had purchased on a whim. I was delighted at this lovely piece of synchronicity!

Read it, and drink some Pu-er tea! #NaBloPoMo2019


Becoming, by Michelle Obama
I read Becoming earlier this year, and I loved it. Although her family did not have much money or resources, she grew up in a family of deep, consistent love on the south side of Chicago, rich in memories.

A few of my most vivid memories of the book were when she learned how to play the piano from her strict Great Aunt Robbie, who had a strict protocol about lessons. The students could not move ahead in the book until they had accomplished a particular song. This struck Michelle as particularly boring and unfair, so she played ahead in the book and got in trouble. I could relate so much to Michelle's reaction, chafing at this rule! Some rules are meant to be broken!

At her first piano recital, Michelle learned her family's circumstances were not like everyone else's. Great Aunt Robbie's piano had a chip to mark the middle C. Sitting at a beautiful grand piano for the recital, Michelle panicked because she could not find middle C. Great Aunt Bobbie came to her rescue, pointing out the C. 
“Maybe she knew that the disparities of the world had just quietly shown themselves to me for the first time." 
She and her brother Cliff shared a small bedroom, jerry-rigged into two extremely small areas. Her parents were strict but she always felt loved, and although her dad became ill with multiple sclerosis, he continued to work tremendously hard for as long as he could. Michelle followed in her parents' hard-working footsteps, committed to academic excellence, and earned two Ivy League degrees.

I admired her self-awareness when she realized, working as a corporate lawyer, that this life was not for her. After meeting a much more laid-back and carefree Barack and losing her best friend from college to cancer, she reinvented herself and her career. I enjoyed learning about Michelle's professional life and aspirations--we heard so little about the real Michelle when she was first lady.
“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” 
Reading about Michelle and Barack's courtship made me smile...they were so different in so many ways, but alike in the ways that mattered. She is still not a fan of politics, but knew that he was meant to be a public servant and would not stand in his way.
Getting ready to hear from Michelle in Portland!
Michelle writes extensively about parenting and balancing her work and family life, especially as Barack was away from home more frequently because of his political career. She was determined to protect her daughters from the privileged life as much as she possibly could.

She also writes about the value of female friendship, which is also sacred to me.
“Friendships between women, as any woman will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses...swapped back and forth and over again.” 
And about how challenging it can be to be a woman:
“Women endure entire lifetimes of these indignities—in the form of catcalls, groping, assault, oppression. These things injure us. They sap our strength. Some of the cuts are so small they’re barely visible. Others are huge and gaping, leaving scars that never heal. Either way, they accumulate. We carry them everywhere, to and from school and work, at home while raising our children, at our places of worship, anytime we try to advance.”
And where "when they go low, we go high" came from:
“Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear, we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance. I wanted Americans to understand that words matter—that the hateful language they heard coming from their TVs did not reflect the true spirit of our country and that we could vote against it. It was dignity I wanted to make an appeal for—the idea that as a nation we might hold on to the core thing that had sustained my family, going back generations. Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.”
I closed the book feeling inspired by the life she has lived, much of it so publicly, and sad for what we have lost as a country.
With my heart full!
My husband and I were extremely lucky to be able to see Michelle when she came to Portland, and it was a night I will never forget! I wiped away tears many times. She designed her book tour so it was a conversation with someone who knew her well. In Portland, it was with Sam Kass, the Obamas' personal chef starting in Chicago, and who designed the garden and healthy cooking at the White House with her. It was funny, poignant, endearing, and intimate, and it filled my heart!
“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.”

Thursday, November 7, 2019


Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
The first time I'd heard about Outlander was many years ago, when Mike won a Willamette Writers award, and Diana Gabaldon was the keynote speaker at the awards banquet. I remember her as quirky and intriguing...here was an academic scholar and professor with a Ph.D. in behavior ecology, becoming famous for writing a bodice-ripper historical, time travel, Scottish novel. My most vivid memory of her speech was she decided to write Outlander because she loves men in kilts! She had just signed the contract with Starz to produce the book as a television series. Anyone who has watched the TV show knows how much Gabaldon loves men in kilts! 

Outlander is set in 1945 after the war, and it's about an English nurse named Clare. She's married to Frank, a nerdy academic, and they travel to Scotland so he can research his ancestors and they can try to rekindle their romance after being separated during the war. Intrigued by the stone runes, she finds herself falling back into time to the 1700s where she encounters Jamie and her husband's evil ancestor, Black Jack Randall (played incredibly well in the show by Tobias Menzies, who also plays Frank). 

After hearing Gabaldon, I researched the book to see if I should read it, but honestly the romance genre kept me away. After the TV show began to get popular, I finally tried it out but I gave up because I was trying to read the e-book and the length in that medium made it more difficult to read. However, I got totally hooked on the show. I have always been drawn to time travel, and the combination with historical fiction is a perfect fit for me. I love learning the Scottish history.

When my book group voted to read Outlander this year, I was all in to give the first book another try. Claire is a fascinating heroine, and Jamie is sexy, sensitive, and strong...perhaps unrealistic characters for their times but fun nonetheless. I really enjoyed it and eventually will read more in the series. My friend Kristin has already moved on to the other books. Not everyone in the group loved Outlander, but it led to a great--and hilarious--discussion.

The night we discussed Outlander and hilarity ensued
My friend Nicola read many of the sex scenes out loud in a Scottish brogue, and there's much to laugh about in the book...especially the sex scenes! While I wasn't paying attention, Nicola and Katie got hold of my phone and put this nude of a wet Jamie on my phone wallpaper. 

The phone wallpaper, edited with my "Thumbs"
comment to cover his privates--
I can't remember why we were laughing
 about "thumbs" but it was a story
I do need to put a trigger warning in this review. The book has a few rape scenes, including one that includes torture (at the end of the book). It was extremely difficult to read and even harder to see dramatized in the show. With that said, Gabaldon handles the PTSD resulting from the sexual assault in a sensitive, insightful way.

Of course, some of this book (and series) is unrealistic. I am not a fan of the scene in which Jamie disciplines Clare because she disobeys him and puts the entire group at risk, and then she forgives him afterward. I know it was a different time, but it didn't seem to fit with Jamie's character. 

It's frothy with a healthy dose of sex, set in two different historical times and places...great fun.

Monday, November 4, 2019

What Happened

What Happened, by Hillary Clinton

Of course, I listened to this one on audio so I could hear Hillary narrate What Happened. Hillary reminds me of many women I've worked with, who came of age in their careers in the '70s in a male-dominated field...she is tough, has had to make tons of sacrifices (e.g., taking Bill's last name), and is not always authentic and relaxed because she is trying to fit in and be accepted in spite of her core strength (not fitting into the classic feminine stereotype). Even though she is awkward, nerdy, and wonky, I greatly admire and respect her as a woman, diplomat, civil servant, and mother. She has great love for her country and her family.

Sometimes I find it hard to understand why she stuck with Bill, but this memoir gives more insight into that situation. She has a great fondness and affection for him, and who am I to judge her for choosing to stay with him after he embarrassed her in front of the whole world?

This book, like Michelle Obama's Becoming, brought me to tears several times...because I think of what could have been and what should have been. Hearing her describe election night from her perspective, and that incredible speech she gave the next day, brought it all back for me. The great hopes of having our first woman president, someone who has rock-solid experience internationally and diplomatically, who could swallow her pride and go work for the person who defeated her, who can work with all sorts of personalities, who has advocated for women and children for her whole career...such a huge loss.

I will read everything Hillary Clinton writes. What happened is that she got nearly three million votes more than Trump. And the Republican party, which has always been terrified of the "Red Menace," is now consorting with Russia.

What happened is that our country got shafted. If Hillary had won, we'd actually have a skillful, diplomatic, effective, team-building president instead of the terrifying president-pretender we have now.  #NaBloPoMo2019

Friday, November 1, 2019

Theory of Bastards

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman

I've committed to blog every day in November, so I hope to finally catch up with my book reviews!

I read Theory of Bastards back in January for my book group, and I loved it! Set at some point in the future, the main character, Francine, is a research biologist who ends up taking on a live-in assignment at a laboratory, studying the sex lives of bonobos. Not altogether that likable of a character, Francine has struggled with debilitating endometriosis that has paralyzed her personal life and emotional development. Many people I love have experienced endometriosis and the complications associated with it (foremost being that the medical establishment often doesn't take you seriously because it's a disease that only afflicts women), so I'm glad to see Schulman tackle this topic in her novel.

And then there are the lovely bonobos. I knew they were a matriarchal species, fairly recently discovered, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Bonobos are the most closely related species to humans, sharing 98.7 percent of our DNA. Different from chimpanzees, bonobos are loving, sensitive, and intelligent. And they love to have sex. They are nondiscriminatory, polyamorous, and pansexual. They are also fiercely protective of each other and Francine learns she has to earn their respect.

As much as I was fascinated by the animal study, then Schulman takes us into apocalyptical themes when the research facility is hit by a massive dust storm and all electricity goes out across the grid. How to keep the animals alive? How to keep the bonobos away from the much more aggressive chimpanzees? Will she and her assistant, Stotts, consummate their sexual tension and form an emotional bond? Will they all survive?

I was compelled to keep reading until the end, and this moving book stayed with me for weeks...always good signs of an outstanding read. And now I know I love bonobos! It made for an entertaining book group discussion, as we talked about how many of us confessed to looking up bonobo penises! (Guilty as charged.)