Book Review: Lean In

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She explained that many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for what they really are–impostors with limited skills or abilities.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

As a young woman who’s been working in tech for roughly three years, Lean In has always been on my radar. I’ve  mostly worked in male-dominated workplaces, mostly reported to male managers since beginning my professional career,  and, as I grow older, grown only more aware of my sex and race and how they impact my performance (and how others perceive it) in the workplace. I was interested in how someone like Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook, former vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) would address these issues.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this book. I learned little that I could not have gleaned from similar articles, discussing with other professional women, or even journaling my own thoughts and experiences. Although I obviously haven’t had a career as long or prolific as Sandberg’s, I found most of the book’s observations fairly straightforward. Maybe it’s because I already had an interest in this topic and had read similar articles before. In any case, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. There were many pages dedicated to topics that weren’t yet relatable to me — maternity leave, child care, marriage. I’m still clinging on to my early twenties and not seriously considering those options yet, although they will probably become more relevant to me in the next decade or so.

However, what I found most shocking was the way Sandberg chooses to express some ideas. The book claims to advocate for women…however, I felt it only represented a specific kind of woman. In my experience, my identity as a racial minority has impacted my professional life (whether it is in my attitudes or attitudes others have towards me) as much as my identity as a woman has. There’s brief mentions of women of colour, single women, and the LGBTQ community, but it’s clear who this book was really written for: white, upper middle class, professional women who are married with children or plan to be. Sure, there’s a blurb here or there about respecting women who are stay at home mothers or who do not want to advance in their careers…but this seems more like lip service than anything. For example, Sandberg recounts a time when she dropped off her son at school in a blue t-shirt and another mother remarked that it was St. Patrick’s Day and that he should be wearing green. She recounts herself feeling offended, guilty, and somewhat dismissive of the other mother. Later in the book, though, she praises this mother as one of the school’s most dedicated volunteers. Yet it’s hard to shake the earlier sense of combativeness and superiority she has towards this (presumably) full-time parent.

Another anecdote recounts a women’s career panel Sandberg attended where three panelists were married with children, while the fourth was unmarried. The fourth panelist argued that she had just as much right to leave early for a party as her colleagues did for their kids’ soccer games. She reasoned that because the party was an opportunity for her to meet a man with whom to start a family, her desire to go to the party was equally valid.

I couldn’t believe Sandberg called herself a feminist and thought this was acceptable to print or agreed with this sentiment. I believe in a woman’s right to aspire to marriage, but this anecdote frames a career woman as only deserving of two areas of interest: her career and her family (or a chance at a family). In fact, the book does not encourage women to pursue any interests unless they benefit society, and Sandberg makes no mention of any hobbies or interest of her own outside of work and family. This sends the wrong message. If that panelist had wanted to go rock climbing, indulge in a pedicure, or simply stay home and read a book, I believe that that is as valid a use of time as her married colleague taking off early to see her child’s soccer game.

I found the lack of representation for women of colour and for women who identify as LGBTQ in this book troubling. One could argue that the book is mainly about Sandberg’s experience and since she is neither a woman of colour nor a member of the LGBTQ community (as far as I know), that is why the book does not discuss issues pertaining to those groups in depth. Sandberg discusses marriage in depth, however marriage is only described as a union between a man and a woman. However, nearly a third of the book is footnotes, and it is clear that Sandberg researched and spoke to many other women while writing this book. I was able to relate to this book because of my background working in tech. However, I didn’t relate to it as a racial minority.

Lean In promotes inclusivity by being ignorant of its own exclusivity. I believe it would have been beneficial for Sandberg to solicit more opinions and experiences  from other women for her book, as her own life is not exactly relatable. When urging women to find partners (male, of course) who prioritize family, she casually recounts how her husband, then-CEO of SurveyMonkey, moved his company from Portland to the Bay Area to be with her. What about those of us who aren’t married to CEOs? Or what about the employees he uprooted or fired for his personal decision?

YES OR NO?: I know Sheryl Sandberg probably wrote this book with good intentions. With its focus on women’s role in the workplace, though, I was shocked that she glossed over women who identify as a racial minority and/or LGBTQ. I found myself growing more frustrated with the author the further I read, and odds are, if you’re not a billionaire COO who went to Harvard Business School, you probably will feel the same.

Book Review: The Lake

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Things look different depending on your perspective. As I see it, fighting to bridge those gaps isn’t what really matters. The most important thing is to know them inside and out, as differences, and to understand why certain people are the way they are.

The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I’m an avid fan of Haruki Murakami. Ever since I first opened up 1Q84 on a whim, his motifs (the jazz cafes, the ear fetishes, the gorgeous, mysterious women with limps) make me feel at home unlike any other author’s.

That being said, I don’t have much experience with other Japanese literature, or Japanese-American for that matter. I’d heard before that the reason Murakami is beloved by Westerners (or those raised in the Western world, like yours truly) is because his work is so Westernized and separate from the Japanese literary establishment to the point that it is more relatable to those outside Japan. Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea, but I was interested in reading more works by Japanese authors – especially with my inaugural trip to Japan later this month(!). I picked this book upon a whim, mainly due to the author’s name (which turned out to be a pseudonym) and the intriguing teaser on the back cover…

However, I highly recommend that if you are interested in this book that you do not read the back cover! The book revolves around Chihiro, a young artist who’s recently lost her mother, and her strange but sweet romance with Nakajima, her neighbor. If you’ve read Murakami, you know that his novels embrace an overarching, pervasive loneliness – similarly, Chihiro and Nakajima’s story is one of isolation, sometimes from each other, and mostly from the world around them. While Chihiro explains her own origins (and her reasons for her self-imposed isolation), the reason for Nakajima’s is uncertain…except for the fact that it’s given away on the back cover of the book! I honestly thought there would be another, more significant reveal, and was gravely disappointed. I can imagine that if I hadn’t read the cover, I would have been shocked by the final quarter of the book. I highly recommend you do not read any summaries or reviews if you’re interested in this book.

That being said, while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t find it remarkable in any capacity. It was a simple story told in simple prose, although I’m not sure whether to fault the translation for this. The novel is narrated in first-person by Chihiro, and the narration tends be straightforward about her emotions and motives. While that’s understandable due to it being first-person, I found her narration a tad boring, and it lessened the mystery of Nakajima’s origins. I also didn’t find the characters too realistic. Although the book delves into Chihiro’s emotions and personality, I couldn’t figure out what her personality was, other than being reluctant to open up to others. And despite being an artist (and therefore interested in art), she wasn’t an interesting enough character to keep me sufficiently engaged or sympathetic.

All in all, because it’s a short book (not even 200 pages), I think it would be worth your while for an afternoon or a day’s read. I didn’t dislike it, per se, but I doubt I’ll recall much about it a few months from now.

YES OR NO?: YES, I suppose, but I don’t feel too strongly one way or another about this book. There are a few subplots in the book other than Chihiro’s relationship with Nakajima: her relationship with her parents and extended family, her job of painting murals, and so on. However, none of these subplots contribute much in the end, and I would rather have read this condensed into some type of short story format. This book isn’t for everyone.

Book Review: David and Goliath

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Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Ah, Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been a while. So far, I’ve read three of Gladwell’s books: The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. I quite enjoyed The Tipping Point, which was the first of the three that I read. At the time, I hadn’t had much experience reading non-fiction for pleasure (and still don’t, to be perfectly honest. I think I’ll always prefer novels over non-fiction), and I was entranced by Gladwell’s detailed examples and his prose, which is easy to read and engaging without being too simplistic.

However, as I pursued more of Gladwell’s work, I found that while I enjoyed the writing itself, I couldn’t get on board with many of the concepts in the books. The examples used seemed biased and rather narrow from which to draw overarching conclusions about human behavior. The theses of the books seemed fairly obvious (for example, one of the ideas presented in David and Goliath is that experiencing a great difficulty in childhood, such as dyslexia or the death of  parent, makes us more likely to be successful. Not exactly groundbreaking.), and overly simplistic.

That’s how I expected to feel about David and Goliath, and that’s exactly what happened. As always, I enjoyed Gladwell’s writing and learning about a variety of different stories: the research work of oncologist Emil J. Freireich, who was deemed controversial by his peers, the origin of the three-strikes law in California, and even the titular story of David and Goliath itself, which I can actually say that I wasn’t too familiar with outside of its cliched use in everyday conversation. I don’t have much else to say about this book. I feel that my feelings toward this book are probably well-summarized in my reviews of Outliers and Blink.

For me, there was, however, one important takeaway from this book. I find that since I’ve graduated and begun working full-time, I sometimes feel complacent, and too caught up in my own rhythm and routine to consider change. In David and Goliath, Gladwell argues that those who dare to disagree with society’s rules – those who dare to lie, to cheat, and to argue with their colleagues over work they feel passionate about – often end up making new discoveries, creating timeless art, and even saving lives. It’s not a new lesson for me, but one that I needed to be reminded of. If you’re feeling in need of some inspiration, this may be the book for you.

YES OR NO?: I feel lukewarm about this book. In all honesty, if you’re familiar with Gladwell’s previous work, that would probably determine whether or not you enjoy David and Goliath. I ended up reading most of this in a two-hour session, which I think was information overload. I’d recommend taking this on a trip so the individual anecdotes have time to make some impact.

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

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Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

While I love to read and add to this blog, my day job is to churn out technical documents at a software company. I mean, it involves more creativity and planning than it sounds: structuring content, researching new features, and figuring out how to reuse my existing content as efficiently as possible. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly enjoy it. There are times when the technical aspect of my job overwhelms me, which can be distressing – I’m often surrounded by people who assume my technical knowledge is beyond what it actually is.

I was once bemoaning this to my boyfriend, especially the level of concentration it takes me to understand technical concepts, and how it makes me feel stupid at times. He then insisted that I wasn’t stupid at all, and pointed out my sense of memory as an example. It surprised me – I’m aware that I have a good memory (friends often count on me to remember where we had brunch that time, and I have an uncanny ability to recall which actors starred in which movies), but I’d never counted that as a form of intelligence. It’s just been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. Faces, names, movie titles, state capitals. While I have a “naturally” good memory, I also am obsessed with keeping track of things: through my journaling, photographs, and of course, this blog.

I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction lately, and this book seemed like a good fit for me. Moonwalking with Einstein, despite its misleading and pseudo-catchy title, is about memory and memorization. The book covers the mental athletes who participate in the World Memory Championships (yes, that’s a thing) by memorizing as much information as possible in a given amount of time, scientific cases of people with impaired and extraordinary memories, and Joshua Foer’s own journey to becoming the American memory champion.

I found most of the ideas presented by the book fascinating, although the book itself tends to be repetitive. For example, one key tactic to becoming a memory champion is to attach as vulgar and/or ridiculous (and therefore memorable) images to whatever needs to be memorized. In my opinion, Foer spends an inordinate amount of time detailing these ludicrous images. After a while, I didn’t find them entertaining and they were just bothersome to read through. Also, while I understand that including Foer’s own mastery of memory techniques serves to prove that training one’s memory is an achievable goal for the average reader, I wasn’t too interested in the author’s journey. There were also times when his somewhat mocking attitude towards the mental athletes (and their lack of fashion sense, or other oddities) felt mean and unnecessarily judgmental.

Other than the memory techniques, I was most interested in the cases of extraordinary and impaired memories that Foer researched. He had the opportunity to speak with Kim Peek, the real life inspiration for Rain Man. I watched Rain Man while in elementary school, and I’d never known that Dustin Hoffman’s character had been inspired by a real person, so that was interesting to read about. The historical perspective on memory was interesting as well, to consider that memorization was generally considered a trainable and valuable skill rather than a meaningless exercise for students.

YES OR NO?: YES, with some reservations. There are times that Moonwalking with Einstein feels like an overly long New Yorker piece (with not quite the same quality of writing), but mostly, it’s an entertaining ride. I read this book in about five days, which I think is an ideal amount of time. There would definitely be some information overload if tackling it in one or two days.

Book Review: Nemesis

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It was impossible to believe that Alan was lying in that pale, plain pine box merely from having caught a summertime disease. That box from which you cannot force your way out. That box in which a twelve-year-old was twelve years old forever. The rest of us live and grow older by the day, but he remains twelve. Millions of years go by, and he is still twelve.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

My friends and I are now in our mid-twenties and tackling our first jobs out of school, and (at least for me) confronting the nine to five lifestyle (well, for me, more like seven to three). At first, I was bored by the repetitiveness of each day, my habits and routines. However, I’ve learned to find comfort and a sense of productivity in my routines. Repetitiveness is a key factor in many feelings I strive towards on a daily basis: a sense of comfort, productivity, and stability.

That’s a roundabout way to segue into how I’ve enjoyed my routine of discovering new books at the library lately. In this case, I simply was attracted to the cover (a bright, tempting yellow). With a title like Nemesis, I expected a sci-fi title. Instead, Nemesis is the story of Bucky Cantor, a young man who’s been marked exempt from military duty during World War II. A new grad, Bucky becomes a playground director in his hometown, during a balmy summer where the local children are succumbing to a polio epidemic.

At 280 pages, this is a fairly short novel, and one I could see polishing off on a hot, lazy summer day (much like the ones Bucky spends playing baseball with his charges). When reading this, I had a similar feeling as to when I read Revolutionary Road or The Remains of the Day: a weird sense of nostalgia for a time before even my parents were born. We all long for a time that seems familiar, and I guess having read so many WWII and post-WWII novels makes this time feel familiar to me.

The novel’s plot, while dealing with an epidemic, is not the stuff a Hollywood blockbuster, and its philosophical bent can get a bit heavy-handed. It’s a quiet, introspective novel. I loved the thoughtful, detailed prose, and the characters–realistic in their personalities and their reactions to the events around them. Imagine my surprise when Philip Roth, a writer I’d never heard of before (shame on me), turned out to be a Pulitzer winner. It’s easy to see why. Nemesis is masterful in its insight on human behavior, and is thoroughly engaging while not resorting to any cheap tricks plot or dialogue-wise.

The medical nature of the spread of polio isn’t a huge focus in this book – or, rather, the focus is the characters’ lack of knowledge on how polio is spread, and their terror around it. There are several people in my life who suffered polio at a young age and now walk with a slight limp. For me, it was thought-provoking to glimpse a world where polio is regarded with such fear and mystery, and reminded me of my privilege to live in the circumstances that I do.

YES OR NO?: YES. Short and bittersweet, Nemesis features detailed, weighty prose, a thought-provoking plot, and realistic, relatable characters. I’m looking forward to reading Roth’s American Pastoral when I get a chance!

Book Review: The Sacrifice

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How alone this was going to be. How she’d been shunted into it as a farm-creature–cow, calf, hog–is shunted along a chute into the slaughter-house. Because the mother Ednetta Frye had requested a black police officer. A black woman police officer. Black had always seemed harsh to her. African-American was a preferable term. And there was Negro,  no longer fashionable. If she was anything, she was Hispanic. In crude mouths, spic. Yet among Hispanic Americans she was “too “white”–not just her appearance but also her way of speaking, her manner. Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance!

The Sacrifice, by Joyce Carol Oates

One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more books by authors I hadn’t yet read from. So when I visited my local library and saw The Sacrifice prominently featured on a shelf, I decided to pick it up. Joyce Carol Oates is one of those names I’d heard countless times, but never really pursued.

The Sacrifice revolves around Sybilla Frye, a black teenager living in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Red Rock in Pascayne, New Jersey, who is discovered hog-tied, beaten, and presumably raped, with racist slurs written in dog feces on her body. After a hospital visit during which Sybilla and her mother, Ednetta, refuse to have a rape kit administered, Sybilla claims that her abusers were white cops. For a while, little seems to change in the Fryes’ world, until Sybilla’s cause is adopted by Marus and Byron Mudrick, a reverend and attorney duo (who also happen to be twin brothers).

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. For one thing, I learned that the plot of the book is based on the real-life case of Tawana Brawley, who was discovered in a similar state as Sybilla, accused white men of the crime, and was subsequently sued for defamation by one of her alleged assailants. In the past few years, as my interest in social justice has grown, I’ve followed (and been outraged by) many similar cases, so I was intrigued in the book’s discussion of rape culture and of race.

It’s intriguing when a book whose topic sounds fascinating ends up boring you. What didn’t I like about this book? Theoretically, I should have sympathized with all of the characters: with Sybilla and Ednetta, living under the abusive thumb of Ednetta’s common-law husband, Anis; with Officer Iglesias and Ada Furth, discriminated against by seemingly everyone for their race and their aspirations; even with Anis, whose abusive behavior is directly linked to his troubled background. Yet, for some reason, I felt nothing when I read this book. It was honestly difficult for me to finish, even though, at 309 pages, it isn’t exactly a long read.

I believe that had more time been given to develop the characters, the themes would have resonated more. The novel is told from the perspectives of different characters, including the ones mentioned above, spanning a wide range of races and ages. Yet I didn’t feel that I got to know any character beyond the surface. Each character was imbued with some kind of superficial motivation, but felt like little more than a stereotype. There were also some characters who were only described in passing. These characters were then used to evoke an emotional response from the reader later in the novel, which simply didn’t work. I could  not muster up an emotional response to a character I didn’t feel like I knew, let alone cared about. I wished the novel had focused more on the central characters of Sybilla, Ednetta, Anis, and perhaps even Ada, to delve into their reactions to the crazy happenings around them, but instead, there was a stronger focus on driving the plot forward, especially in the second half.

YES OR NO?: NO. Despite my interest in the subject matter, I found this book unengaging. To be honest, I felt more engaged when reading the Wikipedia page on the Tawana Brawley case than reading this fictionalization. I’m willing to try reading more of Oates’s work in the future, but this novel failed to capture my interest.

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

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A first child is your own best foot forward, and how you do cheer those little feet as they strike out. You examine every turn of flesh for precocity, and crow it to the world. But the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after–oh, that’ s love by a different name.

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Remember when at the beginning of the year, I promised to read more books than I had the previous year? That brings this year’s hopeful goal to 36 books, roughly three books a month. Well, I can tell you that so far, it’s been a rough start. I’ve been trying to improve my life in other ways (exercising more often, counting calories, trying to spend more time with my family) that by the end of January, I only managed to finish one book.

At the beginning of last week, though, I suddenly became more diligent about reading. Two things sparked this change. For one, I found Emma Watson’s Goodreads account, and that she’d read 39 books in 2016. That was three more than my count, and I figured that if someone with what I imagine to be a much more hectic, exciting life than mine managed to read 39 books, I could easily read more on a daily basis. I also read a thinkpiece where the writer professed how easy it is to change your mindset about something. He described how he’d always thought he needed a car, but one day he decided to bike to and from work instead – resulting in a new hobby he enjoyed, improved health, and more savings. I’d always avoided reading on the train to and from work, since my commute is only about ten minutes and I’d figured it wasn’t enough time for me to make a significant dent in my book. Still, I realized, ten minutes makes a difference when I hold myself accountable and read each day.

That being said, it took me more than a month to finish The Poisonwood Bible. Part of it was my own laziness, but part of it was the book’s dense prose. I’ve studied Heart of Darkness about three times now as part of different courses, and one aspect that instructors never fail to bring up is Joseph Conrad’s dense prose, attributed to English not being his first language, but also as a metaphor for the denseness of the African jungle. The Poisonwood Bible, set mostly in the Belgian Congo, is similarly heavy in setting and narration.

The novel is the tale of the Price family, consisting of Nathan, Orleanna, and their four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, who travel from Georgia to the Belgian Congo so Nathan can spread the word of Jesus to the people. Narrated between the mother and her four daughters, the novel provides diverse perspectives regarding race, colonialism, family, and the role of women, while also providing enough context to not alienate a reader like me who has little background about the history of the Belgian Congo.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Admittedly, it can be quite dense. Much of the novel is written from the perspectives of characters looking back on their past, and this results in a lot of description and introspection, rather than conversation and action. Although I personally prefer novels to contain more introspection than action, I found it sometimes overwhelming in this book. However, all other aspects of the book I found engaging, especially the characters, who have well-defined personalities, relationships, and depth (even Rachel, the shallowest of the Price clan, has understandable motives and hopes).

When I first finished the book, though, I felt ambivalent about how the girls were portrayed at the end. While they do undergo character development, I felt that each character remained essentially unchanged at the beginning of the novel, although decades pass between the beginning and the end of the novel. However, with further thought, I think that’s realistic – many people remain at the core the same person as a child and an as an adult. It also highlighted the instability in the area by having a character discuss government upheavals and political scandals while remaining with the same values and morals.

YES OR NO?: YES. There’s something in this book for everyone: history, women’s voices, colonialism, family, romance, and even science. My only wish is that the novel spent more time in the perspective of Orleanna. That being said, it is admittedly written with a narration that can feel heavy at times, and it may take you a bit longer to finish the book than anticipated (hopefully less than me!).