Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Goodreads Book Review: Lucky Boy

Lucky BoyLucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't remember how I first heard about Shanthi Sekran's novel Lucky Boy, but when I added it to my reading list I had no idea it would prove to be as timely as it did. Lucky Boy is the story of two women and their love for one "lucky boy." It is also a story of undocumented immigration and a system that wrenches children from their parents. The novel is a compelling, beautifully written reminder of the human faces behind an issue that is hotly politicized but at its basis about human beings and human rights.

The story is told from alternating points of view of two women. Solimar "Soli" Castro Valdez is, at 18 years old, on the cusp of adulthood and living in a depressed, rural village outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. Soli longs for more than life in her village has to offer, so she decides to embark on a perilous journey to Berkley, California, where her cousin Sylvia already lives. When she shows up without documents at Sylvia's doorstep, she is pregnant with the son she will name Ignacio.

Solimar's journey to America inside and on the top of freight trains is filled with the terror and brutality that one might expect but also with moments of joy and excitement. (view spoiler). When she arrives in America, the details of her everyday life as a housekeeper and nanny are juxtaposed with the fear she lives in because of her undocumented status. Eventually she is placed in an immigrant detention center and Ignacio is placed into the care of Kavya Reddy and her husband, Rishi.

Kavya recently awakened to her desire to have a child, but when she struggles to conceive, she and Rishi explore fertility treatments, adoption, and, finally, much to the chagrin of Kavya's traditional Indian parents, fostering. As she and Rishi watch Ignacio grow from infancy to toddlerhood, they nurture hopes of being able to adopt him and suppress their knowledge that Ignacio's birth mother is alive and well and fighting to be reunited with her child.

Sekram treats all her major characters sympathetically. Both Soli and Kavya are clearly bound by love to Ignacio, who truly is a lucky boy to be placed in a loving, stable home rather than stuck in a "tender age shelter." Rishi plays somewhat of a lesser role, but he too comes to fully embrace fatherhood. Sekram draws upon her personal experience as an Indian American in depicting Kavya and Rishi, and she contrasts their experiences as the children of immigrants with those of Soli while showing how they are alike as well. She also draws upon her experiences as a resident of Berkely, depicting the hipsterish "Gourmet Ghetto" and nearby Silicon Valley. Rishi's job at "Weebies," an internet mega-provider of baby gear, wasn't as believable to me, though. He works as a ventilation engineer on Weebies' sprawling campus, and his job seems to be a metaphor for something to do with purity, babies, keeping babies safe...I wasn't exactly sure. I know Silicon Valley is a strange place, but unlike other details in the book, it just didn't ring true.

But that's a minor complaint. As well as being incredibly timely and humanizing, Lucky Boy is, aside from a few instances of purple prose, a beautifully written story. Evocative and moving, it is a must-read for the times we live in.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Goodreads Book Review: So You've Been Publicly Shamed

So You've Been Publicly ShamedSo You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't really sure how to peg Jon Ronson's "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." It's not the sociological research-meets-self-help that Brene Brown is known for, despite covering similar territory to her research on shame. But then I read the endorsement on the back cover by Jon Stewart, where he refers to Ronson's work as "investigative satire," and yes, that seems to be the best way to characterize it. Despite the heavy subject matter, it started out funny and immensely readable, with one story flowing effortlessly into another. Somewhere in the middle, it started to lag for me. Still, I am giving it 4 stars, rounding up from 3.5, merely because it sheds light on a phenomenon that is so ubiquitous today.

Despite the title, this book deals with a very specific type of shame unique to the 21st century: internet shame. Beyond that, it focuses mostly on the shame delved out on one social media platform in particular: Twitter. That may seem a little narrow, but people who have immersed themselves deeply into Twitter have attested to it being especially toxic. I wish Ronson had explored this more...what is it about this specific platform, which is the common denominator in the stories he tells about people who have been recipients of public shame?

The stories Ronson tells are of people who have erred in some way, shape or form only to find themselves victim to a form of mob "justice" that goes as far as receiving death threats and calls for them to be fired. Their "crimes" run the gamut from telling crude or tasteless jokes to plagiarism. These individuals are not necessarily all blameless, but in all cases the backlash they receive is vastly disproportionate to their initial "crimes."

In between these stories, Ronson explores the history of public shaming (think 18th-century stocks) and the ways it is used (or rejected) in our contemporary justice system. He also explores research which might provide rational for this phenomenon, and in the process clarifies misconceptions about the Zimbardo research study taught in virtually every psychology program. Finally, he explores the psychological ramifications of shaming on the shamee. It is here that his book is most reminiscent of Brene Brown's work. Clearly shame, rather than being a motivator, can have devastating emotional effects on the recipient.

In the end, "So You've been Publicly Shamed" is inconclusive, and I felt it ended on a kind of pessimistic tone. The largest takeaway was that feedback loops are at work in people's online behavior: people are reinforced for having the "correct" opinions which keeps discourse narrow, with people afraid to voice dissent for fear of being shamed. I wanted more on this: people are afraid of stepping out of line, yes, but do people join in with the shamers so as to not align with the shamee and become shamed themselves?

I also was left with a feeling of "what do we do now" other than just step away from the internet or particularly toxic platforms. A common thread in the stories that Ronson tells is that people who take part in heaping cruelty on others were motivated by feeling that they were actually doing something good. In fact, a certain type of "callout culture" that easily turns into shaming has become prevalent in social justice circles online. Thankfully, there are people within activist circles who are "calling out" callout culture and offering alternatives for sociopolitical engagement minus the shame. Dropping a few links here:


So while I wanted a little more from Jon Ronson with this book, it is a very necessary one for today's society and a worthy read for those trying to navigate the online world with their sanity intact. And perhaps tread lightly on Twitter!

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Friday, November 10, 2017

#NotAllMen, But #YesAll Women (#MeToo)

In the weeks since the allegations against filmmaker Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo Movement, more allegations of sexual abuse have come out, both in and outside of Hollywood.

I never felt comfortable posting the hashtag.  I've been lucky in that I've only experienced the mildest of street harassment, and I felt like I would be taking away from survivors' accounts of "real" abuse. But the more I saw countless friends and family post the hashtag, some expressing the same sentiments as mine, the more I saw just how prevalent harassment and abuse against women are, and that ALL experiences of it, from the most mild to the most heinous, are part of the same toxic system.

#MeToo also had me reflecting on experiences that I had just dismissed as "normal" before. The two that stand out to me were both incidents of being hit on by drunk men. One was on a train on the way back from NYC. I had walked through several jam-packed cars to FINALLY find an open seat...and when the man sitting next to me started talking to me, I discovered why that seat had remained open. The second was when a friend and I went to see her cousin's band perform outside of Ocean City. Both times I felt uncomfortable, but also mildly amused and even a bit flattered...because well, when you have low self-esteem you take any attention you get.

But though I brushed it aside, both times I was obviously uncomfortable enough to attract the notice of other people, and I am grateful for those people, both men and women, for checking to see if I was okay.

Unwanted attention is just that, unwanted. Harassment is not flattering. And while these experiences are obviously MUCH milder than the allegations of assault that have come to light recently, they shouldn't be normalized. I shouldn't have to live in a world in which this is just par for the course for "yes, all women" or one in which I have to adjust my behavior to "protect myself" enough to merely operate in this world.

As stated above, I am grateful for the people who have the decency and courage to speak up when they witness ANY level of harassment. And I am grateful to have many wonderful men in my life who treat women with basic human dignity. Men aren't the problem. The patriarchy is. And as the allegations against Kevin Spacey have shown, not only women are victims. "Patriarchy" is more about the powerful exploiting and abusing the less powerful...who yes, often are women, but not always.

And it's not just a Hollywood problem; this abuse is prevalent in all industries. As former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson said recently on The Daily Show, it's not a liberal or a conservative problem, a Democrat or Republican issue.

But there is good in all of this coming to light. It reminds me of what a friend was saying after  Charlottesville...whether the disease is racism or misogyny and abuse, you don't treat a disease that remains dormant. Maybe now we'll finally start treating our societal sickness, not just in Hollywood, and not just in politics, but everywhere.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trevor Noah Live

I have been a fan of Trevor Noah since he replaced Jon Stewart as the head of The Daily Show. No, Trevor is NOT Jon Stewart, but I've found him to have his own unique brand of thoughtful hilarity. And so I jumped at the chance to see him perform at the Homecoming celebration at UMBC, my alma mater. He is also doing an upcoming performance at the Hippodrome in Baltimore, but tickets started at $80, whereas tickets to the UMBC show were $35. Plus UMBC is after all my alma mater. Although I had forgotten just how uncomfortable the seats in UMBC's RAC Arena are, seeing Trevor perform live in so personal a setting was well worth it. It also gave me the opportunity to meet a current study-abroad student from England.

While Trevor's stand-up act is different from his satire of current events on The Daily Show, he did touch upon politics and current events, from the recent "once-in-a-lifetime" hurricanes (how many lifetimes are we living?!) to, yes, Donald Trump (where his refrain was Donald...J... Trump. - who IS this guy?). He also brought his unique experience as a South African to his sketch, addressing issues ranging from British vs. American English to racism.

One of Trevor Noah's gifts seems to be his ability to address the difficult topics that make us uncomfortable with humor, insight and nuance. On the topic of racism, he did just that. His "no immigrants=no spice" argument is crying out to be made into a poster. We also learned why a South America might have a different reaction to being called the N-word than an African-American. (In a South African language, the word for "to give" is pronounced similarly, so yes, "nigga" was used liberally in his sketches).

But for me, the most side-splittingly funny bit of the night was Trevor's (likely exaggerated) tale of his first time eating tacos. It began with his California surfer-friend's reaction to his confession of being a "taco virgin" (Dude, you've never had tacos? You mean to tell me you've NEVER had TACOS?!) and continued with his bewilderment over the concept being served food from a truck. The story reached a height with his shock and disgust over being offered a napkin with his tacos...you see, in South Africa a napkin is what Americans refer to as a diaper.

The entire act managed to capture the hilarity in these type of "lost in translation" experiences. These, along with accents and impressions, are also gifts of Trevor Noah's. Even if you aren't a fan of the Daily Show, the man is very funny and well worth seeing live.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

RIP Aunt Mary

I finished Season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale, and I did tell myself I would blog up some thoughts after I finished. I still intend/hope to, but I'm just not in a writing mood right now.

I did want to mention that my Aunt Mary, my dad's older sister, passed away August 26. And because I'm not in a writing mood, and because it is a beautiful tribute, I will just leave this post with a poem my Uncle Tony wrote:

When I was so very young and tiny and small,
In my chair so high, a blur of faces, my own full of needing,
You carried me. “Don’t be afraid.” You broke my Fall.
Dreaming in my room, so far from yours across the ghostly hall, 
Refuge I sought in your bed’s safe haven, arresting my pleading.
When I was so very young and tiny and small.
That Halloween night, my first in so frosty a fall,
Bear’s head on a wall. Bared teeth. Distant fears would be breeding.
You carried me. “Don’t be afraid.” You broke my Fall.
High in a cherry tree, you slipped, leg ripped by the fall.
“My sister’s hurt”! Hurt! My big sister is bleeding!”
When I was so very young and tiny and small.
Years voyaged by; too many; too soon; too hard to recall.
Through a glass darkly, your Shadow dissolves and is receding.
You carried me. “Don’t be afraid.” You broke my Fall.
Sudden turn. NO! The Abyss comes to call.
“My sister’s bleeding; my big sister lies a' bleeding!”
When I was so very young and tiny and small.
You carry me still, but I could not break your Fall.

The oldest of 7 children. My aunt Mary is front, second fro left, with my dad on the far left next to her. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down

So I signed up for Hulu primarily so I could watch the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. 

I'll (probably) blog more of my thoughts after I finish the series, but for now I will say that in this case I actually appreciate that they went with a television rather than film adaptation. Supposedly there was a film adaptation many years ago, but 2 1/2 hours wasn't enough time to capture all of the important plot points and details. 

I'm about halfway through Season 1...there is going to be a second season (!), but the first season is based on Atwood's novel in it's entirety, so I don't know how they are going to handle Season 2. But in as much as I've watched, it's been pretty faithful to the book. 

It's also, like its source material, pretty heavy stuff, so while I could binge it, I'd rather watch and digest one episode at a time. 

But Episode 5 is where the main character, Offred, discovers the faux-Latin phrase nolite te bastardes carborundorum written on a wall. The phrase, if it were really Latin, would translate to "Don't let the bastards grind you down." 

That phrase is also found in U2's song Acrobat, off of their album Achtung Baby. 

In googling the lyrics to Acrobat, I found several blogs appearing to belong to AP Literature students who were tasked with connecting the song to The Handmaid's Tale. When I took AP English literature, I had not yet heard Acrobat OR read The Handmaid's Tale (I only read it around 3 years ago), but this assignment would have been right up my nerdy alley! Hell, I don't need an academic excuse...although my main excuse for not blogging more is business/laziness. So I won't write my own analysis, I'll just leave the lyrics to Acrobat below as food for thought. 


Don't believe what you hear, don't believe what you see
If you just close your eyes you can feel the enemy.
When I first met you girl, you had fire in your soul.
What happened t'your face of melting snow
Now it looks like this!
And you can swallow or you can spit
You can throw it up, or choke on it
And you can dream, so dream out loud
You know that your time is coming round
So don't let the bastards grind you down.

No, nothing makes sense, nothing seems to fit.
I know you'd hit out if you only knew who to hit.
And I'd join the movement 
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah, I'd break bread and wine 
If there was a church I could receive in.
'Cause I need it now.
To take the cup
To fill it up, to drink it slow.
I can't let you go.

And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that.
And you can dream, so dream out loud
And don't let the bastards grind you down.

What are we going to do now it's all been said?
No new ideas in the house, and every book's been read.

And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that.
And you can dream, so dream out loud
And you can find your own way out.
And you can build, and I can will
And you can call, I can't wait until
You can stash and you can seize
In dreams begin responsibilities
And I can love, and I can love
And I know that the tide is turning 'round
So don't let the bastards grind you down.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Theater Arts: August Wilson's "How I Learned What I Learned"

August Wilson may be most famous for Fences, the play that was adapted for the big-screen last year. I have yet to see Fences (the film or the play), but I got to see Wilson's autobiographical one-man show "How I Learned What I Learned" on its last day at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, Maryland. As a perk of serving as a substitute usher (my parents are regular theater ushers), I got to see the show for free, but it would have been well worth seeing for pay.

How I Learned What I Learned is basically the coming-of-age story of Wilson, who was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in Pittsburgh in 1945. But through telling tales of his life as a young man in the poor Hill District, Wilson also tells a story about the African American struggle for justice and respect. And he does so in a funny, rather than preachy, way. Narrator Eugene Lee nails this tone, opening the show with a quip about how his ancestors had been in America since the 17th century and for years "never had trouble finding work." Toward the end of the show, he outlines a list of hypothetical sins that a bank teller had committed, including "f--king her brother-in-law," before condemning her to hell...for lying to him about not having envelopes. This was one of many scenes provoking out-loud laughter among the all-adult audience.

 What was it about the bank teller's lie that had Wilson so enraged? As he tells it, it was about "P-R-I-D-E" and "P-R-I-N-C-I-P-L-E-S." It was the same principles that led him to quit odd jobs when a shopkeeper suspected him, without evidence, of stealing, or when the man who ran the lawn mowing service he was working for told him to move to the next lawn after a woman complained. While Wilson's behavior as a young man was at times pridefully stubborn, it was the principled fight for his human dignity that ultimately shined through.

 But How I Learned What I Learned is not just about Wilson't experiences with racial discrimination. He also depicts his first kiss, early relationships and friendships with artists and musicians. He talks about his ambitions as a young poet and his discoveries of the music of John Coltrane. All of these experiences were how "[he] learned what [he] learned."

I knew very little about August Wilson before watching this show. How I Learned What I Learned conveys his young life in a way that a written autobiography can't. I am eager to watch the film version of Fences with this background on the screenplay's author.