Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Again, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a powerful and riveting story.

Americanah traces the journey - both literal and figurative - of a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu to America and eventually, years later, back to Nigeria.  She struggles with the American concept of race and what it means to her as an African, processing it via a blog she called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  She gains a bit of fame and a decent income from her blogging efforts, but they only come after the significant financial, emotional, and even physical trials of settling into a new country.

One of the most stunning aspects of Adichie's writing for me is how she draws characters so deftly and efficiently.  For example, Ifemelu's boyfriend, Blaine, is a professor at Yale, and at a gathering of his friends and co-workers, one is described:
It was Stirling, the wealthy one, who Blaine told her came from Boston old money; he and his father had been legacy students at Harvard.  He was left-leaning and well-meaning, crippled by his acknowledgement of his own many privileges.  He never allowed himself to have an opinion.  "Yes, I see what you mean," he said often.
Can't you just see Stirling?  Even without a physical description, I feel like I could pick him out of a crowd at a party.  And he's a very minor character.  The effort put in to drawing each character with such precision and humanity yields incredibly rich mental pictures of the individuals and their relationships to each other.

Adichie is a master of language and she skillfully points out the power of language: the difference between African-American and American-African, the shift to using the phrase "racially charged" as a substitute for the harsher - but often more accurate - adjective "racist".  Ifemelu's blog becomes a useful device for parsing out the cultural differences between Nigeria and the United States and making pointed, sometimes scathing, observations on Americans' discomfort and lack of ability to deal with racial issues with humility and self-awareness.

Race is not the only difficult subject Adichie approaches in Americanah.  The experience of immigration, while tied to race, is also explored on its own merits.  Here it's interesting to compare Ifemelu's experiences coming to the United States to pursue higher education with her one-time boyfriend's time in England working illegal on an acquaintance's National Insurance number after overstaying his visa.  Adichie presents enormously complication issues in a real, honest, human context without minimizing the struggle, whitewashing the difficult and questionable choices, or simplifying the complexities.

After reading a novel by Adichie, I feel more educated and more aware of the fact that my way of viewing the world is incomplete and not necessarily reflective of everyone's experiences.  And that's good.  Her writing makes me more humble and open to empathy.  I trust her depictions of life in Nigeria and as a Nigerian here in the United States, and her observations of the human condition.  Her fiction reads as true to me.

Also, Americanah introduced me to Nigerian pop music like "Yori Yori":


And "Obi Mu O":


...which has kind of become a minor addiction.  So there's that too...

** Be aware: there are some f-bombs sprinkled throughout the book, sporadic mention of possibly triggering topics like spousal abuse, and a few disturbing scenes, including one with non-consensual sexual contact.  If you find any of that triggering, this may not be the book for you.

***********************************
Americanah
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
ISBN: 9780307455925
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 76

~1~

Yesterday was Pioneer Day, commemorating the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.  It's celebrated by Utahns and Mormons the world over - the youth in our stake are off on a three-day mini-reenactment of a handcart trek this weekend - as a way to recognize the courage and fortitude of our pioneer ancestors, of both the genetic and spiritual kind.

On that theme, I love this poem by Carol Lynn Pearson:


"Where truth flies you follow
If you're a pioneer."

~2~

A couple of months ago I sat in a meeting with several youth and youth leaders as we discussed the upcoming meeting schedule.  I pointed out that if we followed our regular plan it would require meeting on Father's Day, and as we had recently adjusted the schedule to allow families to be together on Mother's Day, I thought it right and fair to do the same on the day set aside to honor male parental units as well.

I was surprised and rather disappointed when that logic didn't seem obvious to all.

And then there's that ad for Thai life insurance making the rounds where the mom is out grocery shopping and the dad is home with the baby and the baby starts fussing, so Dad panics and calls Mom and she tries to calm the baby down via FaceTime.  It doesn't work and baby is getting more worked up when Dad has a brilliant, brave idea.  He puts the phone down and - get this - picks the baby up!  (I know, crazy, huh?)  Baby stops cries, starts smiling at Dad and everyone is soooooo touched that Dad would pick up his own child.

Perhaps I'm being culturally obtuse, but I didn't get all teary-eyed.  I got pissed.  Your baby cries, you pick him/her up.  And you shouldn't wait until the child is three months old (or so) to do that for the first time.  I mean, yay for the dad in the commercial for taking that step, but why do we (society, media, pop culture, fill-in-the-blank) depict fathers as inept, incapable, clueless parents and get so impressed when a dad actually does some very standard parenting task?

Yes, fathers are important, and yes, they are capable of childcare.  No, they are not less important or less capable than mothers.  And science agrees with me.  So there.

A couple takeaways from the linked article:
"In the course of his research, Rohner made the startling discovery that a father's love often contributes to a child's personality development more than that of a mother. Specifically, a father's rejection can cause a child to develop behavioral problems, and the resulting feelings of insecurity, anxiety and hostility can lead, eventually, to drug or alcohol abuse or addiction. Rejection by a father can also hinder a child's long-term ability to form trusting relationships."
"Spending time with Dad can improve a child’s ability to connect with others in a positive way. Richard Koestner, a psychologist at McGill University, studied the results of longitudinal research conducted at Yale University in the 1950s and concluded that the less time a father spent with a child, the less the child was able to feel empathy."

~3~

Of course, we can't give mothers short shrift either, so take a look at these recently rediscovered photos of mothers and children from around the world fifty years ago.

I love 10, 16, 19, 21, 31...the pictures capture such real moments in loving parent-child relationships!

~4~

And then these pictures of children across the globe doing what children do so well: playing.

We recently visited the High Desert Museum near Bend, Oregon, (really a great museum all the way around!) and the kids enjoyed the 1904 Miller Ranch and Sawmill, complete with live interpreters.  They showed the kids how to water the garden with watering cans, wash clothes with a washboard and manual agitator, and keep food cool in a root cellar.  They also had the chance to play with toys that children in rural Oregon in 1904 would have played with, like these hoops and sticks:


I was struck by the similarity to these children in Burkina Faso, and this boy in India.  All of these pictures made me smile, but particularly this child fishing in Russia (with his pet lynx/bobcat) and these boys fishing in Thailand.  And this joyous football game in Ghana.

Oh, just check them all out!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 75

~1~

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've probably already seen this video making the rounds on facebook, but I just love it and it's my blog, so I'm putting it here anyway.

Ladies and gentlemen, against all odds, Robin Thicke's infamous rape-apology song actually does have one single redeeming by-product.  I present 'Weird Al' Yankovic's 'Word Crimes':


'Weird Al' Yankovic is a master of parody.  He's actually a very talented musician and wordsmith, too.

And now when that annoyingly catchy tune gets stuck in my head, I have some fun non-misogynistic words to sing to it.  Thanks, Al!

While you're at it, check out 'Tacky' (his parody of Pharrell's 'Happy'), 'Handy' (his parody of Iggy Azalea's 'Fancy'), and 'Foil' (his parody of Lorde's 'Royals').

~2~

This past week Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to complete the finals course for American Ninja Warrior.  Kacy, a former college gymnast, stands five feet tall and weighs in at approximately 100 lbs.  And she kicked some serious butt.  Here's a link to view it on youtube or watch below:


"Though she be but little, she is fierce."
~Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

~3~

On Wednesday, we discovered a little baby bunny hanging around the logs that border our driveway.  No adult rabbits were anywhere to be seen, so we just let it be, hoping it would find its way home.  However, it was still there in the evening and my younger two boys went out to watch the adorableness of a baby bunny.

Then Scrimper, our magnificent hunter-cat, discovered it.

Josh came running inside to get Gene to save the bunny while Evan tried desperately to catch the cat.  Fortunately, Scrimper must not have been hungry; she was more interested in playing with the bunny for the time being.  Gene fished her out from under the car and, under great feline protest, deposited her inside the house. He then managed to get a hold of the bunny.


The baby bunny, newly christened Hopster, was then set up in the posh accommodations afforded by a five-gallon bucket, including plenty of grass, a few raspberries, and a bowl of water, which he promptly hopped into.


After careful consideration (and parental refusal of the multiple, repeated pleas 'Can we keep him, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease????'), we found him a relatively safe place near the shed that provides plenty of small spaces for hiding.

We'll see how long he lasts...

~4~

I was only vaguely aware of the World Cup while it was happening.  But in honor of that once-every-four-years event that all the rest of the world gets excited about, I thought I'd post this humorous take on soccer fouls off the field:


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review: Ruins by Dan Wells

How do I review Ruins, the third and final book in the Partials trilogy, without spoilers?

Very carefully...and vaguely...

Ruins continues directly addressing difficult questions of ethics and morality.  The "doorknob scene" is masterful as Kira weighs her options, vacillating between the proverbial rock and hard place. "If I have the chance to save even one life, and I don't do it, am I a killer? If I have the chance to save the entire world and I let it die, how much worse am I?...Can I live with myself if I do this? Can anyone live at all if I don't?"

The line between surviving and living is explored.  What makes life worth living? Is life worth living without love, friends, hope? Is simply surviving enough?  The fact that the two "sides" are struggling with the same questions makes the situation all the more poignant. Speaking to Heron, Kira articulates the difference: "Survival is important...but not if you lose yourself in the process.  Surviving just to survive is...empty. That's not a life, it's a feedback loop."

With all this deep moralizing going on, you might think the book would lack in action or in plot twists.  And then you would be wrong.  Very, very wrong.  One character's devastating decision literally took my breath away for a few minutes.

As a wrap-up to the Partials trilogy, Ruins was very satisfying.  Ultimately, Wells takes an optimistic view of humanity.  We - both as a species and as individuals - screw up, royally sometimes, but we can do hard things, we don't stop trying, and we care fiercely.  And that gives life meaning and purpose beyond survival.

** Disclosure: Dan Wells and I were friends during our freshman year at BYU.  But I really think I would have liked his books even if we hadn't hung out in the Deseret Towers cafeteria years and years ago.

*****************************
Ruins
by Dan Wells
ISBN: 9780062071101
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, audiobookebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Amy Chua is no stranger to controversial, provocative writing.  Her 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which delved into her personal experiences with the successes and pitfalls of "Chinese parenting", spurred hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews and blog posts, often scathing and extremely critical of Chua both as a mother and as a person.

In contrast to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, The Triple Package is much less personal and more detached in its approach.  (It should be noted that she co-wrote this book with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, which may account for at least some of the difference in tone.)  She seems to still want to encourage conversation in a deliberately provocative way, but not to open herself up to so much personal criticism.  Can't blame her at all after the firestorm she weathered with her last book.

The Triple Package starts with a bold thesis: there are three traits that can predict whether or not your minority group will be successful in America.  These traits are a superiority complex, a keen sense of insecurity, and strong impulse control.  Chua and Rubenfeld point out several groups that meet these criteria, including Cuban Americans, Nigerian Americans, and Iranian Americans, among others.

Frankly, the main reason I was drawn to this book is that Mormons are one of the groups Chua and Rubenfeld identify as "starkly outperform[ing] others."  It's always nice to hear an outsider describe a group you identify with in positive terms.  (I guess that would be my Mormon superiority complex showing...or would that be my Mormon insecurity?)

Chua & Rubenfeld's examples are compelling and backed by research.  They dig into history and culture to identify why each of these groups has all of the elements of the Triple Package, pointing out not only the positives but also the dark underbelly of the Triple Package traits.  Far from touting the Triple Package as the answer to all our problems, they warn "the Triple Package always comes at a price."

For example, a superiority complex can provide an individual with confidence and "an ethnic armor" that allows one to "cope psychologically, even in the face of discrimination and exclusion."  It can be communicated a pride in one's heritage or a sense of being "chosen" or special.  However, "the ugly corollary of a superiority complex is all too often a propensity toward bigotry, exclusivity, insularity, or parochialism--an intolerance of other groups and other ways of life."

The second trait, insecurity, "may be fundamental to the human condition, an inevitable product of the knowledge of mortality or self-consciousness itself."  Chua and Rubenfeld point out that "everyone is probably insecure to some extent", but insecurity coupled with a superiority complex creates an interesting and motivating tension.  This "goading anxiety about oneself and one's place in society" drives a people to prove themselves, to "show everyone".  Chua and Rubenfeld point to a history of persecution as one source of this insecurity, though scorn from others, fear of being unable to survive, and internal pressure to live up to and be worthy of parents' sacrifices are factors, too.

Finally, impulse control or the "capacity to resist temptation" completes the trifecta of traits.  This one makes the most obvious common sense to me, though Chua and Rubenfeld are quick to mention that impulse control alone doesn't lead to success; it requires all three elements of the Triple Package.  They also point out, however, that "America is the great wrecker of impulse control" as "American culture today celebrates a powerful live-in-the-moment message."

The last chapter examines how the Triple Package is part and parcel of American culture and history.  I found their characterization of the "deep tension" between the Declaration of Independence - with its "consummate expression of America's live-in-the-present rebelliousness...captur[ing] America's throw-off-the-past, antiauthoritarian streak" - and the Constitution - with its "core [of] impulse control" and "structure and restraint" - fascinating.

By the way, I generally judge authors by how accurately they portray Mormonism.  I figure if they get us wrong, I need to be pretty skeptical of what they write about others, too. Chua and Rubenfeld didn't miss a step describing Mormons, either doctrinally or culturally, which, for me, gives greater credence to their portrayals of other groups.

*************************
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America
by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
ISBN: 9781594205460
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 74

~1~

The StoryCorps series is magic.  This animated short is based on a story about astronaut Ronald McNair, who was killed in the Challenger explosion.  His brother Carl identifies two inspirations in Ron's life: libraries and Star Trek.  I love that Carl describes Ron's view of Star Trek as "science possibility" rather than "science fiction".



~2~

Food, glorious food!  There have been several food-based photo essays published recently, but this one was particularly poignant to me.  Especially comparing what Marble Moahi, a mother living with HIV/AIDS in Botswana, eats in a day (about 900 calories) to what, say, Conrad Tolby, a truck driver in Illinois, eats in a day (5400 calories!).

Not to mention the photography itself is beautiful, too.

~3~

And while we're on the topic of food, some people are able to make incredible works of art out of food.  I'm not a pinterest gal at all, but I can recognize an artist when I see one.  Check out this "gothic bake queen" and her incredible creations!  I like her carnivorous raspberry waffle cones, but the shortbread facehugger seriously creeps me out...

~4~

It's been a crazy busy week in the Geddes home!  Will turned 12, had a fun party at Laser Quest in the afternoon and at the baseball game that evening, and earned his Second Class and First Class ranks in Boy Scouts.  It's the boys' last week of swim lessons - they all did really well!  Josh has had Cub Scout day camp for three days.  I volunteered as a walking den leader one afternoon, and Will decided to volunteer as an older Scout and help out as well, for all three days!  Whew!

Will's Court of Honor

Josh doing archery at Cub Scout day camp

Making flubber at day camp!

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 73

~1~

Almost two months ago, I participated with thousands of others in a day of fasting for the Nigerian young women kidnapped from their school in Chibok.  We were each given one girl's name to help focus our fasting and prayers on her behalf.  Mine was Amina Ali.  That day, and every day since, she has been in my thoughts and prayers.  Yesterday I saw her picture for the first time in this article:

Photo credit

And my heart broke wide open again.

The current social and political climate is such that words like "evil" and "abomination" are being flung around seemingly indiscriminately.  Those who disagree on issues like birth control or LGBT rights, or interpret the Constitution differently, or simply see the world differently based on their personal experiences or belief systems, are labeled "enemies" or "haters".

Wake up, folks.  This is evil.  This is an abomination.  And this.  Those who shot this 15-year-old girl in the head to try to prevent her from speaking out on girls' right to education are the enemies of all good and decent people in this world. Those who deny others basic human rights - life, security, education, healthcare, freedom - they are the haters.

We are privileged to live in a relatively safe and free part of the world, which frankly skews our perspective quite a bit. That doesn't change the reality of what happens every day in other parts of the world, and even here within the borders of the United States.

Save those words for situations and people who truly deserve them.

~2~


“True patriotism springs from a belief in the dignity of the individual, freedom and equality not only for Americans but for all people on earth, universal brotherhood and good will, and a constant and earnest striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded.”
~Eleanor Roosevelt

~3~

This past week, history was made.  Admiral Michelle Howard became the first woman and the first African American to achieve four-star rank in the United States Navy.  After learning a bit more about her over these past few days, I'm definitely adding her to my list of sheroes.

Admiral Michelle J. Howard VCNO.jpg
Photo credit

Read a great article here on lessons she has learned about leadership during her naval career.

~4~

And a little light-heartedness to end off this Friday Four.  I recently discovered a source of great book-related memes: the facebook page Title Wave.  A small sampling:

Photo
If I had a nickel for every time I decided to
read instead of clean, I'd be really, really rich.

Photo
That's a snazzy powder blue TV, isn't it?

Photo
(I can't count the number of times I've had this conversation...)