Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-The Heretic's Daughter

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent is another in a long line of belated book reviews. (Does Hallmark have a card for that yet?) Unfortunately, I don't remember much about it, and I didn't like it much, but I'll do my best to answer the questions that people asked me.

Guatami Tripathy said, "I loved The Heretic's Daughter. Why did you pick it up? Which portion of it you liked most? And which was painful to read?" Well, first of all, I'm sorry I didn't like the book as much as you did. I know it can be hard when someone doesn't like a book that you do. I guess I picked it up because I had been hearing a lot of good buzz about it, and, generally speaking, I am interested in the whole Salem witch trial thing. The portion I liked the most was the last part of the book that talked about what it was like in the prisons. I found this to be more interesting than the rest of the book. It's harder to define a portion that was painful to read. I guess it depends on your definition of painful. For me, the first half of the book was painful in an I-don't-know-if-I'll-ever-get-through-this kind of way, but emotionally, I think the parts about the trials themselves were the most painful simply because they were so clearly a big, giant, steaming pile of you know what! Those were extremely frustrating to read about. It's so hard to believe that people actually believed the things that they did and were willing to kill someone simply because she had a wart or could swim or, *gasp* had a wart AND could swim!

Softdrink said, "I loved The Heretic's Daughter, but had to put it down for awhile. How does this compare to other historical fiction novels you've read in evoking a sense of time and place?" Again, sorry for not liking this book. I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but I think it did pretty well in evoking time and place, but the language kept getting in the way for me. I felt like the author was trying too hard to be all ye olde time-y. Otherwise, I think I was able to envision everything pretty easily. I mean, during the courtrooms, I was imagining what I think a Salem witch trial would look like and not something from Ally McBeal, so I guess that's good, right?

The main reason I didn't like this book was because I felt like the author spent too much time giving us background info on our supposed witch, and I just didn't care; it didn't seem relevant to me. I didn't feel like there was any build up of story, it just sort of seemed like all these examples of why people didn't like her, and even then it wasn't anything worthy of note in my mind. And maybe that was the point-this woman was just a woman, not unlike many others, she wasn't popular for various reasons, and that's really all it took for her downfall. So, while I can appreciate this book for its historical significance, I was still bored until everyone got thrown into prison. Sorry. =(

Other reviews:

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know, and I'll add a link to your review.
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Friday, August 14, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-The Help

Waaaaaay back when, I put out a call for other bloggers to help me get caught up on my book reviews. Several people were kind enough to respond with questions for me, so I figure I will try to tackle a few more of them today.

Cover of "The Help"Cover of The Help
The Help by Kathryn Stockett-Eva said, "The Help has been getting a lot of hype in the blogosphere. Is it worth it?" I think so-I loved this book. Aibileen and Minny are two black women in 1960's Mississippi, employed as domestic workers for white families. Skeeter Phelan is a friend of Aibileen's employer, and she is looking around at her group of friends and starting to wonder if maybe they aren't all the paragons of virtue they think they are.

Hilly Holbrook has begun campaigning for the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, a bill that would require every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help because "Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do." Hilly just gets more and more loveable as the book goes on (I'm being sarcastic, in case any of you can't see my eyes rolling all the way back in my skull over here), but Skeeter doesn't quite feel the same way as the rest of her friends and wants to try to do something to change things. She wants to write a book telling the world what it's really like for the black domestic workers in the South, what it's like to be the help. She starts by talking to Aibileen who is, understandably, skeptical of Skeeter and her motives at first and worried about what will happen to her if she speaks out and tells the truth, tells the world that, honestly, being somebody else's maid is not the bees knees, and no, white people aren't always above reproach. Even with Aibileen's contributions, Skeeter still needs to get other stories, and she enlists Aibileen's help to try to convince other maids to tell their stories. It's an uphill battle all-around, for everyone involved, and I loved the characters and what they come together to do and how they do it.

My cousin started reading this book before I did, and she mentioned that one of the characters is a sassy black maid who reminded her a lot of my dad. I thought this was kind of funny since my dad is neither a black woman nor a maid, and, while he is a pretty funny guy, I don't know if he exactly qualifies as "sassy." I totally forgot about this remark until after I'd finished the book and I mentioned that Aibileen reminded me of my (paternal) grandma. The way she talks and the way her speech was written reminded me of the way my grandma talks and writes. My cousin said, "That's so weird because Minny reminded me of your dad!" and, yeah, I can totally see what she means. The following exchange between Minny and her new employer, Miss Celia, is a good example of this. Miss Celia has hired Minny to come work for her, but she hasn't told her husband, and Minny is a little worried about the possible ramifications of this.

"And what's Mister Johnny gone do if he come home and find a colored woman up in his kitchen?"

"I'm sorry, I just can't--"

"I'll tell you what he's gone do, he's gone get that pistol and shoot Minny dead right here on this no-wax floor."

Miss Celia shakes her head. "I'm not telling him."

"Then I got to go," I say. Shit. I knew it. I knew she was crazy when I walked in the door--

"It's not that I'd be fibbing to him. I just need a maid--"

"A course you need a maid. Last one done got shot in the head."

This is totally the type of thing my dad would say!

Softdrink is looking forward to The Help (has just read and reviewed The Help) and wanted to know, "Would you put it in your top 10 for the year? Top 5?" Definitely, on both counts! As I said, I really enjoyed the different characters. With the exception of one chapter, the story is told from Aibileen's, Minny's and Miss Skeeter's points of view, but even the non-narrative characters have great presences (is that really a word? Presences...doesn't sound right...anyway...), at least the women do. There are a few men that make their appearances in this novel, and we don't really get much of a feel for them, but this isn't really their story anyway.

Something of note here: I read this for our book club, and the book club members who were present for the discussion of this book were 3 white girls in their 30s, and one mixed-race gentleman in his 60s who grew up in the South. All of us girls loved the book; he thought it was one of the most depressing things he'd ever read. Now, admittedly, he hadn't finished the book, but I thought it was interesting that we had such different takes on it. Even when I was only part-way through the book, it never struck me that way. For him it was just bringing up all the terrible things that he knew from first-hand experience had actually happened in our history. For us, or at least for me, it was knowing that we had come through those things and were now on the other side of history, not perfect, but at least better than we were. Also, it was about the women who were fighting against those things; trying to make things better; doing what they could, against tremendous odds, to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, I've never been able to get much follow-up from this man on his thoughts on the book after he finished it, but if I ever do, I'll come back here and update.

Sorry, I feel like this review is all over the place. Takeaway: I really enjoyed this book, but now I'm curious if it is a common phenomenon for different people to respond to it differently depending on what their backgrounds are. I mean, I suppose that's the case with almost any book, but this is the first time that I've experienced a divide this extreme, more than the usual, "I really liked it!" "Really? I thought it was boring." Anyone else have any input on this?

Other reviews:

I'm sure there are more people out there who have read this! If you have and you've reviewed it, let me know and I'll post a link to your review. If you haven't reviewed it, feel free to let me know what you thought of it here!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Help Stella find a new home

Stella, a five-year old yellow lab, is in need of a new home. She currently lives in Kansas, and her owner is getting ready to bring a new service dog into the home, and has realized that between the new dog, her new home, and Stella's needs, she just can't provide Stella with as good a home as she would like. Stella has some allergy issues, but she is well-trained.

If anyone knows of a good home for her, please visit L^2 at her blog, Dog's Eye View, and read her post about finding Stella a new home.

Some final thoughts on Thailand

Arachnophobe Warning: First picture is a big spider picture.

Toilet paper is not de rigueur in Thailand. In a lot of the hotels and restaurants in the more developed areas you don't have to worry about it, but the farther out you get the less likely you are to find A) toilet paper and B) actual toilets. Instead they have a hose hooked up next to the toilet, so it's not like a bidet set-up, it's more like the little sprayer hose that you have on your kitchen sink. This concept of cleaning with water instead of paper is OK, I get that, but then you're still walking around all drippy from the water. Lesson: Carry toilet paper.

If you walk into a ritzy hotel and go to their spa for a bikini wax, and you walk into your treatment room and find two ladies there, don't get excited and think, Hey, this will go fast! Instead, ask, "Is one of you a trainee?" and then send that person out of the room. Lesson: Trainees are OK in some instances, like when you are ordering a burger and fries. Not so much in others, like when you are getting a bikini wax in a nation where nobody has any body hair.

Thailand has some big spiders. Lesson: Pay attention when walking through the jungle.

Beds in Thailand are hard. The beds we slept on in Pattaya actually did not allow us to sleep on our sides because our hips would dig into the mattresses. Lesson: Check the beds before you commit to a hotel.

Haggling is a common practice in Thailand. Lesson: Do not depend on me to get you a good deal in Thailand.

Sometimes food is prepared differently than you are used to. In an attempt to not be rude to your hosts, you should try it. Lesson: This fish was pretty good even though we all felt weird about it looking at us.

We had a fabulous Italian dinner on Koh Chang at a little restaurant called La Dolce Vita. I don't know how they did it, but they had amazingly fresh goat cheese and mozzarella cheese for their salads, and their lasagna was to die for. Cheese dishes are difficult to come by in Thailand (Asians are largely lactose intolerant) so this was quite a find for us. Lesson: If you want good Italian food in Thailand, the trip to Koh Chang is worth it.

We stayed on the western side of Koh Chang, roughly midway down the coast. We rented scooters one day and drove down the coast, toward the southern part of the island. This was one of the best parts of the trip. We got out of the city and started getting into some much prettier, more relaxed areas. There was actually one point on the drive where I physically felt the shift in atmosphere. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but all of a sudden the buzz and the activity and the noise of the city was gone and I could relax and exhale, and it's not like the city is this huge bustling metropolis or anything, but it's just not relaxing. While I liked our hotel, I would have really preferred to be out of town. All the town areas of Thailand that I saw really reminded me of China Town in Honolulu-everything packed close together and claustrophobic and that feeling of not having anywhere that you can really just sit down and relax. I know some people like that, but I don't. I also know it's largely a matter of efficiency and not wasting space, but I like my space. Lesson: Get off my lawn!

If you stay at the Sabai Empress hotel in Pattaya, you can go next door and get a massage at the bowling alley. This is...probably about what you'd expect of a massage at a bowling alley and also probably not as bad as you'd expect for a massage at a bowling alley. Lesson: If you like the soothing sounds of thunder, you just might be lulled to sleep during your massage by the sounds of the bowling alley below.

You know how restaurants always have at least one table that's all wonky, and you spend 10 minutes stuffing matchbook covers or coasters underneath the feet trying to stabilize the table? Forget it. Use an oyster shell. They are highly effective stabilizers. Lesson: Use an oyster shell-that was the lesson.

When you're in a foreign country, and you don't know any of the music that's being played and you're not really sure that you dance the way they dance, get up and dance anyway. Lesson: The bride's family will appreciate that you tried.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Thailand-Koh Chang

After all the zip-lining and partying and early morning wedding, it was time for a bit of an actual vacation. We all loaded up into a van for a 4-hour trek to Trat where we took the Centre Point Ferry over to the island of Koh Chang, which basically translates to Elephant Island. We had reservations at the Paloma Cliff Resort, which looks lovely here, but it's not. Our first clue should have been the stagnant green water in the dolphin fountain to welcome us at the front of the hotel. Our next clue should have been the broken cooler sitting in the lobby, adding an air of apathy and neglect to the place. Our final clue should have been, and finally was, the overwhelming smell of mold that hit us in the face when we opened the door to our room. This hotel was probably a beautiful place in its hey-day, but it appears to have suffered from years of neglect.

We started walking up the street to check out other hotels, and we finally walked across the street to the Keeree elé Hotel, which is brand new, did not smell like mold, and has a super-cute logo! It's so new, in fact, that they were still working on the elevators, which was kind of a bummer since we were on the fourth floor, but we were willing to overlook that bit, even the one of us that was coming off of recent knee surgery. I mean, look how cute it is! These pictures are of the hotel lobby/entrance area. It's kind of hard to tell here, but the butterflies and birds on the trees are three-dimensional, which adds a rather unique touch. You can see some better pictures at their on-line gallery. To be fair though, I wasn't getting paid for my work!

The staff at the hotel was very gracious, and were clearly trying very hard to make a good impression. There was only one person on staff who spoke English; he seemed to be the manager, and we found him sleeping behind the front desk one night. Whether this is because he didn't have anywhere else to sleep or because he was trying to be available in case we needed him, I'm not sure, but it wouldn't have surprised me to find out that it was the latter.

We only ever saw a few other guests at the hotel, and we more or less had our pick of rooms. Our rate was 1500 baht/night (about $45), and that included breakfast every day, and I mean an actual breakfast that you could order off a menu, not just some bagels and toast. I wish I would have taken some pictures of our rooms, but I forgot. Luckily, their photographer did a better job than I did in that department too. They were quite spacious, and if you looked straight out from the balcony, the view wasn't bad. I wouldn't recommend looking at the area actually surrounding the hotel though-it's a bit industrial junk yard-y. Just gaze out toward the horizon and you'll be fine.

The only real complaint I had was that every time you used the water, the bathroom would smell like sewer. It wasn't that the water stunk, it was just that sewer gas was coming up from somewhere. I'm not sure if that's something that they can/will fix or not, and yes, it's off-putting, was still better than the other places we looked at.

We got settled into our rooms and relaxed for the rest of the day, and the next day, we went for an elephant ride at Ban Chang Thai! See? I'm still working through my list, which leads us to this:

I'm riding an elephant!

Heehee! That's us on An-na. Isn't she cute? We went on this jungle trek which ended at the river, where the elephants dumped us off in the water, and then we got to play around in the water with the elephants which was way cool! They were trained to do tricks too like lift us up in their trunks and stuff, but my camera died before we got to that part. =( The staff did take pictures though, and we bought some before we left, so I do have a picture of me sitting aloft in an elephant trunk. If you click on the Ban Chang Thai link above you can see pictures of other folks doing this to get a better idea of what's involved.

Our guides on the trip sat on the elephants' necks to "drive" the elephants, and at one point we looked back to see my brother-in-law driving the elephant. Later his wife got to take a turn, so they thought that was pretty neat!

Getting dumped off of an elephant into a river is a little unnerving. Elephants are really steep when they want to be, and I got a little bit freaked out because I didn't know if I would be able to stand up or not, and I'm not so good in the water, and I can float in the ocean, but this wasn't the ocean, and I wasn't sure how deep the water was, and, and, and! See? This is why I'm not good in the water. If I'd thought about it, I would have realized that the elephants were standing up in it before they dumped us off, and it really wasn't all that deep; but I forget to do things like put my feet down and try to stand up. Also, I was trying to avoid the elephant poo. The elephant ahead of us found the river extremely relaxing, apparently, and then our elephant started getting steep, and I was busy trying not to slide off my elephant into the unknown depths of the river long enough for the other elephant handler to pick up all the poo and huck it onto the river bank. After that it was fine. I still have a weird scratch on the back of my leg from where I tripped over a branch that seems like it's taking an awfully long time to heal completely, but I'm sure it's fine.

After we got done playing in the river, we got back on our elephants and rode back to where we started. We disembarked and found some tables to sit at while we waited for our pictures. Fruit and water were provided, and they also had food available for sale, for us and for the elephants. They had little bitty pineapples that you could feed the elephants, so we bought some of those and had fun feeding the elephants. Walking back to our table I got attacked by a monkey, but it was pretty small and on a leash, so I was able to bat it away and redirect.

I know it probably sounds kind of terrible, what with the pooing elephants and the attack monkey and all, but it was actually great! When we first started talking about our trip to Thailand the one thing I really wanted to do was go visit the painting elephants of the Asian Elephant Art Conservation Project, but as far as we knew they were all in northern Thailand, and after making it to Pattaya and then to Koh Chang, I was not about to do the traveling required to get back up north. So, this was a fine substitution. Looking at the site now, it appears that there's actually a painting elephant in Koh Chang...I'm going to assume that that information is out of date and that the elephant probably has not actually been there for about five years. That's probably the case, right?

The next day my plan was to sit by the pool and make people bring me drinks. Everyone else agreed with me that that was a fine idea until the next day when everyone was going to rent scooters and go to one of the nearby waterfalls. I was done. I just needed some down time. I already had a plan, and it was to sit by the pool and make someone bring me drinks. So, everyone else went off in search of scooters and a waterfall, and I got my bathing suit on, went down to the pool, walked over to the bar to ask if I could get a piña colada and would it be OK to just charge it to the room. About two minutes and 12 staff members later, the English-speaking manager finally showed up, I gratefully explained to him that I wanted a piña colada and just wanted to make sure that it was OK to charge it to my room. That's when I was informed that they don't have a bartender. So, I ordered a Sprite and walked like Droopy Dog over to the pool. To his credit, the manager did come over and offer to run next door and get me a piña colada from the neighboring bar. I'm not gonna lie-I thought about it, but in the end, I thought that would just be a little too desperate. So, I sat and drank my Sprite and read my book (Same Kind of Different as Me) and realized that there are a lot worse things than being stuck by a pool without a piña colada.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

What's more powerful, good or bad?

In Nymeth's review of 84, Charing Cross Road, she says, "...this is a book I will read when I need to be reminded, as we all do sometimes, that yes, people can in fact be very kind to one another. It's not that I want to ignore the fact that they can be awful too, but sometimes I just need a book that will make me smile all the way through."

This is how I felt about Same Kind of Different as Me, (which I reviewed here). That along with
Ali's good deed from years ago, along with her review of Striving for Greatness got me thinking about what's more important-happy, uplifting stories about people doing good things out of the kindness of their hearts or through their strength in their faith, stories that inspire us to this kind of action ourselves or stories about the atrocities people can inflict on one another, stories that anger us, shock us, sadden us, and make us want to stand up and take action against such behavior.

Is one type of story more effective than another? Does it depend on the reader or the particular acts being discussed? Is a story about cruelty to animals more likely to move someone to action than a story about people who rescue animals? Alternately, is a story about humanitarian efforts in a foreign country more likely to inspire support than a story telling about the atrocities perpetrated by a warlord in that same country?

What do you think? Have you read a book, seen a movie, heard an interview that inspired you to take action to make the world a better place, even if it just means smiling more to strangers on the street or not being as snippy with telemarketers? Or maybe even made you go to church or volunteer to do something outside of your comfort zone? Was it because you were inspired by the good in others or scared by the bad? Did you want to stand up and join in or stand up and fight?

Ultimately, I suppose we need both, the good and the bad, to remind us that both are still out there. We need the good to keep us from becoming cynical, jaded, and hopeless; we need the bad to keep us from becoming complacent, ... well, that's about all I can come up with. What do ya'll think?

A brief thought before my next post

So...I have a follow-up post to my review of Same Kind of Different as Me scheduled to go up at 12:46AM-totally random time, I just didn't want to post it immediately after my last post-it's now 12:24AM, and I've just come from Bethany's blog, Dreadlock Girl,where she has a post up about how she is inspired by people preaching on the street. It inspires her to "aim to be Christ seeking instead of self-seeking and how to really lay it all down." If you read my previous post, you've probably gathered that this is the exact wrong way to try to get a message across to me.

Also, in the second video that she has in that post, the young man preaching is talking about how God sees us, which I thought was an odd coincidence since I just talked about how one of the things that got to me was Denver saying that, "You never know whose eyes God is watchin' you through."

I just thought it was kind of a cool coincidence that we both had posts up which were so different in tone and yet sort of going in the same direction.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-Same Kind of Different as Me

Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent-(This is another airport find that I happened to pick up at LAX along with Gang Leader for a Day.) Okay, so, brief review (no, seriously!): Rich white guy (Ron), and his super-religious wife (Deborah), who is into volunteering at the local homeless shelter/mission, make friends at the shelter with an older black man (Denver) who used to pick cotton for The Man and is very distrustful of the husband and wife team and their motives at first. Rich white guy is constantly shocked and amazed by the grace shown him by his wife, his skeptical new friend, and the rest of the homeless shelter's...residents? shelterees? congregation? (I'm not really sure what the correct terminology is here.)

See? I told you it would be brief.

I really loved this book even though I'm not too comfortable with books about How Great God Is! It's not that I dispute it necessarily, I just don't want it shoved down my throat, and this book can be a little shove-y at times; but the husband is right there with you through the whole thing going, "I know, right? I thought my super-religious wife was crazy too!" so it all kind of worked out. Also, there were enough more subtle parts to break down my defenses. The story is told alternately from Ron and Denver's points of view, and I think that Lynn Vincent did a good job of capturing both of their voices.

When word spread at the mission that Deborah (Miss Debbie) had been diagnosed with cancer, Denver talks about how the folks at the mission took it:

There's a lot of folks come down to the mission and volunteer, but most of em was not faithful like Miss Debbie. But that wadn't all. It was the way she treated the homeless that made them accept her as their friend. She never asked em no questions, like how come you is in here? Where you been? How many times you been in jail? How come you done all them bad things in your life? She just loved em, no strings attached.

That's the way she loved me, too. The Word says God don't give us credit for lovin the folks we want to love anyway. No, He gives us credit for loving the unlovable. (...)

You know, if you ain't poor, you might think it's the folks in them big ole fine brick churches that's doin all the givin and the carin and the prayin. I wish you coulda seen all them little circles a' homeless folks with their heads bowed and their eyes closed, whisperin what was on their hearts. Seemed like they didn't have nothin to give, but they was givin what they had, takin the time to knock on God's front door and ask Him to heal this woman that had loved them.

During Deborah's stay in the hospital Ron stops by the mission. He hasn't seen Denver for a while, and he wanted to check in with him.

In the hallway to the kitchen, we ran into Chef Jim. I asked him if he'd seen Denver that day.

"He's probably sleeping." he said.

"Sleeping!" I blurted.
Lazy, I thought. It was already midafternoon.

Jim raised an eyebrow. "You don't know?"

"Know what?"

"Well, when Denver heard about Miss Debbie, he told me she had a lot of friends that would be praying for her all day. But he figured she needed someone to pray all night, and he would be the one to do it."

My eyes widened as he went on. "So he goes outside at midnight, sits down next to the Dumpster, and prays for Miss Debbie and your family. When I get up and come down here at three in the morning to get breakfast going, he comes in for a cup of coffee and we pray here in the kitchen for her until about four. Then he goes back outside and prays till sunup."

Ashamed, I realized again how deep grew the roots of my own prejudice, of my arrogant snap judgments of the poor.

Yikes. How many of us have ever been in those shoes, making a snap judgment of someone because s/he's poor, rich, black, white, clearly a foreigner, clearly a native, employed, unemployed, homeless, living in a mansion, a man, a woman, married with no kids, married with kids, single with no kids, single with lots of kids, young, old, tall, short, fat, thin, in short, not like us? I know I have, and one of the things that I try to take away from a book like this is the inspiration and strength to not do things like that. In an interview at the back of the book, Denver says, "You never know whose eyes God is watchin' you through. It probably ain't gonna be your preacher and it just might be someone who was livin' like I used to." whose eyes God is watchin' you through...I never thought of it like that.

I've mentioned before that I like Anne Lamott's writing because even though she is deeply religious and believes, much like Deborah, that when you are in doubt the best thing to do is pray (which I can't really relate to at all) she still has moments of, "Seriously, God? Are you KIDDING ME???" (which I can totally relate to). That's why this book worked for me as well. Deborah and Denver both had a faith that was unshakeable, but Ron...not so much. He was skeptical, and I can relate to that, but he also witnessed some things that might be classifiable as miracles and really couldn't come up with any other explanations...which makes me willing to question my beliefs more so than anyone telling me, "You just have to have faith. Because it says so in the Bible."

Fore more information about this book, you can check out the website at There's a video, a calendar of Ron and Denver's speaking engagements, and other reviews and comments about the book.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I'll add a link to your review.