Monthly Archives: January 2012

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin

Ha Jin’s latest novel, Nanjing Requiem, released last fall, takes on the huge challenge of setting a novel during the Japanese invasion and occupation of China’s Nanjing City. It is not an easy task to write a
book with a foundation based in the torture and slaughter of thousands of civilians, but that is the challenge Jin has set up for himself with this new book.

Jin tells the story of the fall of Nanjing,  opening  with the heartbreaking tale of Ban, a young boy who serves as an errand-runner for the Western –funded and run Jingli College, who was whisked away by Japanese soldiers and forced to do their bidding, fearing for his life if he didn’t cooperate.  After this initial chapter, the rest of the book (with one other short exception at the end) is narrated by Anling, a Chinese woman who works for the college. While she is the primary story-teller, the roles of the foreign citizens are the focus of much of the novel.

Nanjing’s citizens were cruelly treated when the Japanese army overthrew the Chinese government there, as the invading army’s officers allowed their soldiers to run wild, abandoning any sense of
decency and humanity. Countless women, of all ages, were raped and killed. Men were forced to watch their relatives’ endure these heinous acts and then they themselves were slaughtered.  Jin doesn’t shy away from the realities of what occurred in city in the late 1930’s. Because of this brutally honest look at those atrocities, Nanjing Requiem can be difficult to read. His writing relays the stark realities of the horrors committed, making the book, at times, painful to endure. It is not a leisurely book, written for the feint-of-heart.

With the focus on the deeds of the foreigners living in Nanjing, I was disappointed that Ha Jin didn’t focus more on the positive aspects of Chinese culture and traditions.  Oftentimes, the Chinese women (other than the main narrator herself) are made out to be petty and squabbling and wholly selfish. I would love to have seen him incorporate more Chinese women who sacrificed for the cause of helping others.  The characters, both Chinese and foreign, were pretty flatly drawn, making it hard to connect with them while reading the novel.

Nanjing Requiem, while dealing with a terrible period in Chinese history, really focuses on the roles that foreigners played in saving thousands of people from certain death. These characters, mostly American missionaries, put their lives on the line for the people of the country in which they live. They show a basic humanity and dignity which is a direct foil to that characterization of the Japanese forces. With this said, the writing lacks the emotion one would expect from such a horrific event. The writing  is sufficient. It describes scenes, it fleshes out characters, it has a clear beginning, middle and end. What it doesn’t do is move the reader to tears or even a conjure of a great amount of anger. If I had not read several other books about the occurrences in Nanjing (I would specifically recommend The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang), I don’t think the absolute travesty of the situation would have been clear. In several places, Jin provides clear descriptions of varies horrors, and yet they come across as nothing more than flatly written fiction.

Overall, this book fell short of what it could have been. I am disappointed that a book with the potential of this one didn’t create more of an emotional reaction. When I initially started this novel, I
thought I was going to love it, but around the halfway mark I realized that it was going to fall squarely in the “okay” category. Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem earns:

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Kids’ Menu, Please

There are many descriptions that could be listed under the heading “Michelle.”  Bibliophile. Shoe-collector. Nail polish aficionado. List-maker. Obsessive-planner. And the list goes on…But there is one label that I try to hide a bit more than the others, although at some point in my relationships with friend and colleagues it becomes glaringly obvious, regardless of the steps I take to mask it.

Picky-eater.

I eat like a five-year old. My preferred diet consists of cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken nuggets and pizza. Throw a plain (meat and bun) burger in there and I’m still good to go. Try to add condiments or spice it up in any way and I’ll probably just pick at it until I can get home and have a bowl of cereal instead.

Thad, since discovering this trait on about, oh, our third date, has been my stealthy food accomplice. There is no way to tally up the number of times I’ve covertly transferred food from my plate to his in an attempt to make others think I’ve eaten and enjoyed the meal provided.  When we were living in China last time, it was on a fairly regular basis that we were invited to attend banquets, usually hosted by our college.  Whenever they had leaders visiting, it looked good to trot out the foreigners, so off we went to these meals that went on for hours, starting with a series of cold dishes being served, then moving on to a lengthy set of hot dishes, then complimented with either bowls of noodles or rice and finally, bless the heavens, finally, the giant dish of fruit which signified that the feast was coming to a close. These dinners, while a bit tedious in nature, were glorious for Thad. He had his fill of the best and fanciest foods offered in our small Gansu town. Not only did he get to enjoy his share of the goodness, but he got mine was well!  To keep up the appearance of loving every minute of this gigantic meals provided by our college and with important Party folks present, I helped myself to various dishes throughout the evening.  Then, when conversation turned to the next round of drinks or topics that were beyond my grasp on the language (which was quite often), I surreptitiously chopstick-ed my bowl of random food items into Thad’s bowl, where he could enjoy my pickings.

The reason the picky-eating issue comes up is that last night Thad and I went out to dinner.  For Christmas, my best friend Shannon gave us a gift card to Chili’s and we happen to have one just a few blocks up the road from our place, which makes it quite convenient in our car-less existence here in Washington DC. (Not only is the Chili’s just a few blocks away, but on a breezy night like last night, when the wind is cutting right through layers of clothing, the fact that we could get within a couple hundred yards of the restaurant through the underground labyrinth connected to our mo-partment building was a built-in bonus!)

With gift card in hand, off to Chili’s we went.  Upon arrival and perusal of the menu, we decided that the 2 for $20 deal was the way to go. We ordered the chips and corn/guacamole appetizer (I enjoyed the chips. No dip for me, thanks.)  and then I had the six ounce steak with mashed potatoes and rice and Thad had some super sizzling chicken fajitas. We enjoyed a nice dinner in a restaurant that was not only fairly quiet for a Saturday night, but also a decent temperature. (I don’t know why restaurants, summer or winter, keep their thermostats so low. Does cold make people hungrier so they order more food?  All it makes me want to do is eat quickly and get out of there!)

As we were wrapping up dinner, our waiter, an older gentleman named Wayne, came back to collect the dishes. Thad had cleared his plate completely, leaving nothing more than a few stray peppers and fajita juice on his skillet. I, on the other hand, in true fashion, had eaten only part of my steak. (I ate the middle part, which was good. I just don’t like the edges of most foods. I always eat the inner parts of things like steak and pork chops, provided they are boneless. The pointy ends of things like bananas and green beans freak me out and are also avoided whenever possible.  Ends are just weird.)  There was also still a significant portion of the potatoes and rice on my plate when Wayne was clearing off the table.  At first, he offered concern that I hadn’t liked my meal, but when I assured his that I had and that I had eaten what I wanted of it, he gave me a look that had me worried. I seriously thought for a split second that this man was going to go into “mom-mode” and not let me leave the table until I had cleaned my plate!  Thad, across the table, was trying to hold in his laughter and I received a pointed, stern, motherly look from the waiter about my eating habits.

I can’t help that I am a picky-eater, but I do realize that it is an oddity in someone my age.  I do my best to conceal the grape jelly Uncrustable that I eat for lunch eat day at the Foreign Service Institute while my colleagues dine on sushi  and I try not to let my taste buds dictate where we go to dinner with friends. (Hey, almost everywhere has a kids menu with chicken strips that I can order!) Picky-eating is just another part of the world of Michelle.

Now, who wants a bowl of Cheerios for lunch?

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The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner #2) by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials  ( Maze Runner #2)  by James Dashner

Not only am I a sucker for the dystopian literature genre, but combine that with a young adult series and you’ve got me hooked!  After reading the first of James Dashner’s newest series, The Maze Runner, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the second.  The first book ends with nothing less than the epitome of a cliffhanger that leaves the reader clinging to the side of the mountain, scrambling and clambering to keep a hold on the ledge until book two shows up!  Well, book two showed up two days ago and I instantly morphed into a mountain goat, doing nothing but climb that rocky ledge as the story continued, forgoing both homework and housework to find out what lies around each turn of the page.

In this second book, Thomas is back, along with his allies from The Glade. Their rescue and relief at the end of the first novel is short-lived and they are soon placed in the middle of another experiment run by the shady group called WICKED. This time, rather than being in the confined and controlled spaces of a maze, the group is given a final destination, promised “safe haven” upon arrival at that point and told they have two weeks to get from point A to point B.

Of course, completing this task was not a mere matter of sticking out their thumbs and hitching a ride the one hundred miles, but rather a painful, and for some, deadly, trek across the burned wasteland left behind after sun flares destroyed everything on earth between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer.

Along the way, the motley assembly of adolescents faces obstacles that are unimaginable, even after what they went through in the Glade. But worse than the deformed humans suffering the ravages of the Flare (Cranks), the mind games that WICKED plays on the kids leaves them in a position where no one knows who to trust, no one knows who is working for the mystery agency or even which side is good and which is evil. More than once, messages are relayed saying the “WICKED is good.” But is it? Throughout the book, the basic tenants of their individual personalities, their beliefs and their friendships are suddenly called into question.

Like many series, the first book, The Maze Runner, sets a high bar, as it creates a new world, populated with interesting characters and unique situations. Subsequent books have to keep up the energy and excitement of the first, but at the same time somehow deepen the conflict and relationships within its pages.  In this trilogy, the follow up, The Scorch Trials, does an admirable job living up to the expectations.   I couldn’t stop turning pages, eager to find out what was to become of this group of hardy survivors and the manipulative government agency that controls them.  As I wait for the third and final installment in this trilogy, again clinging to the edge of the cliff I was tossed over by the end of book two, James Dashner’s The Scorch Trials earns:

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I Have Found The Promised Land…In Clarendon!

While I don’t normally look to the pop charts for deep kernels of truth, Belinda Carlisle was right on the money in 1987 when she eloquently articulated to us all that indeed, “Heaven is a place on Earth.” For some, that heavenly spot may be found along a quiet path in the woods or on a secluded section of white sand beach or even in the frigid climes of the far north.

Saturday, I found my personal heaven on Earth- The Container Store!

I believe I’ve mentioned before my love of all things organization-y. (Yes, it is a word. When I earned my degree in English, along with it I was granted the rights to the language, which allow me to make up new words as needed, as long as I can assign them a part of speech and give an example sentence. It is an adjective and the sample sentence has already been provided.) I love drawers and boxes and crates and files and hangers and bins and baskets and trunks and bags and totes and…the list could go on endlessly. The Container Store is all of this, and more. (The “and more” being the plastic straw glasses that I grabbed off of the “impulse buy” rack near the registers, which I am now wearing, as I write this post. Money well spent.)

When Thad was birthday shopping a few weeks ago, one thing I had on my list was some way to organize my nail polishes. He asked at nearly every store in the mall and came up with nothing,  until one in-the-know clerk suggested he check out The Container Store.  Not having one of these in Idaho, he realized that while it may be the way to go, it would be best to let me experience it myself in all its glory. It is a decision that he came to regret on Saturday afternoon…

With a few nail polishes in my purse as size examples, we headed out on the blue and then orange Metro lines to make a visit, in person, to this land of glory. Walking through the sliding glass doors was a bit like what I imagine walking towards the light will be like one day. I was drawn in by a power greater than myself.

The store was two levels, all of which needed to be explored before any decisions on nail polish holders could be made. After the second complete walk through every aisle, Thad thought it was maybe time to begin to narrow down the options and maybe actually make a purchase before the store closed for the night. (We arrived at 2PM.) The decision was just too hard. I was overwhelmed by the choices of colors, styles and possibilities for either displaying or hiding the polish bottles.  Oh, what is a girl to do? How about one more tour of the store!

Hearing a series of increasingly bored sighs from my dear, patient husband, I settled on a pretty cornflower blue document box, held open with a lovely matching ribbon.  It is the perfect height for nail polish bottles and big enough to store my collection in its entirety. (I was actually surprised when I got home and started the sorting process that I only had fifty-six bottles of polish. I would have guessed closer to the 100 mark. That means my new box is only about 2/3 full, so new polishes are definitely in the near-future plans!)

While I only brought home the one container today, I am sure I will be back for more before our April departure to Chengdu. Much like petty drug dealers who give the first hit for free, The Container Store has made an addict out of me with just one visit. There is no rehab for organizational obsession, so I will have to spend the next three months assuaging my desires through both physical trips to the store itself as well as late-night forays on the website that never closes. In this world we may just be beginning to understand the miracle of living, but baby, I’ve got some containers to help me sort it all out.

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The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

While the length and the pictures in this book give it a decidedly upper elementary school feel , the fact that it is written by Kate DiCamillo, the author of Because of Winn-Dixie was all the recommendation I needed to originally pick it up. (By pick it up, I mean download it from my local library. Oh technology these days…) I am glad that I didn’t let this book’s outward appearance deter me. It can be easily read by younger readers, who will enjoy the fantastical story of a fortuneteller’s prediction that an elephant will reunite a young orphan boy and the sister he believes is dead, but there is so much more to the book than that.

The main character in the story, a young man named Peter. Peter is an orphan, his father having been killed in war and his mother having died during childbirth. He is raised by a man who was a solider alongside his father, but raised is probably not an accurate verb. He is being trained, tutored and school (although not well) in the ways of soldiers.  One day, while in town on errands, Peter spends his only coin at the booth of a fortuneteller.  This woman tells him that an elephant will help reunite him with his sister. This prophecy evokes many emotions, confusion being a primary one, as Peter has always been told his baby sister never breathed a breath of air, but was stillborn. On top of that, he lives in a small eastern European town, far, far away from the lands where elephants dwell.

Days later, once again in the town market, Peter overhears some adults talking about how a magician conjured an elephant the previous night at the opera house. With the world “elephant” tickling his ears, he realizes that it is possible that the soothsayer’s divination is true, meaning his guardian has lied to him all these years about his younger sister.

Peter realizes that “What if?” and “Why not?” are questions that he should have been asking all along.  These become a bit of magic in his own life, pushing him and others to follow the words of the woman in the marketplace, to allow an elephant to reunite his small family.  The characters that get on board with Peter and his belief are compensated with all manner of rewards ranging from finding a true family to returning home to the less visible, but most important one- forgiveness.

The setting of this book very much has a fairy tale, Christmastime feel to it. Winter has descended on the small market town and the chill in the air lends a sense of the story being both of this world, but not quite a part of  the day to day world in which we all live. An elephant falls from the sky, a magician is jailed and a young boy has the chance to find his long lost sister. All possible, but none probable.

The fairy tale setting adds to the readability of this book for younger students, but it also adds an air of mystery for those of us who have torn a few more pages off of the calendar.  The book checks in with fewer than 100 pages, but those pages kept me transfixed in this other world of winter wonderland beauty and elephant-astic fantasy. Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant earns:

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The Whole Story of Half of a Girl by Veera Hiranandani

The Whole Story of Half of a Girl  by Veera Hiranandani

This debut young adult novel by Veera Hiranandani sets out to tackle a handful of difficult topics in just under 150 pages and in a manner that is readable for a middle school student. The book attempts to deal with ethnic and religious identity, public vs. private school systems, the meaning of true friendship and clinical depression.  I applaud the ambitious efforts undertaken by the author, as each of these topics is not only important, but relevant in the lives of many adolescents, but I just seems like too much crammed into too short of a space.

The main character, Sonia, is forced to transfer from her private school to the public one just as she is starting the 6th grade. This move is precipitated by her father losing his job as a book publisher. For Sonia, who is half Indian (her father having been born and raised in India) and half Jewish (her mother having been raised in a strict kosher home),  the new school means confronting issues of how she labels herself and how those around her label her. On top of her ethnic and religious confusion, her father spirals into a deep depression brought on by his unemployment, which she must face each evening when she returns home.

One of my favorite parts of this novel is the fact that the main character is both Indian and Jewish. While I don’t know how many kids fall into that exact category, the fact that Sonia is dealing with figuring out who she is reflects  a universal struggle for middle school students.  It may be their ethnicity or their religion or their sexuality or some other aspect of their identity, but the struggle is there for most teenagers.  Watching as Sonia tries to find her place in her new school, sometimes giving in to the pressures of others and sometimes being strong and true to herself, rings true to me after having spent a decade wandering the halls of a middle school.  Towards the end of The Whole Story of Half a Girl, Sonia says, “Sometimes I feel like I am the only one like me.” Whether teenager or adult, we all have days where this is where we are at.

It is great to see young adult books not shying away from dealing with difficult, real-life topics, but when this many weighty issues are all pushed together, I think it is hard to do them justice on an individual level. Depression, whether in themselves on in their loved ones, is an issue than many people will deal with throughout the course of their lives.  Hiranandani could have written this entire book with just this as a central theme and still come out with a book worthy of a middle school library shelf.

Hiranandani has a point of view to share with the young adult world that will resonate well with many students. As a debut novel, I think she has made a statement about wanting to deal with serious issues in a way that is accessible for young adults, and there is a need for this type of writing. With that said, I think she needs to tackle fewer issues in a single book and deal with them on a deeper level.  In the fashion world it is always said that before leaving the house you should look in the mirror and take off one accessory. Hiranandani would do well to heed this same advice when it comes to story planning. Veera Hiranandani’s  The Whole Story of Half a Girl earns:

 

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Death by PowerPoint

1987 saw such spectacular events as President Reagan undergoing prostate surgery, the debut of both Prozac and The Simpsons and the birth of Lil’ Bow-Wow. (Now grown up, he has dropped the diminutive from his name and prefers a more mature, more cultured moniker- Bow-Wow.) As remarkable as these things may be, that fateful year, twenty-five years ago, brought with it something much more life-altering than just the voice that would bring us classics like “Bounce with Me” and “Puppy Love.” (These are either semi-famous rap songs or jingles that belong on the type of CD that soccer moms play on an endless loop in their mini-vans as they shuttle their over-scheduled darlings from one enriching after-school activity to another. While Wikipedia tells me they fall into the first category, I find their titles to be deceptively aimed at young children. I think this may be the right direction for Glee to head in for their next “mash-up” episode.)

1987 brought us a new kind of slow, painful demise- Death by PowerPoint.

Before the late 80’s, office workers sitting at their desks, whiling away the hours until they could punch out  on the company clock and hop in their Pontiac Bonnevilles, could imagine their grisly ends coming through a variety of means. Maybe an assistant paper-pusher miscalculates the space needed when preparing packets for his boss’ meeting and ends up with a rusty staple embedded in his thumb, which without the proper tetanus shots, leads to lockjaw and eventual starvation. Maybe the secretary daydreams while filing endless manila folders in the gray metal cabinet that sits behind her desk and while her focus is elsewhere, she gets a doozy of a paper cut, which over time becomes infected and she dies, ranting like a crazy woman, from a high fever. Or maybe, just maybe, the bacteria built up on the office kitchen plates that everyone uses and rinses quickly, but never really washes well, end the middle management dreams of a bean counter or two.

All of these are plausible, yet uncommon, ways to perish at the office. Since 1987 though, PowerPoint has brought us a much more sinister possibility. Endless slides, often accompanied by a mercenary who reads each and every bullet point, have become a standard way for companies to cull their herds.

With a move to China on the horizon, and a lackluster desire to continue to study such an overwhelming language, I have finally been able to make the move to Con-Gen.  This is a general course given to all diplomats headed out on tours where they will deal with passports and visas.  It goes over policy and law and the realities of the implementation of those edicts. While the information is actually quite interesting, the presentation leaves something to be desired.

Friday, just my second day of the course, I sat through four and half hours of lecture.  In that amount of time, we covered 123 slides.  Now, I was an English teacher and math has never been my strong suit (I got a C in math in the 6th grade, which earned me a grounding and extra math homework every night until the next set of midterms were sent home), but I didn’t even have to bust out my computer’s calculator to determine we were running at about a slide every two minutes. Granted, some slides had cute clipart on them, which definitely helped me make connections between the legalese of government documents and what a rabbit at a visa window would look like, so I can’t complain too much.

PowerPoint is a wonderful application and has been refined significantly since its days of being called “Presenter,” but there are a few rules that all PowerPoint architects should keep in mind:

*Keep fonts and colors to a minimum (No one loves pretty and fluffy and fabulous more than I do, but if the font is so curly that I can’t decide whether or not I somehow ended up back in Chinese class, you should probably pass on it.)

*Avoid animation of most any kind (The gunshot-like lettering was always a favorite of my 8th graders.  Not only is it totally obnoxious to listen to each individual letter shoot its way on to the screen, but there is no way to comprehensibly  talk over it, so the entire audience is inflicted with a mild case of PTSD before you even begin to speak about each and every slide.)

*Keep your bullet points to a minimum (as demonstrated here, three is sufficient) and unless you are presenting to a group of inept third graders (which raises a whole different series of possible issues) there is no need to read the slides. Summarize, summarize, summarize!!

The 80’s were a glorious time. I distinctly remember being the proud owner of a bangin’ neon windbreaker, having an unfulfilled longing for Garbage Pail Kids trading cards (which were deemed a waste of money and “junk” by the keepers of the allowance) and tuning in weekly to watch Alf’s appetite for cats remain on an unwilling crash diet.  American culture is bigger (although not necessarily better) for that bedazzled era, but little from the penultimate decade of the century has endured and spread so pervasively as the PowerPoint program and the invisible scars many of us carry from a quarter century of painful presentations.

 

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