Reading Around The World: Update 6

>> 14 March 2015

A bit behind from travelling and taking a brief detour into Princess Book Land (Kiss of Deception, Mary E. Pearson, really enjoyable), which is required while flying, sorry. There's nothing more relaxing to me than being stuck on a plane for hours with all the wine I want and a young adult romance novel. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no emails to answer, no phones to pick up. Just me, my headphones, a wine-drunk plane-buzz, and a silly book to lose myself in.... bliss.

With Love From Finland:A Novel, Ellie Alanko
Oh my. This book started off so well that I even wrote myself a note about it: "This is the most relateably female of settings: angsting over a haircut, feeling bullied by the stylist, needing a change, too afraid to know how." This book is about a woman, Alina, who is dealing with the grief and logistics of losing her parents and her job within about two years. She's the daughter of Finnish immigrants, and her Finnish cousin and his friend come to visit her in Northern California, where she's dealing with being the executor of her parents' estate. In her grief over losing her father, she breaks up with her boyfriend fixes him up with her best friend, who immediately impregnates her. BUT EVERYONE IS FINE AND WE ARE ALL STILL THE BEST OF FRIENDS RIGHT GUYS?? She convinces herself that she's in love with her cousin's friend Paavo and that he is in love with her, despite there being absolutely zero reason to think this. Her best friend then sleeps with him, of course, because she just has so many feelings. Her other best friend accidentally burns her house down while screwing her realtor. Meanwhile the ex-boyfriend broods and says really nasty things to her and somehow she ends up with him again in the end? Basically, this is a book about a woman who makes really bad choices, and has truly terrible friends. The redeeming quality of the book is the very detailed attention to second language phonology and general language learning issues encountered when she is in Finland (trying to convince Paavo that he is in love with her, like an idiot).

"His speech alone comforts me, so like that of my mother and grandparents, where all is stated without inflection, and all sentences tread downward from the start. Mom used to ask, "Where this is," when she searched for something. And the sounds: in Finnish the "t" is pronounced so softly it sounds like a "d" and the "p" a buttery "b" sound. My visitors' talk feels familiar, familial."
In any case, despite the obviously idiotic but relatable main character (who hasn't made terrible choices when it comes to friendships and relationships?), I really enjoyed this book a lot. Finland, the land of saunas, sailing, metal bands, and cross-country skiing sounds like an excellent place to visit (in the summer), although the the author paints Finnish people themselves as overly fastidious and more than a bit racist, so I don't know.
Saunaness: 5/5
Linguisticness: 10/5!
Kissiness: 3/5 (God, don't get back together with your ex, SERIOUSLY, HE HAS A CHILD WITH YOUR BEST FRIEND)
Feels: ^^that

Trip of a Lifetime, Elizabeth Johnston
This might be the worst book I've ever read, ever. It's so hilariously bad that I just couldn't put it down. There are two simultaneous timelines, a HUGE cast of characters, and completely nonsensical plot, an incomprehensible love triangle featuring minor characters that is somehow the impetus for the whole thing, and some sort of time-traveling Mayan god who's only power appears to be 'throwing spiders at people'. I can't even begin to unravel what the author thought the plot of this book was going to be about, and the writing itself is so bad that you just can't wait to see what overused adverb (63 instances of 'whilst', seriously) and stilted dialogue will greet you on the next page. An excerpt (the scene: a woman sitting in an ambulance, about to be taken to hospital. She has jumped out of a moving bus because Ramiro, the spider-throwing Mayan god currently in sexy Mexican disguise, has thrown a spider at someone else).
"I'll ring you with the address [of the hospital] - I might be in there for a few days and then I'll probably go home as apart from any injury I've suffered major shock and probably won't feel like enjoying the rest of my holiday." 
...ok. The timeline that takes place in the distant past is rich with historical details of everyday Mayan life, and it is very clear that during that peculiar phase of adolescence in which we suddenly fixate on some ancient culture, this author chose Mayan. The entire book reads like a 13-year-old girl had to write a short story about ancient Guatemala for 8th grade English, and expanded it into a 300 page book. She punched in all the facts (reminding us again and again that Mayans eat maize, and sleep in hammocks, and their hand tools were made of flint, wow), but left out anything meaningful, or indeed, remotely intelligible.
Silliness: 5/5
Spideriness: 4/5 (one time it was some ants or a centipede or something, I don't know)
Meaningfulness: 0/5
Feels: bemusement, bewilderment, begrudgement, whilst

The Philippines
The Pull of Gravity: A Novel, Brett Battles
This novel is set in Angeles City, a popular sex tourism destination in The Philippines. From reading this book, I now know more than I would ever want to know about how to get a prostitute in The Philippines, and how awful these women are to each other, and that any man who has ever traveled alone to this country is definitely a pervert. The story is told from the point of view of a mostly pathetic American, who ends up in Angeles City because he's just generally a failure at everything, is intolerably lazy, and gives up on life. Not the most sympathetic of narrators, certainly. He becomes part owner of a successful bar, but because he's such a lazy drunk, he runs it into the ground. He tells the reader the story of an American friend and his innocent (prostitute) Filipina girlfriend. Of course they fall in love, of course he gives her lots of money, of course the other girls are jealous, of course he gets murdered, of course she's ruined forever, of course of course of course. The dialogue and narration are repetitive and predictable and there is LOTS of it. Man comes to bar. Girls say things to man. Everyone dances and drinks a lot. Repeat ad nauseam for 300 pages. Basically, this book was long, slow, sad, and full of characters that I can't remotely relate to. I have actually been to Manila several times now, and I do not have a high opinion of it, nor the rest of the country. I was hoping that this book might help somewhat (it did a bit, I'm interested in visiting Boracay beach and Taal volcano and diving at Apo Reef), but on the whole I'm still pretty grossed out by the whole place.
Kissiness: 0/5
Interestingness: 1/5
Whilstness: 0/5 (I checked. BECAUSE THAT IS NOT A WORD PEOPLE USE)
Feels: tiredness, irritation, boredom


Travel, and a new perspective

>> 13 March 2015

My blog has been a bit quiet the last few weeks, but I have still been upholding my resolution to write more often (I just haven't been doing it every day, like before), because I have been on holiday!

I took a short trip to Honolulu to present a paper at a (huge, important) conference- the first time I've really been in front of an audience of my peers. I've presented at several large conferences in the past, but they've always been tangential to my actual field of study, so this was a great opportunity for me. My talk was well attended, and I had several productive meetings with my faculty advisors. I also took care of some administrative things for the fall, and it looks like I'll be back in Hawaii for one last semester before I'm officially classified as ABD (All But Dissertation), and no longer required to be a Hawaii resident. This represents a pretty dramatic shift in my attitude towards the whole PhD thing, and I feel good about my plans the moment.

Another thing that changed while I was away was my outlook on my life in Timor. An idea has been brewing since the beginning of the year, and I've finally been able to grasp just what it is. For most of my time here, I've treated Timor as some kind of exercise in self-denial. This is a developing country, and I've lived as though it is a developing country, but this is not necessarily healthy. I can have a nice, comfortable life here, but I haven't allowed myself to. I think there's a culture of denial when you go from the West to the developing world- you focus on bringing something intangible back to your friends at home, and you're proud of how rough you had it. "Look at how virtuous I am because I was suffering along with my neighbors. Look at how much I care about my neighbor's perceptions of me because I didn't buy that soda when I wanted it. Look at how good I am for scoffing at others' excitement over the presence of relatively inexpensive goat cheese at Sabores market. Look at how special I am for suffering."

Many of the volunteers here perpetuate this culture of self-denial; they wear ratty clothes, stop wearing makeup and jewelry, stop shaving (guilty!), don't allow themselves to indulge in simple joys. There's nothing wrong with trying not to be ostentatious in your wealth, nor with trying to fit in culturally. But I think my attitude (and many others') was too extreme.

So, from now on I resolve to do some things differently. I will buy frozen spinach, because I like it. I will buy goat cheese, because I like it. I will wear my BB cream, because it makes my face look pretty. I will wear high heels. I will drink diet soda when I feel like it. I will enjoy air conditioning without feeling guilty. I will drink my coffee with the flavored non-dairy half and half powder that I sacrificed precious luggage real estate for. I will paint my nails and do my embroidery and wear perfume and drink sweet tea and live my life.


Reading Around The World: Update 5

>> 18 February 2015

After the disastrously depressing reads in South Africa (and to a lesser degree, Fiji), I intentionally focused on something more light for this week. Although, light reading brings with it new problems...

The Road Less Graveled, Wendy Laird
This is the true account of a family who left their comfortable life in Seattle to go live in Italy for a year in the recent 2000's. I still haven't the slightest idea why. From the author's description, it seems the family had become too.... comfortable? Organized? Well-cared for? Rich? And so under the great weight of their own ennui, they acted on their inconceivably privileged arrogance, moved to the Italian countryside, and had the gall to complain about it for a few hundred pages. They speak another language there! The don't have clothes dryers! People are bad drivers! They burn their trash! Our guesthouse only had 3 bedrooms and was on someone else's property! Sometimes animals exist in the world! Basically, I found the entire story contemptible. They made no attempt to integrate themselves in any meaningful way, and their 'cultural victories' were superficial at best (I learned to not be angry about having to wait in line!, declares the wife smugly). I already knew a lot about Italy, but now that I've seen how much these Americans complained about it, I think I will like it all the more when I go there someday. Compared to South Africa or Timor, it's a dream.
Complaininess: 5/5
Ennuiness: 5/5
Personal growthiness: 0/5
Feels: annoyed, irritated, irked, disgusted, impatient

Love and Truth, Kathryn Perez
Sorry, but this book was OH MY GOD KILL ME bad. The story follows a young girl who travels to Japan to spend a year after high school at a ballet institute. She, of course, meets a boy and falls in love and they go back and forth between love and hate as he continues to betray her again and again. This is the sort of story that convinces girls to stay with an abusive partner, and it sickened me. When the girl had a negative reaction to something the boy did (hiding the fact that he had gotten another girl pregnant during a drunken one-night-stand), she was being too sensitive. When she wanted to have sex, he told her she wasn't ready. When he was unhappy because he did something wrong, it was her fault for making him feel bad about it. Utterly nauseating, and it rang too much like a true story. These are the kind of ideas that girls are brought up to believe (a man's emotions are your responsibility, not his; decisions about your body are up to the man you're with, not you), and they are horribly damaging to creating loving and trusting relationships. Disappointing all round, especially because Japan was less of an immersive environment and more of a painted background. I have GOT to stop reading these young adult novels.
Kissiness: 5/5
Patriarchyness: 5/5
Karaoke-and-photobooth-ness: 3/5

The Saint, Oliver Broudy
This book follows the adventures of a complete madman as he enlists the aid of a journalist to do... something crazy in India or possibly Tibet? Fortunately, the journalist is also suffering from what I'm now going to start calling ennuienza, so he was perfectly poised to leave behind his comfortable and privileged life to do... something idealistic. I still don't know what the pair were trying to accomplish. Something about sneaking across the northern India border into Tibet? Or invading Tibet in a helicopter? And also there was something about a vial of Ghandi's blood? The reason I'm not really sure is that for the majority of the story, the delusional ideologue was fasting, and he became increasingly incoherent. Even after he broke the fast, he was no more coherent and revealed himself to be nothing but a fake and a liar, spouting pseudo-intellectual bullshit so pungent it'd make your eyes water. I've known people like this; they're big thinkers, man, and if you only knew how smart they were and how well-connected they were, and oops, let me just drop another name and tell you about another 'book I wrote that's gonna be huge'.... ugh. Gag me. There were a lot of really good quotes throughout, though, and the author does make a good case for the necessity of occasional travel:

"I could see that if I pursued this course I might easily end up a cosseted fool, the proprietor of a well-upholstered life drained of vibrancy and challenge. But I didn't know what else to do. In short, I was confused."
Not awful, not great, just boring; especially for a true story.
Indianness: 2/5
Irritatingness: 4/5
Interestingness: 1/5
Feels: confused, annoyed, REALLY annoyed, impatient, dismayed