The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson #1)

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This book I read because, well, it’s popular and I was curious, but mainly because one of my sisters-in-law (shoutout to Rach!) loves the series. And I do enjoy mythology, so why not?

So, the story was pretty fun. It was interesting to put Greek mythology into modern American civilization (such as, Mt. Olympus is located above the Empire State Building, and the underworld is beneath L.A.). I was intrigued by the idea that the gods move their locations according to Western civ.

But I was disappointed to find how much of the story was predictable. You know Percy is going to live to see Camp Half-Blood; you know he’s going to get a quest; once you find out he has to go to the underworld, you know that 1) despite the stats that almost no one makes it out alive, he will, and 2) he won’t find what he’s looking for there (and really, with meeting his mom there? Just repeating mythological stories, here…); I even knew the entire time who would betray Percy, according to the prophecy.

The other aspect of the story that I didn’t like was that it took everyone so long to realize what was going on with every mythological situation/monster they encountered. I can excuse Percy, because he’s (as far as we know) only been studying mythology a little bit for one year. But Grover and Annabeth? Annabeth has been at Camp Half-Blood for 5 years, and Grover, well, who knows how long – a long time! Although I know a good bit of mythology, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert or anything. And I was always sitting there like, “Come on guys, this is so obvious.” I even recognized Procrustes before they did, and that’s a story I just heard for the first time this year

I will admit that I didn’t know the final analysis – who was ultimately responsible for the theft and dispute – ahead of time. That was a nice bit of refreshing surprise.

In other things I liked, these two quotes:

  • In the middle of a very serious and tense conversation, Percy suddenly remembers to tell Hades, “Charon wants a pay raise.” Hades responds: “Don’t get me started on Charon! He’s been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits.” I laughed for such a long time over this.
  • And then, a serious one: “You will see things just as they are, being a half-blood. But humans will interpret things quite differently. Remarkable, really, the lengths to which humans will go to fit things into their version of reality.” This is so sadly true – mythology aside.

So, I guess I had mixed feelings about the book. It was certainly entertaining, but I didn’t find it exceptionally original. (And perhaps I’m too focused on the fact that almost nothing surprised me, but if so, that’s because I’ve recently read several books that totally shocked me with where they ended up: e.g., see Aristotle & Dante.)

I may pick up the next one; I may not. We shall see.

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The Ch’i-Lin Purse

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Purse

This is another collection of stories I got to read for work—happy day! This one is full of ancient Chinese stories, not necessarily having any relation to Buddha stories. But still, the cultural differences between East and West are very apparent (I talked about this at length in my previous post, Twenty Jataka Tales.)

My favorite of the stories is the first one, the title story. In it, a wealthy widow arranges a marriage for her spoiled daughter Hsiang-ling when she is sixteen, but because Hsiang-ling is hard to please, everything that is bought for her dowry must be exchanged multiple times before she is happy. The last part of the dowry is the Chi’i-lin Purse, an embroidered bag with the legendary Chinese animal ch’i-lin on it. Hsiang-ling finally feels sorry for the servant who has to exchange it over and over and is content with the purse. Her mother fills the purse with presents but tells Hsiang-ling not to open it until she arrives at her new house.

She is being carried to her wedding in a sedan chair with drapes when rain begins to pour down. The wedding procession stops under a pavilion. There is another sedan chair there, shabby and with holes in the drapes, and the girl inside is crying. Hsiang-ling has her attendant give her ch’i-lin purse to the girl, not knowing what is inside, hoping to cheer her up since she is so poor. Hsiang-ling is happily married and has a baby boy a year later.

Six years later a terrible flood comes and washes away everything they own, and Hsiang-ling gets separated from her husband and child. She goes to a food distribution line, where she is the last person to receive porridge before they run out of food. The old woman behind her begins to cry, and Hsiang-ling gives the old woman her porridge, despite being starving herself. The server is impressed with her unselfishness and recommends her to his master, who is looking for someone to nanny his son. The master is kind and tells her she may go anywhere except into the Pearl Hall.

The son is spoiled and selfish. One day, the ball they are playing with goes into the Pearl Hall, and the boy cries so much that Hsiang-ling goes in after it. She finds her ch’i-lin purse on an altar and begins to cry at the memory of how happy she had been. Suddenly, Mrs. Lu, her master’s wife, appears. Mrs. Lu asks Hsiang-ling questions about the purse and her wedding, and as she learns the story she has a servant move Hsiang-ling’s chair into the place of highest honor. Mrs. Lu was the poor bride Hsiang-ling gave her ch’i-lin purse to, and she and her husband used the wealth inside it to start a business and have since become rich. The built the Pearl Hall to honor her, but they didn’t know who she was. Mrs. Lu insists on giving Hsiang-ling half of their property and sends out servants to locate her husband and son. The families become great friends. Hsiang-ling loves to tell this story and finishes it by saying to do good whenever you have the chance, and happiness will come back to you.

 

So the cultural values we see in this story are doing good to others—even those we don’t know—and doing good anonymously! Also, the taking care of elders is held up and rewarded (when Hsiang-ling gives the old woman her porridge). It also shown to be good to take into account the feelings of others, even those who are well below us on the social hierarchy (and hierarchy is a much bigger deal in the East than it is in the West).

As just a note of cultural interest, I think it’s really cool that the placement of chairs in a room and in relation to the host/hostess shows different amounts of honor to the guest. It’s very interesting to me.

I really could write a full blog post on almost every story in this collection, so I should stop, but if you get a chance, pick up this book! My other favorite in it is the final story, “The Royal Bridegroom.” (To pique your interest, I should tell you that the princess gets to her wedding chamber on her wedding night only to find out that she’s been mistakenly married to another girl, who’s been disguised as a man all her life…)

 

Twenty Jataka Tales

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So, this book I had to skim-read for work, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (Yes, my job lets me do awesome things like that sometimes.) In form, these stories are much like Aesop’s Fables—they’re short tales, often with an all-animal cast, and their purpose is to teach lessons. However, the lessons themselves are very different because these are not a product of the West. These are Buddha stories.

It’s really, really fascinating to see the cultural spin of lesson-giving tales. Aesop has morals like, “One bad turn deserves another,” “familiarity breeds contempt,” “yield to all and you will soon have nothing to yield.” Not that all of them are of this family, but a substantial number of them are.

Buddha stories, conversely, focus on teaching self-sacrifice, nonviolence, promoting others above self, rewarding patience and disparaging quick tempers… It’s really shocking, actually, how different the morals are.

Here are a few summaries for your sampling:
“The Young Parrot”: The King and Queen Parrot grow old, and their child-parrot grows up and brings food back for them since they are too weak to gather food for themselves. One day the parrots find a new field, and the farmer’s servant notices all the parrots, and particularly one that flies away carrying food in its beak. He tells his master, who has him set a trap. The prince-parrot steps into the trap, and all the other parrots desert him. The farmer asks the parrot why he is taking the farmer’s food, and the parrot replies that he is doing his duty by feeding his parents who are weak. The farmer smiles and tells the parrot he is welcome in that field every day.
Here we see the value of caring for parents rewarded. Also, Aesop has a fable that’s moral is “Never trust a friend who deserts you at a pinch,” which is where I thought this one was going—all the parrots deserted the prince parrot. But that wasn’t even mentioned in the end of the story! It wasn’t the point at all. Very interesting.

“The Master’s Test”: A master tells his students one day that they have run out of food and money and must steal to support themselves and him. He tells them it is alright because “we deserve money more than others,” and he instructs them to steal in the places where no one is watching. The students, eager to please their master, agree—all but one. One student is troubled and says to his master, “The plan you have explained seems to me impossible… there is no place wherein no one is watching. Even when I am quite alone, my self is watching. I would rather take a bowl and beg, than allow my self to see me stealing.” The master is pleased, and the other students are ashamed when they realize their master was testing them.
In this one we see, of course, conscience being taught. This is one of my favorites in the collection.

“The Great Elephant”: Far out in the desert is an oasis, the only permanent occupant of which is a hermit elephant. One day a group of hungry, thirsty, wearing men arrives, having been expelled from their kingdom by the king. The elephant, knowing how far the next city is, tells them to walk toward the hill before them, where they will find the body of an elephant that they can use for food and a stream running nearby. Then the elephant runs away, going to that spot by a different way, and jumps to his death to offer himself for them. When the men arrive, they realize it is the same elephant and weep bitterly. One says that they cannot eat the elephant that gave its life for them, but another responds that they must or else his sacrifice would be in vain. The men eat the elephant with tears in their eyes and are able to cross the desert, reaching the next city. They are always grateful to the elephant.
Here is taught the beauty of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others.

And these are not just a few that I picked out to make the point of the differences between East and West cultural values: all the stories in this collection are this way. You can pick any of these twenty and get some lesson along these lines. I am just fascinated by the cultural richness of the stories, particularly because, as an Intercultural Studies major, I sat through psychology and sociology classes that discussed the differences in basic cultural assumptions between East and West. So, I knew this before. But it’s cool that it even comes out in the “moral” literature, the oral traditions that we have passed down to teach our children what our societies find important.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

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Ari_DanteThis book was really, really good. And not at all what I expected. At all. At all. I really enjoyed the book, but the last thirty pages or so did not go where I thought they would. I thought about it for days afterwards because I was so surprised! [As a note on that, I find Ari’s dad’s logic at the end to be faulty. The facts of the situation do not have to lead to his conclusion. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean.]

Aristotle and Dante. Teenage loners with their own ways of looking at the world. Ari has a brother in prison and a dad in his own mental prison—he’s never been the same since he came back from Vietnam. From his parents, Ari learns not to talk: to keep everything he feels inside. And then there’s Dante. Dante talks about everything. Even/especially things most people don’t talk about.

And this is the story of them trying to figure out life. What is really important in life. How to relate to their parents. How to relate to girls. How to relate to each other. Especially after Dante decides he thinks he’s more interested in boys than in girls.

The author does a beautiful job of portraying teenagers grappling with—well, as he puts it, the secrets of the universe. One of the other things he does beautifully is tying in the weather. The settings of so many scenes are described in such a way that they often mirror the emotions of the characters, or form a contrast to them. It’s very well done, artistically speaking.

Other things I loved in this book:

  • Ari, about Dante: “There wasn’t anything mean about him. I didn’t understand how you could live in a mean world and not have any of that meanness rub off on you.”
  • “Through that telescope, the world was closer and larger than I’d ever imagined. And it was all so beautiful and overwhelming and—I don’t know—it made me aware that there was something inside of me that mattered.”
  • During a storm: “I wondered about the science of storms and how sometimes it seemed that a storm wanted to break the world and how the world refused to break.” I love this description.
  • “Somehow I’d hoped that this would be the summer that I would discover that I was alive.” Haunting.
  • “Scars. A sign that you had been hurt. A sign that you had healed. …Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing.”

Then, there’s this conversation between Ari and Dante:
Dante: “The funny thing is, I sometimes think my mother loves my father more than he loves her. Does that make sense?”
Ari: “Yeah, I guess so. Maybe. Is love a contest?”
Dante: “What does that mean?”
Ari: “Maybe everyone loves differently. Maybe that’s all that matters.”
I really resonated with this. Sometimes we perceive one person as loving more than another, and we can feel hurt because of it. But if we thought about it this way, maybe it would be different.
Another favorite moment: Ari: “Why does it matter so much?” Dante: “If it matters, then it matters.”
I like this because in high school (and some of college) I would beat myself up about why certain things mattered to me, and I wish they didn’t so I could just let go of them. I wish I’d had someone telling me that it was okay—if it matters to you, it matters. Good life lessons.

Speak

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speak (2)Speak is a really difficult-to-read novel about a fourteen-year-old girl who’s been raped. But for most of the book, you don’t know for sure – you just suspect. You do know that all her friends from last year won’t have anything to do with each other because she called the cops at a party over the summer when something happened to her.

Unable to talk about what happened, she becomes nearly mute altogether. The story is her working through her depression and all the other things that came with her experience. It’s really fascinating and heartbreaking all at the same time. I especially find it interesting as a writing device that the main event that sparks the story happens before the book actually begins.

So. Melinda’s starting high school with no friends. There’s one new girl, Heather, who seems to want to be her friend, but it turns out she just wants Melinda to help her with projects that will get her into her dream crowd. Then, there’s Mr. Freeman, Melinda’s eccentric-spiritual art teacher, who gives what ends up being a surprisingly meaningful assignment. (Sidenote: Reading this book made me want to spend more time creating art.)

In mentioning other characters, I should also say that I love that Melinda’s mom is described as being a person who “likes to do things other people are afraid of.” This is me! Also, Melinda’s lab partner, David Petrakis, is great – both as a funny, nerdy character and as someone who encourages her to speak up for herself.

Some great quotes:

  • “Nothing good ever happens at lunch. The cafeteria is a giant sound stage where they film daily segments of teenage humiliation rituals.”
  • Mr. Freeman: “Art is about making mistakes and learning from them.”
  • “So why does everyone make such a big deal of me not talking? …Maybe I don’t like the sound of my voice. Maybe I don’t have anything to say.” I think it’s sad when people believe this of themselves.
  • “Sometimes I think high school is one long hazing activity. If you’re tough enough to survive this, they’ll let you become an adult. I hope it’s worth it.” As a person who’s recently entered the ‘adult world,’ some days I tend to say it’s not! But there are lots of other days, too.

 

I love the extended metaphor throughout the book that connects Melinda with the trees she’s trying to draw and sculpt in her art class. She keeps trying to create this perfect tree, and she’s just never satisfied with it. In her attempts at drawing a tree, she says several times that she just “can’t make it come alive”—which is, of course, much like herself in this time of her life. In her attempts at sculpting/chiseling, Mr. Freeman finally says to her, “Scar it. Give it a twisted branch. Perfect trees don’t exist. Nothing is perfect. Flaws are interesting.” Such good advice about people, too—especially in learning to accept ourselves.

I loved watching Melinda’s journey of learning to speak again—learning to accept life, and herself, imperfections and all. Learning to stand up for herself. Learning to live again.

My favorite quote comes at the end, after Melinda has ‘spoken’: “Bruises are vivid, but they will fade.”

Robinson Crusoe

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So. This is one of those books I read because it’s a classic, not because I was really very interested in it for itself. And I don’t mind the older style of language (it was published in 1719). I mind that the author repeats himself extensively and that he’s constantly moralizing.

On the repetition issue: When Robinson Crusoe gets shipwrecked, he tells us about how he made it to shore, and how he survived his first week or two, etc etc. Then he tells us how he starts a journal with what paper and ink he brought to shore and quotes the journal—which tells us exactly what the narrative just said (often verbatim)! Really?! Once was enough! Fortunately, the repetition subsided after the first quarter of the book.

On moralizing: I’m all for authors including messages. Almost all authors do, and these messages are called themes. We look for them to figure out what the author wants to say by telling the story. But in this book, you don’t have to look for them. You’re slapped in the face by them. Robinson is continually telling us how if he had only honored God by obeying his parents, all of these terrible things wouldn’t have happened to him, but now that he’s seen the mercy of God in setting him upon a fruitful island, he’s repented, and so even though he’s stranded alone in the middle of nowhere, life is better… Barf. No subtlety whatsoever.

But, it was the 1700s. And the novel was just being invented. So I guess I should give Daniel Defoe some slack for that.

Moving on, here are some quotes I did like:

  • “Youth are not ashamed to sin, but are ashamed to repent.” – This I found interesting to ponder. It’s still very true today.
  • “I learned to look more on the bright side of my condition and less on the dark side… All our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.” – Again, still very true today.
  • “It was the sixth of November in the sixth year of my reign—or my captivity, which you please…” – I loved the humor of this!
  • He describes is life as “a life of Providence’s checkerwork.”

 

So I did enjoy quite a bit. The repetition was mostly at the beginning, so it didn’t make enjoyment of the text difficult all the way through. The moralizing did. But I enjoyed the old style of language quite a bit. And, well, it’s another classic to cross off my list!

The Awful German Language

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GermanThis is Twain’s essay on the difficulties of learning the German language and what could be done to remedy them. It’s… well, hilarious. Especially if you happen to know anything about German. (I was fortunate enough to take through third-year German in high school, and I didn’t find it nearly as obstinate as Twain does, but — to each his own…)

In warning, I should let you know that this post will be mostly quotes straight from Twain. He’s just so funny, I think it’s best to let him speak for himself. Prepare yourself to be amused.
As a general introduction to his subject, Twain writes:

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, ‘Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.’ He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it.”

Some further of his complaints against the German language:

  • Word order: “…well, in a German newspaper they put their verb way over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along on exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.”
  • Separable-prefix verbs: “The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance.”
  • Compound words: An entry from his notebook: “July 1 – In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient – a North-German from near Hamburg; but as must unfortunately surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died.”

Then, there’s this. It doesn’t fall neatly into a category, but it’s hilarious.

“I head lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer – the only word in the whole language whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word Damit. It was only the sound that helped him, not the meaning [footnote: It merely means, in its general sense, ‘herewith.’]; and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.”

Some of Twain’s suggestions for improving the language:

  • “In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case. It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident – and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is ever going to get out of it again.”
  • “Fourthly, I would reorganize the sexes, and distribute them according to the will of the Creator. This as a tribute of respect, if nothing else.” (As just one example, he said earlier that the word for turnip is feminine, while the word for girl is neuter.)
  • “Fifthly, I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments. To wholly do away with them would be best, for ideas are more easily received and digested when they come one at a time than when they come in bulk. Intellectual food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more beneficial to take it with a spoon than with a shovel.”
  • “…And eighthly, and last, I would retain Zug and Schlag, with their pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary.”
  • “If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”

So amusing. Twain continues to crack me up.

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody

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DeclineSo. This book is a humorous account of some prominent historical figures, from ancient Egypt through John Smith. It was given to me by my brother sometime when I was in middle school – 7th grade, I believe – and I started it but soon put it down. Why, you ask? Well, 1) I didn’t know enough history to know what was actual history and what was silly commentary, and therefore didn’t appreciate the humor, and 2) I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know enough to find it funny.

Now, here I am on the other side of college, and, well, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is hysterical. There are still parts here and there I don’t get, but I’m not ashamed to admit it anymore, and mostly, the book provides an opportunity to laugh to your heart’s content at the expense of history.

I love Cuppy’s social commentary:

  • “The Egyptians of the First Dynasty were already civilized in most respects. They had hieroglyphics, metal weapons for killing foreigners, numerous government officials, death, and taxes.” (8)
  • “He is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.” (38)
  • “The Romans were stern and dignified, living hard, frugal lives and adhering to the traditional Latin virtues, gravitas, pietas, simplicitas, and adultery.” (47)

…and his humorous footnotes:

  • “Full-grown, Philip was a smallish man with Hapsburg lip and a light yellow beard. Titian painted his portrait three times, but the results were only so-so. [Footnote: Even if you are Titian, you have to have something to work with.]” (107)
  • “Forty thousand peasants worked for years to build St. Petersburg. [Footnote: You can’t win. The city is now called Leningrad.]” (136) As a side note, this is when I realized when the book was written: 1950. Because, of course, the city’s name is back to St. Petersburg. I guess Peter the Great did win, after all.

…and then, too, his “translations”:

  • “…Imhotep the Wise, architect and chief minister to King Zoser, invented the pyramid, a new kind of huge royal tomb built of stone and guaranteed to protect the body of the Pharaoh and a large amount of his property against disturbance for all time. That is to say, Imhotep the Wise originated the idea of concealing the royal corpse and his treasure in a monument so conspicuous that it could not possibly be missed by body snatchers or other thieves.” (9)
  • “He [Louis XIV] was afterwards known as Louis le Roi Soleil, or Louis the Show-Off.” (113)

And then there’s those things that you have to know something about history to get, which are fun too: “Henry VIII had so many wives because his dynastic sense was very strong whenever he saw a maid of honor.” (167) …because, of course, the Wars of the Roses had just ended, years and years of struggle over who would rule because the last undisputed ruler hadn’t had a male heir. It all makes so much more sense now than it did in 7th grade…

I also love Cuppy’s brilliant little stating-of-the-obvious, as here: “Alexander’s empire fell to pieces at once, and nothing remained of his work except that the people he had killed were still dead.” (45)

Finally, he finishes up by discussing some royal pranks: “For some time after the passing of Edward II we find no record of any royal chair puller-outers, the English monarchs doubtless having practiced their favorite sport only in private, where it belongs.” (220)

 

If you like history at all and want to be entertained, this is a great book for you!

Radio Shangri-La

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Shangri-LaSo, this is the true story of an L.A. reporter who took six weeks off from her job in 2007 to travel to Bhutan – the happiest kingdom on earth – to help get their first radio station, Kuzoo FM, off the ground. Then she takes several more trips over the course of two years. It’s kinda midlife crisis meets travel/adventure meets spiritual seeking (with snippets of her past, and what was really nice was that (spoiler alert) it didn’t end with a fairytale love story or the-Westerner-moves-to-the-undeveloped-country-forever-and-adopts it or even with one neat, tidy spiritual answer.

I also really liked it because of lot of her experiences, both while in Bhutan and while processing her time there back home, reminded of my experiences in and with India. Here are some of those moments:

  • “When time is limited and the environment is so different than your own, relationships skip the ‘how do you do’ phase and go straight to the heart of friendship.”
  • “A wise older friend had warned me that most people wouldn’t know how to ask about my journey. ‘They’ll say, “How was Bhutan?” but they won’t really want to know. They won’t know what kind of questions to ask.’” Wow, is that true.
  • “I’ve learned that the ingredients for happiness are simple: giving, loving, and contentment with who you are.”

…and other great quotes:

  • When the narrator asks her friend the meaning of the giant penises painted on buildings, she got this response: “We believe it is wrong to envy what someone else has. When you have a phallus painted on the house people will be too ashamed to look and to covet what they don’t have. In this way, the phallus wards off evil spirits.”
    The author’s commentary on this interaction: “This had to be the most beautiful circuitous logic I’d ever heard.” Um, YES.
  • “I was making peace with myself, relaxing after a long war.”
  • On how her first trip to Bhutan came about: “It all seemed completely strange, and yet, completely normal, the way huge, life-altering experiences can almost feel like an invention, or a dream. Except that never in your wildest imagination could you have made them up.”
  • “A city is at its best, its purest, at dawn. Empty, raw. You can see the veins of it…”
  • “I’d never met such adventurous souls, people so committed to living life outside the sphere of comfort and routine most aspire to have… People who went out of their way, really out of their way, to meet other humans unlike themselves, and see how they really lived.” ß This is pretty much my life goal.
  • In contrast to fairytale love, “Sometimes – more often than not – love came to you in a short fit of wonder, warmed you, enthused you, and then vanished as suddenly as it had arrived. And that was okay, too.”

 

So, there was a lot I loved about this book. I loved seeing this place and its people through her eyes. I loved her willingness to be spontaneous, drop everything, and go explore something completely new to her. And so much more.

What made me sad were the parts that talked about Bhutan giving up parts of its culture because of Westernization. Of course I think that opening up, not being an isolated country, is a good thing. But I wish it didn’t have to mean loss of culture because everyone wants to be like the West. (It’s like high school all over again: everyone trying to be like someone else. Why can’t we all be friends – know each other, not isolationist – and still be ourselves?) It’s especially sad when, as in this story, people begin to think their own ways of life are “backward.”

But, before I get too much into criticizing culture loss, I’ll just stop here: this book is great.

How I Live Now

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HILNI finished this book four days ago and I’m still trying to process its emotional effect on me. I was completely lost in it for all of last week, and I was emotionally “off” some of those days because of what was happening in the book! And the funny thing is, if I’d known what the book was about, I don’t think I ever would have picked it up.

This book is about Daisy, a modern 15-year-old from New York City who has become anorexic as a protest to her dad’s choice in women (and because the hatred is so mutual that Daisy is convinced “Davina the Diabolical” is trying to poison her). Her dad sends her to spend the summer with her four cousins in England (who Daisy’s never met), and about a week after she arrives, World War III breaks out. And Daisy and her cousin Edmond fall in love.

And everyone gets separated, and we follow Daisy and Piper (a sweet 9-year-old girl who strongly reminds me of Psyche in Till We Have Faces) on their struggle against nature, the unnamed Enemy, and a serious lack of navigational skills as they try to make it back to Edmond and Isaac and their home. This section of the book is somewhat Hunger-Games-esque. (And while The Hunger Games was fine, it didn’t do that much for me.)
(And a quick note on Piper/Psyche: I was terrified the entire book long that Piper or Isaac or Edmond would die, on the principle that often people who are that pure and good and ‘otherworldly’ are taken – they just don’t seem to belong here. And also because the book was tail-spinning quickly towards tragedy. But despite my terror, I couldn’t stop reading, because I HAD to know what happened to all of them.)

And the whole tone of the book is that of a sarcastic, disillusioned teenager – which is, of course, exactly what Daisy is – but which also makes the book remind me of The Fault in Our Stars stylistically (which I also loved). It’s so…honest. And the nature of three of the four cousins – quiet, intuitive, almost supernaturally in tune with nature and other people, and quirky – reminds me of the Murray family from the Wrinkle in Time books.

While I love three of the four books I’ve said this one reminds me of, I don’t generally go for books where 1) there’s a survivalist/futuristic/nearly apocalyptic element, 2) the romance of the novel is between cousins (although this doesn’t bother me – 100 years ago marrying cousins was completely normal; it’s just that modern society has arbitrarily decided it’s weird), 3) the protagonist has an eating disorder… etc., etc.

So, why did I obsess over this book for the past week? Well, I’m somewhat still trying to figure that out. But I do have a partial answer: It addresses the topics of belonging, love, the fluid nature of the concepts of “family” and “home,” learning to cope in the absence of both physical and emotional needs, adapting and learning to simply go on under extreme circumstances, PTSD, learning to heal together — and nature being a part of that healing.

Here are some quotes I especially love:

  • Edmond gets the family together to go out fishing for a day: “And I forgot to say, ‘I hate fishing, and fish, too, now that you mention it,’… And next thing I knew, Edmond and Isaac and Piper and I were sitting in the jeep, and bumping down a bumpy old road, and the sun was streaming in the windows, and it felt much nicer than usual to be alive, even if it meant some fish were going to have to die.”
  • After the war begins: “As every day passed, you could see the panic on more and more people’s faces, and the rest carefully composed their features to look somber, and made clucking noises, and said how awful it was. But once we were away from them, we actually felt pretty cheerful and laughed on the walk back to the house – partly to cheer Piper up, and partly because it still felt like an adventure. And because the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful walk, war or no war.”
  • On how being in love is like being hungry for the other person, and Daisy relates that to her eating disorder: “But it was like some witch’s curse, where the more we tried to stop being hungry, the more starving we got. It was the first time in as long as I could remember that hunger wasn’t a punishment, or a crime, or a weapon, or a mode of self-destruction. It was simply a way of being in love.”
  • When Daisy and Piper are taken to live with an older couple, and Daisy is shocked that the Major is willing to tell her exactly where Edmond and Isaac are: “And after that I didn’t know what to say except possibly, ‘How about showing me exactly where on a map, and leaving me the car keys in case we decide to go see them in the dead of night and never come back?’ I don’t get nearly enough credit in life for the things I manage not to say. Of course, in order to survive, Piper and I needed to have a plan, and I was the one who was going to have to make it… because Piper’s job was to be a mystical creature, and mine was to get things done here on earth. Which was just how the cards were dealt, and there was no point thinking of it any other way.”
  • On why she was kept in the hospital: “I was dying, of course, but then, we all are – every day, in perfect increments. I was dying of loss.”
  • “The soldier had stamped my passport Family in heavy black capital letters, and I checked it now for reassurance, and because I liked how fierce the word looked. ‘I’m coming,’ I said silently to everything I’d left behind, and headed for the single, ragged bus that would take me home.”

Basically, you should read it. It’s wonderful.