Review | Russian Tattoo, Elena Gorokhova

21412301Elena Gorokhova follows up her memoir A Mountain of Crumbs with the story of her early life in America. From not knowing how to eat a hamburger to being overwhelmed by the wide range of choices at the grocery, her experience may strike a chord with readers who have moved to new countries themselves.

It certainly struck a chord with me — I fortunately never felt as confused by my new home as Gorokhova did, but I do remember having to learn things that my friends took as general knowledge. How to ride a bus and request a stop, for example. Or what a double double was (coffee with two creams and two sugars, for non-Canadian readers). Most of all, I remembered my mother, so confident and fluent in English back home, uncertain about how good her English sounded in her new country. Gorokhova’s story brought these memories to the fore, especially when she wanted a job teaching English as she did in Russia, only American English was different from the one she grew up with.

Russian Tattoo goes beyond Gorokhova’s adapting to America — even after she finds her footing, she has to learn how to deal with her new family and the arrival of her mother, whom she left Russia to escape. At one point, her husband tells her she needs to stop wishing for a new hand of cards and just work with the one she’s been dealt. Gorokhova’s response, that getting dealt a new hand altogether was her reason for leaving Russia in the first place, strikes a chord. Indeed, with all the changes you bring into your life, there are things you just can’t escape. Gorokhova herself realizes this later on when, raising her own daughter, she finds herself turning into the mother she tried so hard to escape.

The writing snags a bit in the episode with her brother-in-law fairly late in the book. While heartfelt and beautifully written, the brother-in-law is introduced such a short time before a significant revelation that I had to flip back a few pages to make sure I hadn’t missed this character earlier on. I understand that this mirrors Gorokhova’s experience — she too barely knew her brother-in-law at that point — but for a reader, it took away some of the impact. Overall, a beautifully written, moving glimpse into a family — three generations of women dealing with different cultural values and backgrounds and with each other.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

nph_bookLeave it to Neil Patrick Harris to take the celebrity memoir to an all new, absolutely freaking awesome level and dare I say, legen (wait for it) dary heights. I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books and Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser was one of my first and biggest celebrity crushes), so combining both just set my girly little heart all a-flutter. I’ll be honest — I was afraid the Choose Your Own Adventure format was too gimmicky to work for an autobiography — but I also knew that if anyone (celebrity or otherwise) could pull it off, it would be Neil Patrick Harris.

And pull it off he did. I cannot fangirl enough over NPH’s Choose Your Own Autobiographywhich was just three hundred pages of pure, unadulterated awesomeness. As a memoir, it doesn’t delve too deep, nor does it make any shocking revelations — partly due to format, though also likely due to NPH’s notoriously private nature and by all accounts, his actually having had a happy childhood. (This autobiography does provide the option of having an unhappy childhood, which leads to one of the very few comedic hiccups in the book. With multiple storylines to choose from, some are inevitably funnier and more entertaining than others.)

The best part about the format is that it puts the reader right in NPH’s shoes and takes you on quite a number of possible adventures. Just beginning the story is exciting — where will this adventure lead you? — and well, living NPH’s life is just a tad more glamorous than living my own. My first foray into being NPH, I ended up a career meat slicer at a deli and missing out on Doogie Howser etc altogether. This, I must admit, is pretty much how my Choose Your Own Adventure forays usually ended, except with myself being eaten by a crocodile or buried alive with an Egyptian mummy. Fortunately, this format gives us multiple chances to get it right.

My second attempt at living NPH’s life did get me into Doogie Howser, then eventually I meet the “rakishly handsome James Dean-like hot dude” David Burtka. That is probably my favourite chapter of the entire book, because it features David’s handwritten commentary about the meeting. For example, the James Dean description is circled and an arrow leads to the phrase “I wish!” When NPH writes that David is “well rounded,” David cracks “You calling me fat?” Then, in a line that just made me swoon, NPH says that if David is interested in you, “it’s because he’s decided you’re the kind of guy he wants to be with long-term. Longer-term. Longest-term.” Beside that in brackets, is David’s handwriting: “For forever term.”

After falling in love with David Burtka, I then happily go on work with Joss Whedon on Dr. Horrible and somehow make some other choices that end up with my drowning in quicksand. Seriously though, those choices were totally reasonable, and there was no reason I should have ended up in quicksand. No matter, on to take three.

In my third attempt at NPH’s life, I have children with David and learn the story behind their birth. NPH’s love for these kids just radiates off the page, and you have to check out this Oprah episode about their house and family because it’s all just too adorable. Then I go on to my personal ultimate goal: hosting various awards shows and learn the story behind the epic Tony’s opener “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”

I may have messed up the order in which I did these things, but, as with Choose Your Own Adventure books, it doesn’t matter. Each attempt at a life is a whole new adventure, and I figure each set of choices leads to you living NPH’s life in a completely different way. I completely missed out on How I Met Your Mother, performing on Broadway, being a magician and possibly a list of other things from NPH’s life that I don’t even know about. No matter, the book is here and waiting for me to step into NPH’s shoes once again. And again and again and so on, because NPH’s life is definitely one you’d want to experience over and over again.

Still need a bit more convincing? Hear from the man himself!

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. For more information on the book, visit nphbook.com.

Review | Empress Dowager Cixi, Jung Chang

17412743A visit to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Forbidden City exhibition (on view till September 1, 2014) reminded me of a book I had been meaning to read for months, but have somehow never gotten around to: Jung Chang’s biography Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. The ROM exhibit was fascinating, and gave me an idea of how complex the social structure was within the Chinese imperial court. There was even a digital interactive map of the Forbidden City, which had a spot marked with an intriguing tale of a concubine being thrown into a well by the Empress Dowager Cixi. I got the sense of a rather trapped existence, the emperor’s movements restricted within the city and potential spies everywhere. The ROM exhibit left me wanting more, and so I approached Jung Chang’s book eager to immerse myself even more deeply into the world I felt the museum exhibition barely grazed.

Chang’s book was an entertaining glimpse into some pivotal moments in Chinese history. The biography focused on Cixi as a political figure, and apart from one alleged relationship with a eunuch, didn’t give much insight to Cixi beyond her political role. It was also at times boring to read. The narration at times felt workmanlike, and some major historical events (the Boxer Rebellion) are barely glossed over. Why did the Boxers rebel in the first place, was it because of something Cixi did and what policies did Cixi employ to address these concerns? The book also felt one-sided — Cixi and the Western influence in China are good, people who want to keep the West out are bad — which made me feel that the story was not given the complexity it deserved. I later checked Goodreads reviews and learned that majority of historical accounts present Cixi unfavourably, and I wish Chang’s biography had given me a better understanding of why. As it was, she seemed like a total visionary whose results ended up on the right side of history, which then means it makes no sense for history to malign her.

That being said, there are some interesting points in the book, such as the steps Cixi took to obtain and keep power. I was most fascinated by Cixi’s relationship with the Empress — Cixi being the mother to the Emperor’s only son and the Empress being the official wife meant that both had to share the power when the Emperor died. Because there was such a resistance to women holding power, Cixi and the Empress chose to band together and present a united front rather than waste time battling it out. The result was an alliance that none of the male advisers could topple, and I loved that example of female solidarity winning against the patriarchy.

Overall, an interesting glimpse into Chinese political history, but not quite as exciting or as much of a page turner as I’d hoped.

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Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Elaine Lui

18339631Not just anybody can call their mother a squawking chicken and get away with it; then again, from her memoir, Elaine Lui (Lainey Gossip) has a pretty distinctive mother. “As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her,” Lui promises, revealing that “Squawking Chicken” is actually a nickname her mother earned when growing up in Hong Kong because of her “wailing siren” of a voice. We don’t literally hear the Squawking Chicken’s voice and Listen to the Squawking Chicken is ostensibly more about the author’s relationship with her mother rather than the mother herself, but indeed it is the character of the mother that dominates this book and leaves a lasting impression on the reader’s mind.

A quote often used in the book’s publicity, and it captures the feel of the book perfectly:

Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Chinese Squawking Chicken. But once they actually spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.

With such a title, Lui faces the risk of turning her own mother into a caricature, yet her obvious affection for the woman shines through, and even at her most “wailing siren” moments, Lui’s mother still retains the complexity and tenderness that makes her such a memorable figure.

The Squawking Chicken is at times a harsh mother, her love for her daughter expressed by making sure her daughter is well equipped for life’s disappointments. On the subject of Miss Hong Kong, she immediately dismisses her daughter’s chances, saying that her daughter didn’t inherit her good looks enough to be a contender for the title. When asked why she tells her daughter ghost stories rather than fairy tales in bed, she quite reasonably points out that it is the hard times that we should prepare for, not the good things that will happen. And when her daughter gets a bit too proud of a high mark in class, the Squawking Chicken loudly and publicly bemoans her arrogance given such an inconsequential achievement. In a world and at a time when children are routinely praised just for trying, it may be difficult to appreciate this somewhat harsher form of parenting, yet underlying it all is such an obvious desire for her daughter to be prepared for life.

Lui also gives us insight into her mother’s story, which reveals much about why she may have adopted such a parenting style. The image of the demure Chinese woman is a completely outdated stereotype, yet Lui’s mother does challenge the traditional Chinese adage about not airing dirty laundry in public. She is fearless in taking any family member’s dirty laundry to public eye, and in one of my favourite scenes, loudly and publicly confronts the mistress of one of her friends’ husband. The reason for this becomes clear as we learn more about her childhood, and the incident that tips her over and forces her to unleash her voice is horrific and somewhat inspiring, a superhero-level epic origin story that transforms an ordinary, nice woman into a remarkable figure.

Lui’s mother is fearless, because she has to be, and she teaches her daughter this same fearlessness. She is a dominant figure in her daughter’s life, and certainly after this book, she will also be a dominant figure in our imaginations. Peppered throughout the book as well are some useful life lessons — don’t cut bangs after thirty, eat a papaya a day (but for Lui’s husband, it must be a banana instead, because reasons) and don’t be “low classy”. Likely, nothing will happen if you don’t obey, and anything that does happen is likely just self-fulfilling prophecy. But, just in case, it can’t hurt to eat that papaya, can it?

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Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Eric Smith

17568806Calling all geeks! Ever wonder how to catch the eye of that gorgeous fellow geek? In this hilarious guide to dating, Eric Smith takes the geeky reader through the various stages of getting the date then beginning a relationship (or, reality check: possibly moving on) after that date.

The chapter titles are given geeky titles, mapping the dating landscape like an old school 1980s video game with some fun Star Trek and Star Wars references thrown in. “Engage, Player One” sets the ball rolling, and “Do or Do Not: There is No Try” gives tips on how to screw up the courage to ask someone out.

The book offers some pretty common sense tips on dating: start a conversation rather than a debate, clean out the junk in your car before picking your date up, put some effort into your outfit, and so on. There’s even a primer on how to kiss someone, though Smith cautions: “This isn’t the Konami code here, and trying to make out according to these directions (Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right) would only make things weird.”

Still, what sets this book apart, and makes it so much fun, is that all the tips are couched in geeky language — video game terms and science fiction references. A section on choosing the right wingman, for example, accords a number of points per option: a “Sharp Eye for Style” gets him “+250 to Armor”. A list of scenarios with tips on how to deal with them includes meeting someone at a video game store, or improving your online dating profile. I admit some of the references completely went over my head (what’s a “Kolinahr”?), but Googling them just added to the fun.

Minor complaint is that the book is completely geared to male geek readers. Smith does address this in the beginning of the book, and explains that while the text is ostensibly directed at males, a lot of the tips are equally applicable to female geeks. Fair enough, but as a female geek, I would have loved to see at least a gender neutral geek guide to dating, and if the tips are applicable to both genders anyway, why not write them as such? Or perhaps add some chapters dedicated to challenges particular to geeks from each gender. Or, on that note, someone please write a female geek’s guide to dating. Given how many books and publications on geekdom are already geared towards male geeks, it would be nice to have one written with a female geek audience in mind. Any female geek humourists up to the challenge?

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King

9780385666091Ross King’s Leonardo and The Last Supper is a solid historical work on the artist and one of his most famous paintings. King does a good job setting the stage, by writing about the historical context in which da Vinci creates, as well as examining details of da Vinci’s distinct style and how it fit in within the larger context of art history.

The Last Supper has been the subject of many other art works, and yet da Vinci’s version became iconic long before Dan Brown launched a new generation of conspiracy theorists. King does a good job in examining what set da Vinci’s version apart from all others, in terms of technique, form and treatment of subject matter.

It is also interesting to get to know a bit of the man behind the work. Da Vinci has become such a cultural icon that it’s difficult to separate him from the mythos around him. King keeps the book firmly on the ground, and contextualizes da Vinci within his time, as well as paints a portrait of a man who is much more flawed than his “genius” moniker suggests.

My only concern with this book is that despite the rich history it explores, the writing itself is very dry. The beginning seemed a bit slow, and snippets of really interesting observations seemed almost lost within paragraphs of detail. I wanted to love the book, and I did learn some interesting tidbits throughout, but unfortunately, it was just very, very slow-going for me.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Sex and the Citadel, Shereen El Feki

13152722How does one explore their sexuality in a society where open discussion of the subject is taboo? In Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab Worldthe author explores various aspects of the sexual lives of men and woman in Arab society. She writes with an engaging style, using first-person accounts and historical research to create a compelling portrait of a society’s attitudes towards sex.

In one humorous anecdote for example, she tries to explain a vibrator to a group of women who had never seen one. Trying to find the right Arabic word, she comes up with one that means “a thing that makes fast movements,” but then realizes that could equally apply to a hand mixer.

El Feki uses this and other such anecdotes to reveal a world that many Western readers may find difficult to imagine. She doesn’t present her subjects as exotic, but rather presents them with warmth, empathy and humour. As with the vibrator anecdote above, the similarity between a sex toy and a kitchen tool is funny, but also reveals the rather radical misunderstandings that can occur in a society where it is forbidden to speak of the subject in public.

Through the lens of sexuality, El Feki examines various aspects of Arab life. She speaks about the struggle for female empowerment, attitudes towards marriage and the single life, and other such topics. Particularly striking to me is an interview with a man fighting for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East. Unlike much of the Western world, this man desires to be seen as equal but is staunchly against same sex marriage, because this goes against his religious beliefs. El Feki therefore presents an alternative perspective even to subjects that Western readers may initially find familiar. More significantly, she presents dissenting views within the society, thereby preventing any impulse to generalize.

I grew up in the Philippines, where religious and political institutions have long suppressed a certain form of discourse around sexuality. A recent political battle has brought this struggle to the public eye, and while major steps have been taken to open this discussion, and many more continue to be taken on the level of the individual, there is much work left to do, and this indeed impacts upon many other aspects of society — women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and general perceptions of equality to name a few.

El Feki tackles an important subject and presents a wonderfully frank view of an aspect of Arab life. The book makes real the human beings behind movements and issues we may have only heard of, and therefore makes us care even more deeply. There is a fine balance between respect for custom and propagating institutional ignorance, and El Feki makes a compelling case about the dangers of the latter, and reveals how current events may, in fact, already be turning the tide.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.