The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

This is a sweet little adolescent lit book that my sixth graders have to read for seventh grade summer reading. I'd never heard of I decided to check it out.

At first, I was's a lot like House on Mango Street...but far less beautiful. It's about a Mexican American family living in Texas. The older daughter, Sofia, wants out...wants to build a better life for herself. The story's told in her voice...Like Mango Street , it's a series of little episodes or vignettes strung together...and initially, I couldn't see where it was headed. Unlike, Mango Street, the style seemed overly simplistic. The dialogue felt contrived...I almost put it down.

I'm glad I didn't!

In the end, it came together beautifully. It was really touching...and many of the images...the father's brown and white cowboy boots; the family gathered around the table for sobremesa, cups of coffee in hand; the homemade cascarones, the glow-in-the-dark rosary; the pinto bean ritual; the Christmas nacimiento...will stay with me for a long, long time. So will the characters.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

After trudging through When Everything Changed, I needed to get lost in a good story. Girl in Translation was perfect! It was completely absorbing.

Given Kwok's bio on the jacket flap, I'm guessing it's largely autobiographical. Like her protagonist, Kimberly Chang, the author emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. as a child and worked alongside her family in a sweatshop. As I was reading, I imagined Kwok's and Kimberly's voices intertwined.

In the novel, Kimberly's father dies when she's very young, and she and her mother come to New York looking for a better life. What they find is hardship after hardship. Neither of them speak English. They move into a filthy, roach-infested apartment in an abandoned building with no heat. Kimberly says, "Even now, my predominant memory of that phase of my life is of the cold. Cold like the way your skin feels after you've been slapped, such painful tingling that you can hardly tell if it's hot or cold. It simply registers as suffering..."

Kimberly and her mother have debts to repay and are forced to work in a sweatshop in Chinatown. The conditions are horrific...the pay is negligible...1.5 cents per skirt. Kimberly calculates whether or not something is expensive by how many finished skirts it costs. She says, "In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts..." After their debts, plus interest, are deducted from their paycheck, they have very, very little money left over. It's hard to imagine circumstances so dire.

But Kimberly is determined to overcome all these obstacles and build a better life for herself and her mother. She is extremely smart and dedicates herself to her studies, earning a full scholarship to a prestigious secondary school, Harrison Prep. She is one of only a few minority students there...the only one who is so poor. Her desperation to fit into the Harrison world...the anxiety...and the embarrassment...are agonizing...But she persists and eventually flourishes.

It is at that moment when a full scholarship to Yale is on the table and everything she's hoped for is within her grasp, that Kimberly is faced with a painful decision. She explains, "There's a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. Those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At a time when it seemed that everything I'd ever wanted was finally within reach, I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life." (It's the "Road Not Taken" phenomenon.)

Ultimately, Kimberly sacrifices love, acceptance, and her own happiness for the life she believes she should pursue. She winds up successful, which is a relief, but I'm not sure she's fulfilled. At the end of the novel, she still seems torn between two worlds...

I guess a thoroughly happy ending would have been too trite...I suppose I was foolish to hope for one. Still, Kimberly's (Kwok's?) determination is amazing and inspiring...her voice, captivating...her story, un-put-down-able. It was easy to get lost in Girl in Translation.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Finally Finished

It took weeks...and some serious determination...but I finally finished When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins. It was an epic but eye-opening journey.

It's amazing how rapidly things changed for women in this country. It was only 50 years ago that the Physical Education Department Chair at Indiana University said "girls are psychologically unfit" to participate in athletic contests because "they would cry all the time if they lost." It was only 36 years ago that the female MAYOR of Davenport, Iowa was told she couldn't have a BankAmerica card unless she got her husband's signature. And it was only about 30 years ago that Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and Representative Ron Dellums, the only black member of the Armed Services Committee, were forced to share a chair because, according to the committee chairman, they were each worth "only half a regular member."

Given the prevalence of that kind of attitude, it's crazy that a mere 30 years later, I haven't felt any after-effects. I think, here in the South especially, racial discrimination is still an issue. Unfortunately. The tension between blacks and whites, still palpable. But I don't think sexism persists in the same way. I grew up playing sports, studying advanced math and physics, believing I could be anything I wanted to be; and until I read this book, I didn't realize how relatively modern that kind of experience is.

I also never fully realized before, that whether consciously or subconsciously, I am a product of the culture created by the feminist movement. My sense of self has been shaped by it...the choices I've made have been influenced by it. No one directly indoctrinated me, but the spirit of feminism is alive inside me. I want to have it all. The only difference between me and the women of my mother's generation is that perhaps I realize how difficult managing it all can be. I've seen others who have gone before me, and I don't know how they did it. I don't know if I'm cut out for it...or if I even want to set off down a path that is inevitably chaotic and stressful. I want to have it all, but I don't want all the craziness that comes with it...and that desire coupled with that fear can be pretty paralyzing.

At the end of the book, I was left wondering if the pendulum isn't beginning to swing back the other direction. So many women from the last chapters of the book (and so many of the women I know) are tired of trying to balance career and family. More and more are opting for one over the other...or pursuing one for so long the other becomes an impossibility.

There's an interesting little section near the end of the book where Collins points out that in 2006 more than 56% of undergraduate college students were female, and their graduation rates were better than the boys. Newsweek did a cover story on "The Boy Crisis," and George W. Bush's secretary of education said the dominance of women in higher education has "profound implications for the economy, society, families, and democracy."

So...I wonder where we're headed? More stay at home dads...more female politicians, CEO's, doctors, and lawyers...government funded daycare? Or fewer women who choose to work outside the home...fewer who are involved in making the big decisions...fewer role models for little girls? Are we going to see a backlash against the feminist movement and the notion that women should be able to have it all? What will the next 30 years bring?

Monday, May 3, 2010


There are so many unbelievable stories in When Everything Changed ...I could go on and on and on. Here's just ONE...

Collins explains that doctors in the 1960's (all male, of course) took the attitude that women were like children...they panicked easily and were better off knowing as little as possible. It was apparently common for a woman who found a lump in her breast to go into surgery for a biopsy and wake up having undergone a complete mastectomy. "The patient either woke up to find she had a Band-Aid...or no breast..."

In one particular case, 23-year-old Barbara Winslow took her husband with her when she went to see the doctor. After examining her, Winslow's doctor said a biopsy was needed. He also informed the couple that he would immediately perform a mastectomy if the tumor was malignant. At that point, he passed the consent form to WINSLOW'S HUSBAND to sign. When Winslow asked why SHE wasn't the one being asked to give permission, her doctor replied, "Because women are too emotionally and irrationally tied to their breasts."