Archive for April, 2011

“Cakes. Great fat profiteroles of oozing cream. Slices of neat chocolate, alternately white and dark, held together with the merest scattering of liqueur-soaked ratafia crumbs. Cauliflowers of green marzipan, the curd made from ground almonds bound with honey and rosewater. Squares of rich shortbread studded with almonds and smothered with fudge. Milk-feuille layered with freshly pureed raspberries instead of jam, and creme patissiere. Lemon and orange jumbles drenched in powdered sugar. Vanilla meringues supreme, moist little curls of chestnut puree peeping out. Frangipanes.” ( p. 194 of Written in Blood by Caroline Graham)

Poor Inspector Barnaby. I can imagine just how miserable he must have felt looking at this display, especially when he had toast with low-fat faux butter for breakfast. Barnaby is not extraordinarily eccentric, or charming, but he is clearly intelligent, not unkind, and has a certain appeal that is absolutely necessary for the (Inspector Barnaby) series to survive. He shares an amusing dynamic with his Deputy, Sergeant Gavin Troy, again an essential chemistry.

The setting is a village, Midsomer Worthy, and concerns its Writing Circle. This group of wannabe writers meet once a month at host Gerald Hadleigh’s place. This month, they have a celebrity guest, writer Max Jennings. Gerald, who we gather has some unpleasant association with Max in the past, is none too eager about the visit and asks Writing Circle member Rex to not leave him alone with Max. However, Max tricks the rest of the group into leaving and traps Gerald and himself alone in the former’s house. The next morning, Gerald is found dead.

Author, Catherine Graham, certainly succeeds in creating a compelling mystery – Gerald’s past is an enigma, the members of the writing circle are reminiscent of characters in Miss Marple mysteries (perhaps because the setting is so similar), the relationships are complex. There is oppression, unrequited love, loneliness, class consciousness and far too many secrets, far too many themes. The solution to the puzzle, though ingenious, seems a stretch and ‘over coincidental’.

Many of the whodunits I recently read have been impressively satisfying for about the first three-quarters of the book. They’ve been so good, that they were bad – they dragged me into ‘the great oblivion of the good mystery’, the kind that is responsible for unwashed laundry, undone dishes, missed gym appointments, staying up late, overeating or under eating, and a general state of pleasurable obliviousness. And then, the moment I’ve been waiting for arrives: the who, the how, the why and the when. And leaves me profoundly dissatisfied.

What makes a mystery great? Good writing? Great characters? The ability to create this great oblivion? How vital is the denouement? Can brilliant characterizations (as in Barbara Vine mysteries such as The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy and A Fatal Inversion) make up for conclusions that somehow fail to deliver? One mystery, which in my opinion, has a splendid denouement, is Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, where everything falls perfectly into place at the end, all the little pieces, and life makes sense.

And the search continues, for great plot lines, and satisfying finales.


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Targeting tots in the 50s

My son likes Elmo. I like Ernie better. He doesn’t care much for Barney, but I know other toddlers who love the purple dinosaur.

Now, I didn’t grow up watching the Sesame Street Muppets. Or Miss Piggy and Kermit. In fact, I don’t remember watching much TV at all during my early school years. Of the time when I was a toddler or a pre-schooler, I have no recollections of any media time at all. And this was the 1980s. In fact, I hadn’t really heard of the Muppets until my own son got his first own Elmo as a gift. And then I discovered the wonderful world of Sesame Street, mostly of the 1970s during its early years. I watched videos such as the classic “We all sing with the same voice“, “I don’t want to live on the moon“, and “What’s the name of that song?” and learned them ‘by heart’.

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street starts with a history of programming for pre-schoolers in the United States. One such show that aired in the 1950s and the 1960s was the Ding Dong School. This 30 minute show was, I gather, anchored single handedly by Dr. Francis Horwich. This show pioneered the ‘conversational style’ so popular in children’s (and other) programs today and Dr. Horwich would ‘talk’ to the children on her show,even pausing in between her questions, as if they were talking back to her, such as in this 1953 episode:

Good Morning. What day is it?


You’re right. Friday. What’re you going to do?


Are you? Good!


Tomorrow too?

Oh. I hope it’s a nice day and you can play outdoors..

I found an entire episode, complete with bubble making, story reading, and napkin folding.

This show was also genius for other reasons: it literally served as a vehicle for advertisements of products that appealed to children. There was no subtle product placement. Instead, there was Ms. Horwich, right in the middle of the show, blowing the bubbles and fishing out a packet of Wheaties (or Kix or whatever), and urging boys and girls:

“…when your mother goes to the store, you help her find the brand new Wheaties box. And when it’s breakfast time, or lunch time, or supper time, what’re you going to do? You’re going to fill a cereal bowl with Wheaties. Say it. Wheaties! Breakfast of Champions!”

I can practically hear all those kids, who adored Dr. Horwich, begging their mothers to ‘please, mommy, can you please get me some Wheaties’. Those were some powerful endorsements, and very clever.

Fun as the Ding Dong School must have been, I am happy I don’t see Elmo, or Rosita, or Ernie, or any of those furry colorful monsters, half of whose names I do not know, exhort prechoolers to ask their moms for some strawberry flavored sugar crystals.

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JCO on becoming a widow

On the whole, I must admit I am now quite curious about Joyce Carol Oates. I hadn’t read a single work of hers, and did not know what she looked like before I heard her talk with Tom Ashbrook one windy Spring day. And I learned that she was based just a few miles (in Princeton) out of where I lived and that she’d recently published her memoirs – specifically her memoirs on becoming a widow after 47 years of marriage to Raymond Smith. Ray’s death was very sudden, and JCO spoke about how his passing left her an emotional cripple, and how her professional obligations were really what egged her on during a very difficult period. She spoke often about her ‘target audience’ – widows and widowers, and ‘hoped’ that the book would help them in some measure.

What really stood out to me in those 40 odd minutes of the conversation, was her talking about, and reading a passage from the book A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, where she describes a voice memento of her husband’s – a recorded message on their home phone that she hung on to for a year or so after his death, dialing the home number a few times a day just to hear his voice. I was so touched by this admission, and I could easily picture it in my mind – as if a scene from a movie, of a widow frantically dialing her own number again and again, and trying to capture the essence of the dead person’s voice, etching in her memory the nuances of the voice, the words, and the cadence as the last, ‘living’, memory of this person no longer living.

I was now curious about the book, curious about JCO’s other books, having never thought of reading them. I then came upon a not very charitable review of his book, in New York Times, no less. Critic Maslin raises some questions: why does JCO who dwells on episodes such as that of the voice message, and yet choose to ignore her emerging relationship with soon-to-be second husband? (JCO, in the podcast, says that talking about her second husband in a book about her first husband, would not quite be right). Is JCO tapping into the “lucrative loss-of-spouse market”, she asks. I need to read the book and really see if JCO makes a less than complimentary allusion to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking – another memoir of grief.

I am now a great deal more curious about the book, and JCO’s other works, though I am not quite sure where to begin. Sourland? The Assignation? Give me your heart?

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Half the Sky is about women around the world, more specifically about ‘Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’. During my stint in the world of global public health/non-profits, words like ‘oppression, ‘maternal mortality’, and especially ’empowerment’ were sprinkled liberally in office meetings, reports, and even while casually talking shop. I feel that many of these words are so vague and overused, that I am wary of reading something on ‘oppression’ or ’empowerment’ unless it has a really specific agenda.

I hadn’t heard of Half the Sky until very recently, and only just visited their website. I wish I’d read this book while in grad school, when we had all these case studies about health communication, and cultural and social barriers that can completely undermine the best of intentions and lofty goals, and also the billions in funding that often goes into ‘development’ projects. In fact, I think that this book together with The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down should be essential reading for all students of global public health. If my word isn’t enough, you can browse the accolades the book has received from, no less than, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie.

So, I thought I would be reading about women’s status (or lack of it) worldwide, and then about some conventions and treaties, peppered with lots of statistics. Half the Sky is powerful and provocative because of the stories in it, all involving women, all involving varying degrees of tragedy, and all causing me to alternately shudder and be inspired. Authors Kristof and WuDunn focus on three main areas: sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality, and in doing so look mainly at grassroots efforts with local buy in, and why they succeeded, often when other well-intentioned efforts failed.

I read about forced prostitution, slavery no less, methamphetamine addiction that keeps the girls going back to the brothels (they are drugged so as to make them more compliant), and HIV/AIDS. I read about extreme violence, gang rapes, some sanctioned by society and even constituting ‘tradition’.

“…Ethiopian law explicitly provided that a man could not be prosecuted for violating a woman or girl he later married [emphasis mine]”.

An Ethiopian girl who was raped was told by the judge, “He wants to marry you. Why are you refusing?”. Why indeed.

I read about the international obsession with virginity, and honor killings. When Sudanese student, Hawa, was gang raped, she was refused medical treatment, and worse, chained in prison because”

“sex before marriage was a crime, and she could not provide the mandatory four adult male eyewitnesses to prove that it was rape [emphasis mine]”.

And in Pakistan, a gynecologist warns rape victims not to go to the police,

“because if a girl goes to the police, the police will rape her”.

The stories get better and the reasoning even more so. Rape is no longer about desire, but about strength and power.

I read about maternal mortality and obstetric fistula (A Walk to Beautiful is a simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring documentary about Ethiopian women and fistula). This book has a very important chapter, Why do women die in childbirth, that explores the myriad biological, social, infrastructure-related reasons that conspire to kill women. Indeed, these issues are very complicated and stem from factors such as societies that traditionally consider women inferior and disregard them, where women are not mere victims but co-conspirators, where girls are denied education, where family planning is not an option, and where health systems do not exist.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the description of projects that failed or came close to it. Such as the FemCare initiative to distribute free sanitary pads to girls in Africa that ran into challenges because schools lacked toilets, running water – and the project failed to take into account cultural taboos about blood. Such as the project to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission that seemed to do everything right – provide necessary shots, formula, bottles and inform HIV positive mothers about the importance of not nursing their infants. The mothers breastfed their babies anyway, because not doing it would immediately brand them as HIV positive and they would surely be stigmatized by their society.

I read about the microcredit revolution and the challenges it presents. About female genital mutilation and girls who ask to be ‘cut’ because they don’t want to be left out.

The book reaffirmed what I, and everyone learns in their Research 101 class – research, research, research before doing anything. No one solutions works in every case and many practices are heavily defended as being part of a culture’s ‘tradition’. But, the book is also a call to action, whether you want to volunteer and get your hands dirty, or donate for a worthy cause, or even advocate for women’s rights. After all, women do hold up half the sky.

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The Kid

I wasn’t really looking for The Kid. I browse other people’s book lists quite often (on their very public profiles) with the generally harmless intention of picking books for my own ‘books I plan to read’ (virtual) bookshelf. One such book I’d marked was taken from the list of a reader, who, as my virtual book cataloging tool told me, had very similar tastes in books. It was The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage and My Family by a Dan Savage. Now, I’d never heard of Savage, never stumbled upon his sex column and don’t really read books on ‘relationships’. But, this book seemed to be highly regarded by many, as a quick search revealed, and that intrigued me. So, that’s how I ended up looking for The Commitment in my library. In the meantime, I’d googled Dan Savage (or the book, I don’t remember which) and was armed with two tidbits: Savage is gay and writes for a syndicated sex column. That made the book that much more readable in my eyes.

Sadly, my library doesn’t carry a copy of The Commitment, but it had one of his other books: The Kid: What happened after my boyfriend and I decided to go get pregnant. Under this title, is a brief description: An adoption story. Which it is, but what an adoption story!

Just as I wear glasses that color everything I see, do and write about, Savage’s book is certainly written from a very unique POV, and one that I don’t have much access to. My glasses are female, Indian living abroad, mother, heterosexual. Savage’s is very homesexual, among other things. And that changes things quite a bit, doesn’t it? I’ve noticed that fellow Indians living in America have this not very good habit – whenever they think they’ve received unfair treatment, at the line in Walmart, from the waitress, from the guy behind the Starbucks counter, or at a job interview, some part of them is only too willing to think “If I were white, would they have done this to me?”. The color of our skin, our funny accent, and our initial unfamiliarity with unwritten social rules, mark us, in our eyes, as the ‘outsider’. And that, and only that, must be why we are sometimes treated differently and unkindly. When I read this book, I understood how all minorities must be guilty of this kind of thinking, and very naturally so. A gay man is automatically marked as the ‘other’, and that colors everything this man sees and perceives. The ‘other’, any ‘other’,  is automatically subject to excessive scrutiny, and his life and actions are constantly examined under the microscope to find something, anything that can be held against him.

The adoption story made me cry. And that means I loved it. Sentiments aside, it is a unique adoption story: Gay men, open adoption, gutter-punk birth mother – certainly doesn’t sound like a story I’ve heard before. Gutter punk culture and spare changin’ aside, Savage does raise some important questions. Such as, ‘how did people raise kids before plastic came along?’. I wonder. When my son was born, I hated all the plastic in my living room – the swing, the toy cars, the toy bins, and the high chair, plastic toy telephones, plastic cricket bats, plastic puzzles, plastic xylophone, plastic sippy cups and bottles – yes, what did people do before plastic, indeed.

The book is fantastic. It made me laugh AND cry, which hasn’t happened very often. Except maybe with An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination. Which I loved as well.


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On collectivism

All through grad school, and especially during the first semester, I heard the words ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’ very frequently. Part of it had to do with the fact that my program dealt with culture and communication. Also, the first semester is when international students, such as me, took part in mandatory gatherings and were passed around photocopies of notes supposed to demystify ‘American Culture’ and the ‘American Way of Life’. A lot of emphasis was placed on contrasting American and Asian cultures, understandably so, since the largest population of international students was from this other continent.

Cultural differences between America and Asia were almost always summed up (and oversimplified) using these two words: individualism and collectivism. I always took individualism to mean ‘individual centered’. But collectivism puzzled me.  As an Asian, Asian life and society did not in the least seem united, helpful, and together, the way collectivism implied. I  took collectivism to mean ‘deference to society’.

Here is what Peter Hessler has to say in River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, his account of his life in Fuling and an intelligent commentary on its landscape, people and history.

“My students often wrote about how the Chinese were collective-minded, which aspired them to help each other through Socialism, while the individualistic Americans followed the selfish road of Capitalism.

I didn’t agree that our countries’ political differences were so neatly (and morally) explained by these contrasting attitudes toward the individual and the group…(although) the families I knew in Fuling were arguably closer than the average in America…remarkably generous with each other, and often this selflessness extended to good friends, who were also drawn into tight social circles…(the elderly) were much better cared for than in America.

But such collectivism was limited to small groups, to families and close friends…or work units, and these tight social circles also acted as boundaries: they were exclusive as well as inclusive, and the average Fuling resident appeared to feel little identification with people outside of his well-known groups.”

As examples, Hessler discusses ticket lines (queues in India have always bothered me as being inconsiderate and openly selfish – what collectivism?), “where every person fought with no concern for anybody else. It was a good example of collective thought … Collectively the mobs had one single idea – that tickets must be purchased – but nothing else held them together…”. Hessler also talks about Fuling’s reaction to pickpockets – “As long as a pickpocket did not affect you personally, or affect someone in your family, it was not your business”. And, another classic example, the instinct that led  mobs to gather around accident sites, “staring passively but doing nothing to help”.  He says that in individualistic America, where people wanted a community that served the individual, people often helped because they put themselves in the victim’s shoes.

Quotes from River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (pp. 111-112).

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