Amanda Gates
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A Musings - January 2008

This book is very dense, so it's taking me awhile to get through it. But it's a good kind of dense. Not boring at all. In between the story of Lia's family's fight with her doctors, Fadiman tells the backstory of the family and how they arrived in the U.S.

I've learned about the U.S. secret war, or "Quiet War" or Laotian Civil War, in Laos during Vietnam. A war that was so secretive people still don't know all that much about it. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong people fought on our side during this Quiet War, and thousands and thousands died. The war was led by General Vang Pao. (If the name sounds familiar, he was in the news last summer for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government of Laos.) When Vang Pao had to surrender after many years of fighting, the remaining Hmong were displaced from their homes and had to migrate to Thai refugee camps, and then many eventually came here and were spattered about the country. Lia's parents made this journey, losing children and other family members along the way.

Fadiman then talks about what happens when Hmong arrive here: how they're treated, how they act, how they survive. The facts are not uplifting. But I'm enjoying this book for the fact that I'm learning a lot about a culture and a time in history that they don't teach you about in school.

Posted: Wed, 01/30/2008 - 02:39 | Comments: 1

I’m so torn with this book! I try to be culturally sensitive and respect the way Lia’s parents want to medically treat her. Also, the communication barrier is impossible to break. These parents don’t understand how to administer the medicine, which only frustrates the doctors more. I can see the difficulties from both sides. On one hand, these doctors really just want what’s best for their patient, but they can’t communicate this to her parents. On the other hand, the Lees are very wary of Western medicine as it is, and when the meds don’t show instant improvement, they stop administering them to Lia. Fadiman writes about how residents and pediatricians at this hospital are physically sick because of this family – they’re depressed, stressed, nervous, confused. Their ability to make this patient better is hindered by the cultural barriers. One doctor, knowing what a trial it is to work with the Lees, would vomit before each meeting. How awful. But, I also know if I lived in another country and I got sick (or a family member did) and I couldn’t communicate with the doctor or read the prescription information, well, I’m not sure I would take the medicine either – or I would probably administer it wrong.

I know every doctor can’t be expected to know the ins and outs of every culture that may walk through his/her door. When is it OK to talk to an English-speaking relative? When must you address an elder? Do they have certain beliefs that deter them from following certain instructions? It seems wrong to me that the best option of communication they may be able to find is a Hmong janitor who speaks a bit of English. How is either side supposed to trust a stranger to communicate the most personal of problems?

Posted: Thu, 01/24/2008 - 03:21 |

I’m barely into this book, but I’ve already learned so much. This is why I love to read nonfiction and literary journalism, such as this, The Overachievers, Postville, etc. I leave the book with so much more knowledge then when I began. This book looks at a Hmong family living in California and how they disagree with the doctors on how to treat their epileptic daughter. So far I’ve learned the history of the Hmong people, which I have to say, I knew nothing about. They’re a fierce people and definitely don’t like to be pushed around. When it comes to your children, I think that’s a good quality to have.

One thought that stuck with me so far was in the author’s, Anne Fadiman, preface, when she talks about how when she set out to tell this story, she figured she could remain neutral and the facts would tell her who was right and who was in the wrong. In the end, she ended up liking both sides and learned to think differently about the situations at hand. I thought immediately of my sentiments regarding Postville. Here again, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about finding common ground – respecting the other’s culture/way of thinking. I’m anxious to learn how it all turns out.

Posted: Tue, 01/22/2008 - 02:16 | Comments: 1

The first of my holiday selections I decided to read was Lorna Landvik’s latest. Landvik, a native Minnesotan author, actress and humorist, has written many novels that take place throughout the state. I’ve enjoyed them all, some more than others, and The View From Mount Joy falls right in the middle. (My favorites? Tall Pine Polka and Patty Jane’s House of Curl.)

Landvik’s books always revolve around quirky characters and families, and usually women. However, this book is narrated by a guy. It opens as Joe, the narrator, starts high school (in the 70s), having moved from Wisconsin to Minneapolis. He strikes up an interesting “friendship” with the head cheerleader Kristi and an unbreakable, platonic bond with hippie Darva. The book follows Joe through the next 30 years, and how these two women float in and out of his life – sometimes remarkably, sadly, full of fun and infuriatingly.

Landvik’s humor is always flowing strongly through her novels. You’ll laugh out loud and cry, too. I think I prefer when she takes the p.o.v. of women, but she did a pretty good job writing from a male perspective, too. Many of her other books take place in out state Minnesota, so it was fun to read about Lake Hiawatha and other Twin Cities landmarks that I know more about.

Posted: Mon, 01/21/2008 - 05:31 |

I’m working on a column for one of the publications for which I write/edit. I decided to take a look at the generation gap in the workforce (since the magazine is a business one). Right now Gen X (depending on who you ask, those born 1965-77) and Gen Y (1978-1990) make up a majority of the workforce. Soon the Baby Boomers will retire and Gen Y will actually be the majority of the workplace workers. As all of these newbies are entering the workplace, Boomers are having a little trouble relating. I felt this was an interesting topic to explore.

There have been many books and articles written about this new generation – Y or Millennials or whatever you want to call them (us). “Adults” can’t seem to figure us out. I first got fired up about this topic in November when I saw a 60 minutes segment, “The Millennials Are Coming.” Some of the things these experts claimed: we’re spoiled, selfish, self-absorbed and don’t know what it’s like to punch a time clock. I know there are exceptions to every rule, but if I look at my entire circle of friends, I can actually find many exceptions staring back at me. So, something has to be wrong with this theory, right?

I picked up Generation Me by Jean M. Twenge to read up on her insights. She lumps some of X, Y and Millennials into one group: GenMe (1970-2000-ish). So, at 33, she’s considered a member. I haven’t read to book in its entirety, just the introduction and all the parts relating to the workplace, but I find her insights interesting. While we may be more forward and feel more entitled – after all our parents (those same Boomers) told us we could do whatever we want – we do have more acceptance of diversity, more knowledge of new technology, the ability to think outside the box and the willingness to learn new things.

Twenge also covers sex, equality and depression in her book. At the end, she offers suggestions to older generations on how to relate better to the puzzling beast that is GenMe. I didn’t agree with everything she had to say, because she is forced to generalize, but I did learn more about myself and more about how older generations think as well.

Posted: Wed, 01/16/2008 - 04:53 | Comments: 2

I finished this book last night. I read about Renee's death on the bus, but it didn't make me cry like I thought it would. Maybe that's because I knew it was coming for the entirety of the book? I mean, it says so right on the back. However, the final two chapters made me weep as I read before I went to bed. He talked about what it meant to be a widow, a young widow. You're this animal alone in your world. No one knows what you're going through. All your friends still have their significant others. He talked about all the new bands and songs that came about after Renee's death that she would love and how hard it was to love something without her to share it with him.

Sadder for me then her death, was Rob telling how he eventually (many years later) fell in love again. It felt like a betrayal to me, though in my heart of hearts, I know it would be important to let yourself love again. I loved this book and I highly recommend it to those who love music, all kinds of music, and those who love deeply every day.


On a musical note, I've been listening to Liz Phair this week. I can think of no other person but Willikat when I listen to Liz Phair, and not because she met Liz or loves her to death, but because it brings me back to one of the first times I hung out with Willikat. I remember sitting on the floor of her college apartment bedroom as she played Liz songs for me over and over, and sang her favorite parts to me. Willikat makes some of the best mix CDs and I'm lucky to be the proud recipient of a couple of them myself. Just as I'm lucky to be her friend.

My bff 4you also made a very special mix CD for me, featuring lovely, but rockin', songs by PJ Harvey, Liz Phair and a bonus Offspring track. I played this CD as background music on the first several dates with hubby - we would stay up late talking, listening and laughing to this CD. Those songs will always hold a special place in my heart, bringing me back to the time I fell in love for real life and for forever.

Posted: Tue, 01/15/2008 - 02:17 | Comments: 2

The last few chapters I've read have been about when Rob met Renee, their courting days and then their marriage. He writes about how they used to go for drives and sing along to the music, doing duets - her Mary, him Peter and Paul, etc.

This reminded me of an ultimate geekdom story from my past: Sitting on the marching band bus on the way to a parade sophomore year of high school, alternating the parts of California Dreamin' with the back of the bus. Whenever I hear that song (which is often as it's on my iPod, thank you Forrest Gump soundtrack) I think of this time in my life. Every time.

Rob also talks about adjusting to living with someone, and the fights you have. It's funny how all couples fight about pretty much the same things. When they fought, he liked to wash dishes to make himself calm down. His washing dishes mix tape was the Top 40 hits of 1992. You know, Kris Kross "Jump" (sixth grade Halloween party for me); Madonna "This Used to be my Playground" (remember A League of Their Own?); and Right Said Fred "I'm Too Sexy" (who doesn't have memories about this song?).

Love this book so far.

Posted: Fri, 01/11/2008 - 02:40 | Comments: 1

Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and his memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, tells his story through the songs on his favorite (or most significant) mix tapes. The story mostly revolves around Rob's eight years with his wife, who died unexpectedly at a very young age. The two of them bonded over music, making mix tapes for every occasion: road trips, walks, workouts, washing dishes, etc.

I've only just started reading this, but I've found it humorous (the mix tape he made for his eighth-grade dance: hello Boston and Cheap Trick), sweet (his dad spending an afternoon making a mix tape with his 12-year-old son) and sad (knowing from the beginning his wife Renee is going to die). It's a bit High Fidelity and a bit The Year of Magical Thinking. He spends his college years with headphones covering his ears, which made me think of High Fidelity's Rob: Is he depressed because he listens to pop music or does he listen to pop music because he's depressed?

One of my favorite quotes so far: "The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with - nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life."

More to come as I continue reading, and remembering the songs and mixed tapes/CDs of my life.

Posted: Wed, 01/09/2008 - 02:39 | Comments: 1

When I have to make a trip to the library for more books to read, the selection is rather limited. This is usually when I find my go-to authors and pick books from their selections that I haven’t read yet (Picoult, Weiner, Landvik and other Minnesota authors, etc.). Before the holidays I finished reading my last library book, Deception Point by Dan Brown.

I hadn’t read Dan Brown's work before The Da Vinci Code. And, I really enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. It had mystery, action, adventure. Also, the protagonists were smart people. I didn’t really get caught up in the hype of the book (Was Jesus married? And so on.) I just liked the story. I then read Angels and Demons, featuring Robert Langdon as the hero again, and the prequel to Code (you don’t have to read them in order). I liked this book even better. The thing I think is so funny about Brown’s books is that everything happens in one 24-hour period. No time to eat, no time to sleep, no time to go to the bathroom. It’s like 24 in book form.

I forgot about this detail until I started reading Deception Point and the first 200 pages took place in 6 hours. Oh yeah, I thought, everything will happen in one, very tiring day. Imagine escaping death five different times in 24 hours, all the while solving the greatest mystery in the world. That’s the thing though, these books aren’t meant to change the world or how I, the reader, views it. It’s just a great form of escape. In Deception Point, NASA has discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life on Earth. Or have they? I enjoyed it. Again, it didn't change my life, but I was perfectly entertained. I think Brown goes pretty crazy with his research, but I’d like to hear from someone who read this who also knows about space, meteorites, ice shelves, the ocean, etc. How far off is he?

Why is there an uproar when it comes to questioning religion (Brown never claimed Code as fact), but the idea that we all may be extraterrestrials doesn’t raise an eyebrow? I’m not being completely serious here, I just find it interesting what people get so fired up about.

Posted: Mon, 01/07/2008 - 09:59 | Comments: 1

In honor of the Iowa caucuses today, I thought I'd make mention of an Iowan story.

Part memoir, part literary journalism, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America is written by Stephen Bloom, a college professor from San Francisco who takes a teaching position at the University of Iowa, his wife and young son in tow. As a Jewish family amongst the strong Norwegian (and Lutheran) population, the Blooms immediately feel like outsiders. Bloom, a secular Jew, yearns for some sort of connection with other Jews in Iowa. That’s when he decides to travel to Postville, Iowa, home to a large, successful glatt kosher processing plant, and 150 Lubavitcher Jews. Perhaps he’ll feel more at home here?

Bloom learns how hard it is to get in contact with the owner of the plant – there’s a certain cultural way to do these things. [Not that this really compares, but if you've ever seen the Sex and the City episode when Charlotte decides to convert to Judaism so she can marry Harry, the way the rabbi treats her at first is similar.] However, the non-Jewish people of Postville are more than willing to talk to Bloom. In their eyes, the Hasidim are taking over the town, yet aren’t willing to integrate into the population – buying up all the real estate, yet refusing to let their children play with other resident children, swim in the same pool, come to ice cream socials, etc. They don’t say hello, they barter for their goods – actions the residents just don’t understand.

When Bloom does integrate into the plant and finally into the Hasidim circle, he learns they have their own opinions about the citizens of Postville. All they’re doing is making a living, living their religion and keeping to themselves. What’s the harm in that? Plus, if they were to leave, the town would flounder. Postville needs the Jews and the processing plant, more than the Jews need Postville.

I found this book extremely interesting. With each chapter, Bloom has you on the side of the Postville citizens, then after reading the next chapter, you’ve switched your loyalty. So, who’s right? Bloom takes his own journey to answer that question, and brings the reader along for the ride. He’s so honest about his thoughts and beliefs, you can understand why his book caused some tensions when it was published in 2001. He discovers a new aspect of his religion and heritage, yet he sympathizes with the Postville citizens. I was aching for a hard conclusion, for Bloom to tell me who was right, but as with all issues of religion and culture, sometimes there is no right or wrong. We just have to find common ground.

Posted: Thu, 01/03/2008 - 02:09 |