Amanda Gates
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A Musings - October 2008

I just wrote a column for a publication I write for about how my once stellar memory ain’t so stellar anymore. I used to remember everyone’s birthdays, I never had to keep a calendar (“It’s all up here,” I’d say, pointing to my noggin), assignments got done and phone calls returned ASAP. Nowadays—this has just started happening in the past several months—I can have something written down in two different places and still forget about it, the bills sit not getting paid (because that’s hazardous, we’ve worked out a somewhat better system then just remembering to pay them), and whole assignments, favors or conversations are just *poof* gone.

Things have been a little more stressful in life lately, so yes, stress probably has a lot to do with it. However, I also blame it on our current culture of interruption and multitasking. You know it takes me days to write an 800-word article? And that’s after I have all the research and interviews done. Days just to write it, because my e-mail bongs every two minutes, my phone rings, managerial decisions need to be made right now, etc. To write I need at least a solid two hours sans interruption. That doesn’t happen in this day and age of RSS feeds, Twitter, IM, etc.

As I complained to my boss about this “phenomenon” I’m suffering from—“I’m turning into you!” I exclaimed to my forgetful boss who I now have a whole new respect for, even more so than I already did—he pointed me to this great article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid? It’s hilarious because it’s true.

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

Yes! And, he blames the Internet. Google. All those things. They’re changing the way we process information. The way we READ. Should we be concerned?! Will it soon come to fruition that I can’t sit and read a book anymore? Maybe it’s already started—I’ve put down two books this year I just couldn’t get through. I never do that. Am I destined to be completely changed forever? My friends will be so disappointed – they love my memory and my attention to detail.

[Edited to add (same day): My boss also sent me this article about how as we age we get worse at multitasking, because of all the thoughts running around in our head. We hit our multitasking peak at college age, which explains why I could take 13 credits, work three jobs and go out several times a week and still graduate with a 3.7 GPA. That girl is gone.]

After my panic attack of sorts subsided, I’ve succumbed to the way it’s going to be. We are a working society, and because we want to be faster and better than the next guy, technology needs to be by our side. If I really want to have an interruption-free day, I need to work from home. Since I did read some 30 books this past year, maybe I just know what I like to read, and those two books I put down before the end weren’t it?

I have also resolved to sound like an old woman and purposely not get on the Blackberry-check-my-email-every-five-minutes wagon (I’m at a computer and e-mail all day, it’s not coming home with me) and my e-mail ‘new message’ icon is the only thing popping up on my screen all day – no RSS feeds, no Twitter accounts, no AOL IM, no Facebook. Right now, this is the only way I think I can remain somewhat sane. I know this will probably change in the near future (as they say, if you want to play the game, you gotta get on the field), but for now, at least I can breathe.

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So, one year ago today I started this blog. In that time I've posted about 130 times and, if I counted right, I read about 30 books. Thirty books a year is pretty good, I think. I've read fiction, nonfiction, memoir and young adult books on everything from Islam and zookeeping to Hmong immigrants and vampires. All in all, a good year for books.

I was thinking I may get all reflective and talk about what my blog means to me, however, in reality, it meets the purpose I intended in the beginning: to share my thoughts and create a record of the books I read. Now, when I'm having a conversation with someone about a book I read, I feel like I remember it better because I wrote about it. Or, if I don't remember much about it, I can go back and read my thoughts. And that's helpful for me.

So, for all of you who've visited Bookish Bent over the past year - thanks. I appreciate it.

Posted: Thu, 10/30/2008 - 03:18 | Comments: 7

Over the weekend I read In His Sights, a memoir by "Kate Brennan" about her life with a stalker. Here's the synopsis:

What if the man you'd loved for years vows, when you leave him, to destroy you? What if he transforms into a ruthless tormentor, stealing your freedom, undermining your sanity, and threatening your safety?

This is not a fictional scenario. It is Kate Brennan's life.

Kate is a well-respected writer and scholar, a highly independent woman with simple tastes and a complicated romantic past that leave her perfectly content with singlehood. So when she meets Paul—a wealthy, charismatic businessman with a great deal of free time—she's wary of getting involved. Eventually, though, his polished charm and relentless wooing win her over. Things move quickly, and it is only after the two have moved in together that Kate discovers the serial infidelity, the unbalanced psyche, and the sordid secrets lurking under the Mr. Right facade.

Kate lets Paul into her life with trepidation, and when she ends the relationship, she finds she can't get him out of it. With limitless resources, he dedicates himself to stalking her: he tracks her movements, arranges for people to break into her home, interferes with her work, and even relocates to her new neighborhood. His harassment lasts for more than a decade and, as Paul is still at large, it continues to turn Kate's life upside down today.

This visceral memoir not only lays bare the mind of a stalker, but also shows how a smart, successful woman can fall prey to a warped and powerful man who has the money and connections to keep her under his watchful eye. Both frightening and insightful, In His Sights is a gripping tale of one woman's descent into the dark side of love and how she has fought—and still struggles—to free herself.

This was a pretty good book, very engaging, but also very disturbing. While "Kate" is very careful about the names she uses for friends and family (they're all aliases, so as not to put others in danger) and the places she visits, if you're from Minnesota, you know she lives here and has all her life. She's also a writer, and sometimes a professor, so it makes me wonder if I could possibly know who she is in real life. [Side note: It's not lost on me that she could be throwing us off with a made up profession and location, just like her name, but I don't think that's the case.]

I can't imagine what she goes through every day, living with having a stalker. It's been nearly 15 years, and he's still stalking her. He gets her mail rerouted to him, he cuts her phones lines, cuts her power, has people follow her nearly every day, calls her family and friends, and moves into her neighborhood with his new wife. Sick.

Through the book I questioned why she was with him in the first place. He didn't seem like that good of a guy, but I believe that he probably could have charmed her into believing he was. He also ends up having lots of problems, is verbally abusive and cheats. Why does she continue to stay? It's that tendency women have when they see an injured man to try to make him better. To accept the apologies that come the next day. It's definitely in women's nature to be caretakers, even if they're not treated the best in the long run. You see it all the time all around you.

Once she finally does leave him, she waits for two years of the stalking before going to the police. Again, what? But when she describes how she felt that they wouldn't be able to help her and that they would think she was exaggerating, I can see her reluctance. Fortuanately when she does finally go to the police, they're gems. However, stalking is one of those crimes that's hard to prove and a majority of the time the police can't do one thing about it. The only reassurance they can give her (besides advice on how to stay safe and protect herself and help her with fake identities) is that if anything should happen to her, "he's the only suspect." Woo - what a relief (she writes sarcastically).

If you're looking for a quick read, that's engaging and true, In His Sights is definitely worth a read. Just be prepared to hurt for Kate.

Posted: Mon, 10/27/2008 - 03:04 |

I finished reading Infidel last night. This is a very powerful book, and if you've ever wanted to learn more about Islam and the right's of Muslim women, I highly suggest picking it up. Granted, this is one person's point of view, and unfortunately her point of view has put her life, and those around her, in unbelieable danger.

Hirsi Ali's personal story is amazing. In just 10 years she went from being an immigrant who didn't speak the language to a member of the Dutch Parliament, changing the way the governement looked at immigrant groups and changing policies in relation to Muslim women. Her bravery has to be commended, and her will to stand up and speak out, well, she's just a very courageous woman. And the most amazing thing is: I don't think she felt she was being brave. She never really questioned why she wrote the papers she did, why she made the comments she did, why she filmed Submission and put it out there for people to see. She was fighting for the women of her culture, and nothing was going to stop her, because if she didn't do it, who would?

I'll leave you with this quote from the Epilogue:

People accuse me of having interiorized a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument. Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors' traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes? When I came to a new cluture, where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different, would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice?

Life is better in Europe than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized and protected by the state. To accept subordination and abuse because Allah willed it - that, for me, would be self-hatred.

Posted: Thu, 10/23/2008 - 02:54 |

The Star Tribune regularly republishes articles from years ago. After reading Loving Frank, I found today's reprint particularly interesting. It's from 1926 when Wright was wanted by Wisconsin authorities for various reasons and found, shacked up with his mistress, in Minnetonka, Minn. As in Loving Frank, here is another instance when Wright was married (to someone different this time then during his time with Mamah) and took a mistress (who was also married at the time). Such scandal! It's hard to imagine this took place in real life back in the 1920s, and in the wholesome Midwest, and not in some soap opera. :)

Posted: Tue, 10/21/2008 - 03:32 | Comments: 1

I’m a little more than halfway through Infidel. The book is fascinating to me, though also sad, shocking and eye-opening. I know all of us sitting in our nice homes in our somewhat safe cities in America know that not everyone has it as good as we do. But, I think we forget this a lot. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

I don’t want to delve too deep into the story because there’s just so much there, but I’m going to pull out one part that reinforced what I just wrote above. Hirsi Ali was married off to a man from Canada (she didn’t attend the wedding, she didn’t know this man very well, but that didn’t matter, her father arranged everything). On her way to Canada from Kenya to move in with her new husband, she stopped in Germany to await a visa. When she walked down the German streets, she had many realizations (keep in mind this was 1992): the streets were clean, the streets had street signs, people had space to live, women wore whatever they wanted, men and women held hands and people didn’t shun them, she could walk down the street without one glance or sneer from a man, no one cared where she walked or what she did—in Germany she was anonymous.

She writes at the time that she didn’t feel like renouncing her religion, she didn’t feel like abandoning her family, she just felt like there was more. More. That’s when her new life started. Those stronger feelings about her religion and the ways of her family came later.

The book gives some very interesting insights into Islam. Some people take the word of Allah literally, others choose to interpret it or modernize it (which in the minds of the literals, is a sin in itself). This really isn’t different than any other religion. No matter what you believe, there are others who believe either “deeper” or “less” than you. It just comes down to whether we can coexist. And it’s so sad that some believe violence against infidels is the only means to an end.

Last weekend we saw Body of Lies. This isn’t a movie we would typically go see in the theater, but I had free passes. DiCaprio plays a CIA undercover agent who tries to catch a man responsible for bombings across Europe. The word “infidel” was thrown around frequently in this movie, as that’s who he was trying to kill/send a message to with his bombings. The movie made me really sad because it demonstrated how this war will never be over. Never. It may curb. It may desist for a time. But it will never end. Just like Hirsi Ali knows she will never be truly safe, even in America.

Yesterday was Blog Action Day, with a focus on poverty. While this post isn't about poverty specifically, I hope if anything: May we all take a moment yesterday, today and tomorrow to think about those who have less than us, who are worse off than us. In truth, you don't have to look far.

Posted: Thu, 10/16/2008 - 04:24 | Comments: 1

On recommendation of my girl Willikat, I'm reading Infidel. I'm not going to try to explain the memoir in my own words, so here's the publisher's synopsis:

In this profoundly affecting memoir from the internationally renowned author of The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her astonishing life story, from her traditional Muslim childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West.

One of today's most admired and controversial political figures, Ayaan Hirsi Ali burst into international headlines following an Islamist's murder of her colleague, Theo van Gogh, with whom she made the movie Submission.

Infidel is the eagerly awaited story of the coming of age of this elegant, distinguished -- and sometimes reviled -- political superstar and champion of free speech. With a gimlet eye and measured, often ironic, voice, Hirsi Ali recounts the evolution of her beliefs, her ironclad will, and her extraordinary resolve to fight injustice done in the name of religion. Raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan, Hirsi Ali survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, adolescence as a devout believer during the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots. In her early twenties, she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she earned a college degree in political science, tried to help her tragically depressed sister adjust to the West, and fought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. Even though she is under constant threat -- demonized by reactionary Islamists and politicians, disowned by her father, and expelled from her family and clan -- she refuses to be silenced.

Ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity, Hirsi Ali's story tells how a bright little girl evolved out of dutiful obedience to become an outspoken, pioneering freedom fighter. As Western governments struggle to balance democratic ideals with religious pressures, no story could be timelier or more significant.

I'm only about 100 pages in, but the book is riveting. Hirsi Ali starts telling the story before she was born, filling the reader in on the history of her family and other clans in Somalia. Then she describes her life in Somalia with her brother, sister, mother and grandmother - for much of her childrhood, her father was in jail for being a part of the resistance against the government. Over the years they move to Saudia Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Hirsi Ali and her siblings are beaten weekly by their grandmother and mother (more so the girls than her brother), and all experience genital mutilation between ages 4 and 6 years old. While school is a source of stress for Hirsi Ali (because they moved so much, they were always the new kids, and usually of a different religion or culture, so they were bullied), she also learned many different languages and the practices of many different families.

With any memoir, I think we've all learned, you have to take what you read with a grain of salt. Several reviews I've read call the book "eye opening," but others feel her abusive childhood colored her real understanding of Islam. But if anything, I feel she renounced her religion for a reason and it's better she share her story with the world, than remain silent. Though the danger it puts her in is unimaginable.

Posted: Wed, 10/08/2008 - 02:59 |

I finished Loving Frank this week. I have mixed feelings. I think overall the book is good: good writing, interesting characters, based on true life events, etc. However, I had a hard time relating and even liking the main character, Mamah. Like I said in my previous post, I found her to be rather selfish. And she continued on this path throughout the book. And the author paints a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright as a eccentric, egotistical artist who was far in debt. (The author used many sources in her research and I think Wright was known in this way in many circles, so I don't feel she was exaggerating.)

So, what did Mamah see in him? I think he was a man who could understand the fight women were going through in the early 1900s, trying to get the right to vote, equal pay and credit for the work they did. He was more evolved in that way, plus he talked about his feelings and respected her intelligent thoughts about the world. I can definitely see how, to a woman who felt she was in a loveless marriage to a nice, but simple man, this would sweep her off her feet. But sweep her so far as to abandon her children and the rest of her family? That seems crazy to me.

In the midst of her time with Wright in Europe, Mamah met a Swedish feminist, Ellen Key, who seemed to echo her views about life: conventional marriage may not be for every woman, work and fair wages are important for women, perhaps more important than children, and women have so much further to come. A lot of this interested me because I never realized how many women more than 100 years ago were fighting for these rights, and I never realized how many women were in fact very outspoken about these things. Good for them! In the book, this conversation between Mamah and Ellen Key stood out to me, as I think these words could still be considered in today's world:

Men have always been trained to have the courage to dare. Women, on the other hand, are stuck being the keepers of memories and traditions. We've become the great conservators. Oh, I suppose we're suppler, as a result, because we've learned to see many sides. But what a price has been paid. It has kept us from greatness! And most women are happy just to repeat opinions and judgments they've heard, as if they thought of the ideas themselves. It's dangerous! Women need to understand evolutionary science, philosophy, art. They need to expand their knowledge and stop assassinating each others' characters.

I also liked this quote that came a few graphs later:

Attack the personal character of the thinker, and you will kill her ideas.

All very true, still to this day. So, overall, it was a good book. It was entertaining, for the feminist viewpoints and because much was set in the Midwest. I learned more about that time in history, and a lot more about the motivations of Wright, an architect whose buildings can be found on streets around here. I followed my coworkers advice and didn't Wikipedia any of the characters, and I was pretty shocked by the ending. Tragic. I did however look him up afterward, and it was just as interesting to read how Wright lived out the rest of his life as well.

Posted: Thu, 10/02/2008 - 21:52 | Comments: 4

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I wanted to make mention of a Minnesota family who created a cookbook to raise money for the local chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Last year, the family mama, Joan Eichers, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Early this year, the family came up with an idea of compiling a book of family recipes (140 total, with nice anecdotes alongside the recipes) called Mixing Up Memories. The book sells for $20 and from that $17 goes directly to the foundation. Here's a story in a Mankato newspaper about the family. What an inspiration.

Do you have any inspirational stories like this?

Posted: Wed, 10/01/2008 - 04:32 |