TBR: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

I am just speeding through these To Be Read books! Good stuff.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen about her childhood in Michigan. She and her family (father, sister, grandmother and various uncles) escaped Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon, when she was just 8 months old. The book touches on growing up as an outsider in very White Michigan during the 1980s. This is manifested in many ways, particularly in the disconnect between the food she eats at home (her grandmother’s pho, her stepmother’s sopa) and the food her neighbors and classmates eat (Hamburger Helper, Shake and Bake). I enjoyed the book, but thought it felt a bit scattered (although I suppose that’s true of all of our memories of childhood. It reminded me of The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang (although if you only read one, I recommend the Latehomecomer before Stealing Buddha’s Dinner). That said, I certainly have enough room in my reading repertoire for a number of memoirs (one of my favorite genres) and Stealing Buddha’s Dinner did not disappoint.

TBR: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Two about Food

I’m back on a reading kick, which so far means reading my favorite types of books – mysteries and books about food. They are my total “comfort reading”. More on the mysteries later – now it’s time for food!

The first food book I read in the past week was No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain. I’ve been meaning to read some of his writing for a while, since folks seem to like it, so when I stopped by the library last week to pick up a book for the metro ride home, I thought I would pick up one of his. This was the only book by Bourdain on the shelf at the library, which is why I picked it. I didn’t take a good look at it before I left and I was surprised to find out that it was really more of a photo essay book, than a memoir or book of essays. It was fine, but didn’t give me much of a sense about Bourdain’s writing – although I really enjoy the essay about Beirut, where Bourdain found himself during Israel’s bombing back in 2006. It gave a real sense of what was lost in that bombing and made this event, which had been an abstract thing to me before, very personal.

Yesterday I finished Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China by Jen Lin-Liu, which combined three of my favorite book attributes: writing about food, writing about China, and memoirs. Lin-Liu is a Chinese-American journalist who moved to China in 2000 and eventually decides that she wants to learn how to cook. This book follows her through her course at a Chinese cooking school, studying for her chef exam, and then internships in Chinese restaurants, both small and grand. I found the book enjoyable and the descriptions of food interesting – some sounded delicious, some sounded like I would rather miss them (the restaurant that served the genitals of male animals, for example). I read about Lin-Liu and her book in the Food section of the Post a few weekends ago, and I’m glad I check it out. It made for an enjoyable weekend of reading.

Two about Food

Tears of the Desert

Tears of the Desert by Halima Bashir is subtitled “A Memoir of Survival in Darfur” which gives you a pretty good idea of what you are in for. This was another Early Reviewer title, and it took me a few weeks to pick it up after receiving because I wasn’t sure I was up for the subject matter. I’m glad I did though. The book is very accessible and does a good job of personalizing the conflict.

Like many people I’m sure, I knew that “bad things” were happening in Darfur, but I didn’t have a good idea of the specifics of the conflict. Bashir explains it well through the lens of her own life story. She is a black African from the Zaghawa tribe, and she explains that the conflict exists between the Arab minority that rules the country and the black African tribes that make up the majority of Sudan’s population. Bashir is also quite an exceptional woman. Thanks to a supportive father, she leaves her village to attend private schools and is accepted into the university in Khartoum, where she earns her medical degree. Writing about her childhood is especially powerful, because it makes clear just how much has been lost by the conflict – not just lives, homes and bodily integrity, but an entire way of life, her village community and many others just like it.

It is worth noting that Bashir’s memoir was written with a professional writer, Damien Lewis. I think that this is part of why the book is so readable and think it was a good decision to make. I would recommend the book.

Tears of the Desert

Monique and the Mango Rains

Monique and the Mango Rains is my fourth (!) book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. And to think that I once dispaired to get a single book. I feel positively spoiled now (but don’t stop sending them publishers!). I was excited that I got selected for this particular title because Amazon has been recommending it to me for a while now, and I was curious to see what it was all about.

Monique and the Mango Rains is subtitled “Two Years with a Midwife in Mali”, which gives you a pretty good idea of what the books about. The author, Kris Holloway, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in 1989/90. She was in a small village and her host was the village midwife (and the Monique in the title). Kris and Monique had a great friendship, which really comes through in the book. She also does a good job of giving a basic overview of Mali’s history, village life, and a clear idea of what childbirth is like in Mali (and one would imagine other impoverished areas without extensive medical care). The book really shows the troubles of this area without being preachy or condescending. I really enjoyed it. (And it was a quick read! I finished it in a day and a half.) Recommended.

Monique and the Mango Rains

This Common Secret

I finished this book a week and a half ago, but I’m just now getting around to writing about it. The last weekend in June was was a hot and sticky one, best suited to reading. I’ve already written about Friday’s reading selection. On Saturday, I finished This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wicklund. I first read about the book on Salon and I thought it sounded interesting, so when it showed up on the “New Books” shelf of my local library, I picked it up.

This Common Secret follows Wicklund’s unlikely path to become a doctor and then her struggles to provide compassionate and complete care to women seeking abortions, in part inspired by her own horrible abortion experience in the immediate aftermatch of Roe vs. Wade. Wicklund does an excellent job putting a human face on abortion providers and also at highlighting the many complexities that lead a woman to seek an abortion. The title refers to the fact that so many women have been touched by abortion – by having one, by knowing a friend who has had one – and yet no one talks about it. Abortion is common (and was common, if much more deadly, before it was legal) – and we would do well to acknowledge that. 

I think this book is a must read for any one who has the power to legislate abortion, because it does a really good job of showing how this is such a personal decision, best made by a woman and her doctor. This is an issue that has so much gray and attempts to paint it as black and white help no one.

Another book to read, if you liked this one is The Girls Who Went Away, which is about the women who were sent “away” and forced to give up their babies for adoption in the years before Roe vs. Wade. What happened to those women was devastating (and not specifically because abortion wasn’t an option, but because many of them wanted to keep their babies and were not allowed to). Women deserve choice. To make their own decisions with ALL the options available. And these two books make powerful arguments for that.

This Common Secret

One Weekend, Two Books

I finished two books this weekend, both relating to food.

The first book was Third Helpings by Calvin Trillin, a thin, humorous volume written in the 1980s. I read a selection of Trillin’s writing in American Food Writing and enjoyed it, so I added him to my “to read” list along with quite a few others. His writing reminded of nothing so much as Erma Bombeck, a writer who I had entirely forgotten until I read this book – even though I (embarassingly) read all the books of hers that my library had when I was in junior high. I enjoyed this book, but I think it was good that it is a short one, because his writing becomes rather predictable pretty quickly. I don’t think I need to read any of his other offerings, but this one was just the humorous break I needed for a day or so.

The second book I read this weekend (okay, okay, I finished it Monday morning on the train to work), was Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey is a noted actress and cookbook author and this is her memoir of growing up in India. As you might expect, the book contains a lot of discussions of food, but it is also an interesting, personal look at the time surrounding Indian Independence from the eyes of a child. I love memoirs, and I think one of the things that I like about them, in addition to the fact that they are intensely personal, is that they are often self-limiting, dealing only with a certain phase of a person’s life. I think this focus makes the books stronger, and Jaffrey’s restriction of the book to her childhood, certainly does that for me here.

One Weekend, Two Books

Home Girl

Home Girl (by Judith Matloff) is the second book I’ve read from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program (such an awesome program! free books! mailed to your house! before they are even in stores or libraries!), and we did not get off to a good start. I found the author’s description of the horrors she’s seen as a foreign correspondent and the corollaries she drew to her new West Harlem neighborhood annoying. Yes, we get it. You are a brave and adventurous gentrifrier who moved into a bad neighborhood. Good for you.

That said, once the author moved into the new house and began to describe the activities in the neighborhood, rather than just speculating, the book became much more engaging to me, and I found myself liking the book more and more. The cast of characters in the neighborhood are interesting, as are the ways she deals with the drug dealers on her block.

Matloff is a journalist by trade, and she reports events, even those that affect her directly, with some degree of detachment. She’ll say when an event scared her, for example, but that’s about it. The book moves on with little follow-up or reflection. Matloff seems to only scratch the surface of her emotions and problems (including the drug trade outside her door) seem to simply resolve on their own over time, both of which I think make the book a little weaker.

As a new homeowner, I was excited to read this book. And comparing my experience with Matloff’s made me feel much better about the work that needs to be done on our own house, so that’s a positive! I really wished that the book had had some photographs of the house – before and after, and since this is just an advanced proof, the published book might have that. In the meantime, if you read the book and are really curious, you can go to the author’s website – http://www.judithmatloff.com/. There aren’t many pictures, especially of the house, but there are a few of her neighbors.

Overall, I’d say this book was just average. I’m not sad I read it, and by the end I was enjoying it, but I wouldn’t pay money for it. Of course, I rarely pay money for books, so perhaps that’s not saying much. Definitely not on my must-read list though.

Home Girl