Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil

by Deborah Rodriguez

This book is a very entertaining read with a mix of hilarious moments and sobering sad stories. Part of it is a chronicle of funny episodes of an expatriate’s life, part of it a collection of life stories of Afghan women.  It reminds me of The White Masai but with more interaction with local lives, as well as Reading Lolita in Tehran but with a lighter mood.  I cheered for the author when she received an unexpectedly enthusiastic welcome from all the foreign aid workers starving for a highlight and hairdo. I cheered for Nahida who survived like a phoenix and ached for those who succumbed to their circumstances.  I enjoyed the story how a woman, with seemingly no special skill and no college degree, can be a valuable resource in helping the Afghan women in need.  It inspires people to feel that if there is a will, there is a way, and anyone of us can be a positive force to help others.   

For those interested, here’s an article with some pictures, including one of the author with her Afghan husband.  It’s a funny picture and somehow Sam’s scrowl looks more like a pout than a threat next to Debbie’s laughs – although I am sure if he were to stand in front of me he would still be rather formidable.


Even before I started on the book, I have read about the storm surrounding the book and its author.  I am saddened that nowadays it seems like every memoir’s publication ends up with accusation and dispute.  In all honesty, having sat through family reunions where details of events were hotly debated, I am convinced everyone has a different version of reality.  I also expect that every person has some unglorious moments that he or she prefers not to be reminded of.  Maybe to make the book more interesting and to avoid introducing too many characters, or to protect identities, it is possible that several women’s experiences are concentrated into one archetypal Afghan female.  I do feel that the author is on a positive motive and really wishes to help the girls, and things are just blown to such proportion that is beyond her. 

However, it is a bit sad to learn outside the book that Debbie and Sam’s marriage fell apart; even though it sretches my imagination how it happens in the first place.  In a news article where the husband “Sam” claims that he works with Debbie on the book and it was agreed upon that he is entitled to half the profit.  I would much rather he just says that Debbie being his wife, is his property, and therefore whatever she makes is his property too, instead of making such dubious claim.  While I am not sure how in love they were, it is sad that it ends at a point where Debbie no longer wishes to see him and insists that the marriage is void anyway as he has a wife already.

Published in: on March 27, 2008 at 3:33 am  Comments (1)  

The Lady and The Panda

by Vicki Constantine Croke

While the American explorer Ruth Harkness herself has written a book of the same title about her adventure in China, this non-fiction is Croke’s documentation of Harkness’ life based on Harkness’ memoir, her letters to her friends and families and other resources.   Well researched and written, the book takes the reader along with Harkness deep into the heart of China to find the elusive gentle giants.

Harkness is not just any Western explorer who ventured into the uncharted forest or jungle of the unknown land, and neither is she distinguished for her gender.  She is the first to capture a life baby panda and brought him to the western world.  That alone was a record but what was pivotal was her attitude towards the animal.  Before her, the interest of the hunters was in killing and pelting as many exotic animals as they can, to fulfill the demand of museums and private collectors in Europe and America.  When she emerged cuddling a cute little baby panda, the attitude of the world changed.  The world fell in love with little Su-lin.  The chubby body, large eye spot, flat face and fuzzy fur stirred every man’s heartstrings.  Veteran hunters held the baby and professed that they could no longer shoot another panda.   The cute panda lets people put a face to those animals and change their focus to keeping animals alive rather than shooting them dead.

Thus started the frenzy to capture pandas alive.  Hunting teams were sent to comb the animal’s native habitat; zoos price shopped.  Being held captive may not necessarily be better off than being killed.  Numerous died en route to the west, due to stress, inappropriate diet or living condition.  But it’s nonetheless a step up, without which we could not move to the next step of environmental conservation, to admire fauna and flora in their natural habitats.  

Harkness accomplished what her husband died trying to do.  However, as she sat alone in a guest room in Chengdu, she pondered the consequences of her action of the first capture of Su-Lin.  Pandas were dying in untold numbers. Watching the listless panda Su-sen in the cage, she saw a kindred spirit, independent, fearless and indominable, and decided to trek back to the mountains and return her to the wild. 

“There wasn’t much she could do to save the world from itself, but she could right her own path.”

Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight

by Margaret Cho

I couldn’t say I am a fan of Margaret Cho to start with.  I find her obnoxious and her liberal dose of curse words distasteful; for me, the language has a rich enough vocabulary for expression without having to resort to four-lettered-words.  At least, not at the frequency she does it.  She certainly doesn’t fit into the profile of slim, pretty and polite Asian girl, which I suppose irks a very stereotypical Asian girl like me.

When I listened to her memoir I’m the One That I Want, however, I discovered that behind that bitchy and humorous front is an intelligent, brave soul, which I can relate to much better than her comedian personna.    

This book is a collection of essays read by the author.  It is also available in book format although I can’t imagine not hearing Margaret Cho read the book in her own beautiful voice.  While there are humor in some of the pieces, don’t expect the book to lighten up your day.  As she talks about sexism, racism, politics and war on terrorism, homophobia and apathy, there is so much ranting and anger, a chuckle is far and few in between. 

As the essays are arranged by topics, they could be repetitive though.  The first time you hear her viewpoint about gay marriage, you may say, ah, interesting opinion; but when you listen to it for the hundredth time, it’d be “Point taken.  The dead horse has become ground meat already so can we move on?”

My favorite piece is the one about Anna May Wong.  I didn’t know anything at all about her about the piece is really informative and thought provoking. There are other essays that similarly show me a new angle to see things.

I have shared this audio book with a few people.  My husband thought highly of it, even though he didn’t like Margaret Cho to start with.  My other friend (a white guy) find it completely offensive – I am not sure whether it’s the language or her opinion.  Well, I still find the F*#K’s annoying, and I won’t mind missing them – in fact there are pieces that she herself seems to have forgotten about the word, and the presentation isn’t any less potent.  She speaks from the deepest of her heart, her voice genuine and I find myself enjoying it more than I thought possible.

Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 5:54 am  Leave a Comment  

My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy

by Wen Ho Lee and Helen Zia

I listened to the audio book.  I had always thought that the accented narration was done by the author himself until I read the journals here.  Now I feel duped.

The book gave me a lot to think about.  First, on hearing the abuse received by Lee, a defenseless, educated, mild mannered old man, I wonder what kind of treatment those with more stigma will receive, and what abuse those at Guantanemo have to go through.

Second, it is simply dirty the way the government leaks information to newspapers, who print it with glee and little verification of the actual facts.  Such a easy way to “kill” and “convict” a person.

Like Lee, I have not been politically active.  While I have friends who organizes and volunteers for civil rights group, I always find the work boring and not as fun and gratifying that, say, washing a homeless dog waiting for adoption.  However, when I read how happy he was to receive letters written to him, how encouraged he was by the news of the civil rights groups, I realize that their work are touching someone, giving them support and helping change someone’s fate.  That they do more than making noises by picketing and sending protest letters to newspapers and TV stations.

Published in: on March 6, 2008 at 6:59 pm  Leave a Comment