Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate

by Felicity Lawrence

This book is written by a British author, and while I have read plenty of books about the sad state of our food industry: unsustainable industrial farming, farm animal abuse, illegal immigrant workers, harmful addictives, obesity crisis, food mileage, and so forth, I figure it would be interesting to read about the same issues from a different perspective.

In some way, you can call it “comforting” to know that we Americans don’t face these problems alone. Nonetheless, in some way I have, like many Americans, a more picturesque image of Europe. We think of the French, the Italian and the Spanish cuisine when we hear the word gourmet… excellent wine from vineyards older than our country, homemade dishes prepared for hours by loving matriachs, farmers markets selling the freshest pick of the season, rustic bread from brick ovens, lunch and dinner enjoyed at a leisurely pace. It is therefore, a sad and rude awakening to know that the pasture is not that much greener on the other side of the pond.

This book is however much better than I thought, and I gleamed a lot of new knowledge. When it started out with the meat processing plant and undocumented labor, I was like, oh yeah, I read that ten million times already (though American’s labor is from South America, not Eastern Europe and Middle East), but after that it was one eye-opener after the next. For example:

Chicken meat can be “beefed up” with hydrolyzed beef protein (make from cow waste) so it can hold up to 50% water in weight, though latest technology can break up the bovine protein so much that DNA testing may not reveal its presence. Some chicken nuggets were found to be made up of as little as 16% chicken, and a good portion of that from chicken skin and mechanically recovered meat.

In prepacked salad leaves using modified atmosphere packaging to increase shelf life, the chemcial used to disinfect the leaves may cause cancer, not to mention that a study found that people who eat these salad leaves show no increase in antioxidants in their blood sample, compare to a control group who ate regular lettuce leaves.

In 2002 the British grocery retailers accounted for nearly 1 billion kilometers of food transportation. And England is no bigger than a small state in size! It’s too mind boggling to even begin to do the math for the United States. No wonder it’s said that eating local helps save the environment a lot more than driving less.

Traditional bread baking requires the dough to be left to ferment and prove over extended periods. In industrial baking, they incorporate air and water into the dough with intense energy at high speed, and by adding chemical oxidants (to get the gas in), higher level of salt (as there is no time to develop flavor as in traditional dough fermentation) and hydrogenated fat (to provide structure) they save time, labor, and have higher yield (usually it contains 8% more water than bread made from traditional method). It is however found that the traditional fermentation allows the wheat to become digestible, and modern methods of baking bread may be the cuplit for increased cases of gluten allergies.

In the chapter titled Apples and Bananas, the book mentioned how fruits and vegetables are not selected for their flavors. An apple has to go through a “beauty parade”. A machine has cameras to take up t seventy pictures of each apple as it passe along a conveyor belt to grade it by size and color. If the specs call for 15-17% blush red on green, an apple that is 18% or 14% red will be rejected, and end up either as fruit juice or just go to waste. Another machine, the penetrometer, will measure the firmness of the fruit. A buyer told a farmer that while his apples taste great, they don’t pass the test, and so the fruits are rejected. To measure up to the ripeness requirement will mean fruits that are picked too early.

The narrow specifications also mean that plenty of food go to waste if they don’t measure up to the standards. For every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used. Only 35% of green beans meet the supermarket grade: they may be curved, too long, too short, too thick, or too thin. The high cosmetic standards also require heavy use of chemicals to achieve.

The part about coffee planters make me especially sad. The farmer kept thinking that the translator made a mistake as he couldn’t fathom how a product he sells for 200 Ugandan shillings a kilo can end up in a London cafe for 5000 shillings a cup. Meanwhile, he couldn’t pay the 5000 shillings needed for medicines for his children with malaria, and his children have to drop out of school when he couldn’t pay tuition, dashing any hope that the next generation can get educated and move out of poverty.

I kept reading it to my hubby till he complained that his appetite was totally ruined. I read it to several coworkers (during lunch time no less)… Really a good book worth sharing.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 5:11 pm  Comments (1)  

True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart

by Thich Nhat Hanh

I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, because its so beautiful in its simplicity, and so universal and trans-religion in its teaching. This is a short book, so it’s great for re-reading.

The book begins with a short Buddhist explanation on the four components of love: loving kindness, compassion, joy and freedom, and he offers examples for us to self examine our love to see how true it is. There are also practices such as meditation, mantras and breathing exercise.

One interesting exercise is telephone meditation. Whenever the phone rings, take it as the bell in a meditation. Draw a few breathes to center and calm the mind before answering. Very simple to do and it most certainly helps one reach a calmer and more focused state.

Another concept that really stays with me is “I think, therefore I am not here.” A lot of time we worry about the future, about the past, about things far away, and ignore what is here and present with us. We may hear but not listen to the person we are talking with face to face. We do not notice things on the path we walk, we are not aware of what we are eating, because our mind is somewhere else. This little twist on Descartes’ famous words is a wonderful way to remind ourselves to be more present and mindful, to be more fully immersed in our lives, so that we can respect the people we interact with, appreciate the food we intake, and experience our life. Whenever we find ourselves thinking too much, our mind too scattered, it’s worth repeating these words, to bring ourselves back to where we belong.

Published in: on May 30, 2009 at 4:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

From Amazon.com:

The Green Zone, Baghdad, 2003: in this walled-off compound of swimming pools and luxurious amenities, Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority set out to fashion a new, democratic Iraq. Staffed by idealistic aides chosen primarily for their views on issues such as abortion and capital punishment, the CPA spent the crucial first year of occupation pursuing goals that had little to do with the immediate needs of a postwar nation: revamping the Iraqi tax code and mounting an anti-smoking campaign.

As the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran has probably spent more time in U.S.-occupied Iraq than any other American journalist. In this acclaimed firsthand account, the former Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post gives us an intimate portrait of life inside this Oz-like bubble, which continued unaffected by the growing mayhem outside. Chandrasekaran unstintingly depicts the stubborn cluelessness of many Americans in the Green Zone—like the army general who says children terrified by nighttime helicopters should appreciate “the sound of freedom.” But he sympathetically portrays others trying their best to cut through the red tape and institute genuine reforms. He also has a sharp eye for details, from casual sex in abandoned offices to stray cats adopted by staffers, which enable both advocates and critics of the occupation to understand the emotional toll of its circuslike atmosphere. Thanks to these personal touches, the account of the CPA’s failures never feels heavy-handed.

This is a quietly devastating tale of imperial folly, and the definitive history of those early days when things went irrevocably wrong in Iraq.

When I opened the pages, I suddenly felt very proud to be Chinese. For right there, in the first pages, smack right in the middle of the map of Green Zone, is the marker “Chinese Restaurants”. Not pizza parlor, not hamburger joint, no, it’s Chinese restaurants. Mind you too, it’s not just one, but two of them. As some travelers commented, you will always be amazed that no matter how far you travel, there’s always a Chinese restaurant where you least expect it.

A really interesting and engaging book. We’ve all read about how inept the US govt’s handle of the Iraqi occuption is, but condensing the interviews and anecdotes into one volume really opened my eyes. A lot of it seems to be variations on the same theme: big, lofty idea thought up by someone unqualified for the position. Like the idea of using a food ration debit card, when neither electrity nor telephone was working; or Operation Smiles when the hospitals had been looted clean of the most basic supplies and beds, and patients are dying from the most curable sicknesses and injuries. Too bad when, filling positions, what matters is not what certificates or diplomas you hang on your wall, but whether there is a photo of you with Bush and Cheney.

While there are a few people who went there with the intention to make some quick bucks (the ludicracy of the contractor’s story is really something), in all honesty most of the people who went out to Iraq brought with them good intentions.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation

by Veronica Chambers

From the dust jacket flap:

Forget the stereotypes. Today’s Japanese women are shattering them — breaking the bonds of tradition and dramatically transforming their culture. Shopping-crazed schoolgirls in Hello Kitty costumes and the Harajuku girls Gwen Stefani helped make so popular have grabbed the media’s attention. But as critically acclaimed author Veronica Chambers has discovered through years of returning to Japan and interviewing Japanese women, the more interesting story is that of the legions of everyday women — from the office suites to radio and TV studios to the worlds of art and fashion and on to the halls of government — who have kicked off a revolution in their country.

Japanese men hardly know what has hit them. In a single generation, women in Japan have rewritten the rules in both the bedroom and the boardroom. Not a day goes by in Japan that a powerful woman doesn’t make the front page of the newspapers. In the face of still-fierce sexism, a new breed of women is breaking through the “rice paper ceiling” of Japan’s salary-man dominated corporate culture. The women are traveling the world — while the men stay at home — and returning with a cosmopolitan sophistication that is injecting an edgy, stylish internationalism into Japanese life. So many women are happily delaying marriage into their thirties — labeled “losing dogs” and yet loving their liberated lives — that the country’s birth rate is in crisis.

Part of this book reads more academic than I expected. It’s rather comprehensive and the author definitely knows the subject well and has a deept understanding of the Japanese culture. Her “geishas” is a very bunch: young hip-hop DJ, diplomat’s-wife-turned-TV-chef-turned-government minister; an openly gay Osaka assembly-woman, restaurant owner, host club addict, competitive snowboarder, executives, and the stereotypical OLs and housewives. She covers a board spectrum of subjects, interviewed plenty of men and women, and presents a very completed pciture of modern day Japan. I like how she discusses the topic evenhandedly. For example, when she talked about the middle aged divorce, she certainly shows a lot of sympathy for the men.

The author is African American, and that adds a interesting perspective, such as the mention of the b-kei, Japanese who are fans of the black culture, which is slightly different from the typical Westerner focus.

The most interesting part for me is the discussion about Japanese men. It was kind of surprising to read how dissatisfied the Japanese women are with their men. Granted, the surveyed subjects are not necessarily representative of the whole population, but it still makes me feel “wow”, how come they view their men so poorly? In fact, among the men interviewed in the book, they did not come across badly at all. Some even appeared more open-minded and supportive than the average American guy I know of. Or were they too polite to be bash about feminism and working women in front of the author?

I mean, I have dated Japanese guys and know some as friends, and I certainly did not find them so lacking. Looking back at my single days, I think Japanese guys have better rep than Korean guys (who are supposedly even more male chauvinistic) and American guys (who only want sex and have a 50% divorce rate). And I and my friends certainly do not have such negative opinion of the men of our own cultures, there may be areas they fall short of compare to men from other countries, but the repeated expressed sentiment was really a surprise for me. I wonder if the author would consider for her next book to research how happy are the women of different cultures with their own men? She has totally piked my interest.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 2:49 am  Leave a Comment  

Jungle Child

by Sabine Kuegler

The book is way better than I thought it would be.

It begins with a idyllic childhood in the remote West Papua jungle, where her family went to live with the Fayu tribe, hitherto untouched by modern civilization. There Sabine ran wild in the jungle, swinging from vines like Tarzan, trading her family’s pots and pans for a baby crocodile, and throwing snakes at her sister. I won’t want Sabine as a sister… she is more a terror than my baby brother!

While the childhood is interesting, and the details of tribal life makes an intriguing anthropological read, and would make an entertaining book on its own, I enjoy even more how the book goes deeper into Sabine’s psychological confusion, as the girl grows up and realizes she is an in-between: totally unadapted to live in the complicated Western world, but also gone is the carefree girl who can run wild with her native friends. As her sister puts it: who will want to steal them as brides? They who don’t know how to prepare food or manage a household properly.

I really admire the author’s courage to live her life. I would love, howver, to hear more how the villagers are faring. While it is an inevitable fact of life, it is a pity to read about how as the author grows up, the siblings and her childhood friends go their own way. But at least she has a lovely, unforgettable childhood to treasure, and to give her strength.

The book’s website: http://www.junglechild.co.uk/ There is an extract of the book. I do wish though she would post some of the photos there.

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 2:30 am  Comments (1)  

How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

Honestly I know very little of Proust’s work, just that he wrote sentences a mile long, so I am certainly not reading it because I am a fan. I do, however, find the book interestingly written enough that for someone unfamiliar with Proust and his work.

As I read on, I was thinking that maybe as the author and Proust himself suggested, an author’s book can be more interesting than the real person as it is a distillation of his best idea; and I certainly began to feel that I won’t particularly want to meet Proust himself. While he has keen insight of nature and mankind, his writings give me much to muse about, his personality doesn’t sound too pleasing. So I was somewhat surprised that Proust friends speak so highly of him, and I found it endearing that he could devote full attention to whoever he is speaking to and never consider people too lowly for conversation. Most people can certainly benefit from his example.

As an introvert booklover, I also find most amusing Proust’s comment that he considers book superior companion to human friends. If a book is boring, you can give a loud yawn, slap the book shut and shove it back onto the shelf without any guilt or apology.

Published in: on October 1, 2008 at 2:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Project X Challenger: Cup Noodle

by Tadashi Katoh

I must keep the record straight: I am not a fan of cup noodles. I think they taste awful. I will admit though that I do have ocassional cravings for the instant noodles, for the aroma of freshly cooked ramen, though the taste rarely measures up to the expectation set by the olfactory sense.

Nonetheless, I picked up this graphic novel, just because I am atonished that there is a book about Cup Noodle, and the foodie in me just can’t resist. The book tells of the struggle as the research team strived to create this magic noodle, a food of the new age, a food cultural revolution: a noodle that cooks in three minutes, in its own container, and can be eaten standing up (yeah, that was a sell point). A story that is somewhat interesting though hardly engaging enough.

Published in: on August 30, 2008 at 1:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad

edited by by Christina Henry De Tessan

This is a nice selection of works, with different styles of writing and all sorts of places represented; from trendy Paris to boa-filled jungles and everything in between. (I was thinking of saying “all continents represented”, but then realized that somehow there is no homesick letter from South America, just Mexico and Berlize.)

My favorites are the Before and After Mexico, of a family uprooting themselves to move to a remote Mexican village for a break from the frenzied San Franciscan life. Watching Them Grow Up, of a mother noticing how different the child rearing philosophy is for her husband’s Eypgtian relatives: instead of raising a child, you sit back, relax, and watch them grow. Never-Nnever, a humorous growing up story of a child being teased for being a Yank in Australia, then suffered through the pains again when the family returns to America. Desperately, she wrote to the Australian Embassy in hope that she can go “home”. A Mediterranean Thanksgiving, Take Two, is a woman’s attempt to cook a Thanksgiving dinner in France. Her guests were overwhelmed, not by the quantity of food, but by how all dishes are served together and everything heaped onto one plate, rather than an endless meal of one course after another.

The book reminds me of one episode. Once on vacation visiting my parents back home, my mom asked my husband and I to prepare a salad as part of a feast. On the assumption that Americans eat salads and that we are sort of vegetarians (she once lamented, If you haven’t gone to America, you won’t have become vegetarian!! in her belief that no one, fed on her excellent cooking, could have turned against meat.)

So we thought we had an easy task until we get to the supermarket (one supposedly caters to foreigners). We couldn’t find white mushroom! I held up a fresh shiitake, but my husband insisted it won’t work. Even vegetables by the same name look different. Pampered by aisles of selection, I was shocked to find only Kraft Thousand Island and Miracle Whip for dressings. I wandered all over the supermarket, hoping to find one lone can of olive misplaced somewhere… And I realize that, after spending half of my life each in two different countries, I have became a perpetual expat, a sucker forever paying outrageous price for that taste of a home half a world away.

Published in: on July 14, 2008 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

It’s Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks

by Howard Behar

I am not a Starbucks fan; in fact, I hardly am a coffee drinker.  Growing up Chinese on a British colony means that my nature and nurture are totally geared towards a cup of tea.  However, as it has been a long while since I picked up a business management book, and thinking at least this should be an interesting one, I picked it up.

This book do offer a few pearls of wisdom; my favorite is to listen with “Compassion Emptiness”.  This is a Buddhism concept.  While it may look weird at first sight (now, if Starbucks specialized in tea, maybe we would expect more Zen from its management.)  Basically the idea is that you listen with compassion, but also with emptiness: no prejudice, no judgment, so solution already in mind.  A lot of times we listen only to wait for our turn to put in our side, our view of the story.  I do think this is a nice concept.

Another interesting idea (from Bruce Nordstrom, retired co-chairman of Nordstrom) is that the primary job of an employer is to “provide freedom”: freedom to serve, freedom to make decisions right on the spot, and a management willing to live with those decisions. The sense of pride and ownership gives people the freedom to serve themselves and the organization.  It encourages people to focus less on what they should do, but why they should do it.

A repeated theme is, “we are in the business of serving people, not selling coffee.”  They have great coffee but one day the author came back to his office to find three complain letters about customer service.  That’s a very vital shift of focus, one that distinguish a great company from its competition.

Published in: on July 8, 2008 at 2:10 am  Comments (1)  

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan

From the back cover: “Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man discovered fire. But as Michael Pollan explain in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is changing the way Americans think about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating.”

While I have read from other sources about the horrors of feedlot and the problems of the processed food in our society, this book still provided a lot of new (to me) information, and the later parts about industrial organics and hunting/gathering are eye-openers for me. As I read the book, I quoted passages (mostly scary stats and some amusing lines) to my husband in a not-so-subtle way to sway him from meat eating.

I did not know, for example, that corn and grain feeding is so bad for the cows themselves, and that it ends up providing worse meat for us, endangering our own health. Animals get their omega-3 from grass; corn and such does not contain omega-3. In fact, the anti-inflammatory, blood flowing omega-3 is found in a plant’s leaves, and the flammatory, blood clotting omega-6 in seeds. Free-range chicken eggs therefore are rich in omega-3, as the chicken feed on grass. It’s popular now to eat salmon for its omega-3 fatty acids, but truth is that they come from the planktons the fish eat. When we try to breed fish that grow on grain, we eventually breed salmon that is deficient in omega-3 but full of the omega-6. It is believed the higher consumption of omega-6 vs omega-3 is the culprit of the many modern day diseases such as cardiac, diabetes and obesity.

Moreover, for the cows, eating corn makes their stomach acidic, and a hotbed for E coli. A research has found that by switching a cow’s diet from corn to grass or hay for a few days prior to slaughter will alkalize the pH of the stomach and thus reducing the E. coli population by as much as 80%. Unfortunately, this solution is considered impractical by the cattle industry and thus the USDA.

The author then goes on to explore the organic industry. He found that as the organic industry goes mainstream, large scale production means that some of the organic farms may not be much different from the conventional ones. The cattle may not live any better a life than its feedlot brethen, except for the feed it consume, organic rather than pesticide infested – an improvement that likely won’t affect its well-being or happiness much. And getting organic salad greens trucked all the way from California is not so green after all.

Pollan’s experience on Polyface farm is really interesting. Though it is imaginable that such substaniable, earth friendly but labor intensive (and brain intensive) farming method is unlikely to be more mainstream.

The part on hunter/gatherer is an interesting read as well, though I certainly would not fire a rifle for food, and gathering mushroom doesn’t sound fun to a city girl like me.

I doubt there is any person who would read this book and not re-think the food choices he or she makes. One may go local, go organic, or simply just eat fewer processed food or fast food… but it would be lovely if every person who’s read this book make a more conscious choice in what it goes into one’s mouth. This reminds me of a comment I read somewhere, that nowadays people put too little thought in what goes into our stomach, and into our mind. This book is indeed healthful on both counts.

Published in: on July 7, 2008 at 3:32 am  Comments (3)  

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen

by Julie Powell

Julie Powell is 30 years old, living in a rundown apartment in Queens and working at a soul-sucking secretarial job that’s going nowhere. She needs something to break the monotony of her life, and she invents a deranged assignment. She will take her mother’s dog eared copy of Julia Child’s 1961 classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she will cook all 524 recipes. In the span of one year.

This book was quite an entertaining read. I expected it to, and was disappointed it doesn’t, contain some of Julia Child’s recipe so I know better what Julie was cooking, but then this book is not so much about cooking than about one young woman’s life. A typical Gen-Xer living in NY, with a run-down, not-too-clean apartment, a good day/bad day relationship, a marriage-crazed girlfriend, many crazy friends, an over-concerned mother, a mundane OL life, booze, blogs… made untypical by her decision to cook through a classic cook book.

I love Julie’s honest and witty writing. As my friend commented, it’s not very polished writing – well, her language certainly isn’t polished – but the personable note more than make up for it. I mean, how can I hate someone who openly admits to be an awful housekeeper?

My favorite passage is the one about the Petits Chaussons au Roquefort. As she stuffed and sealed the turnovers, she mused “I’d brought the filling into being, and now I was seeking to entrap it in a buttery pastry prison, though it was obvious fromk its evasive behavior that there is nothing Roquefort wants more than to be free. Was this not arrogance? Was it not, in essence, a slave-owning mentality, to be approaching this from the perspective of how best to trap the Roquefort filling, without consideration for the Roquefort’s fundamental desire for freedom?” I think this really captures the spirit of the book.

Published in: on May 16, 2008 at 10:17 pm  Comments (1)  

Hungry Planet

by Peter Menael and Faith D’Aluisio

This is a beautiful oversized photo book. The authors visited 30 families in 24 countries and photo them in their daily lives, and the family with a week’s worth of food. It’s mind boggling to see the difference between a family from an industrialized nation and one from an impoverished country or even a refugee camp. It’s also interesting to see how many Kellogg’s cornflakes and Coca Colas show up around the world, how familiar food appears with a different package that is at once familiar and foreign.

Even the caption of the book is thought provoking: subjects are asked to name their favorite food. There is the expected pizza and potato chips, and even the no-longer-exotic sashimi, but for polar bear to be named a favorite food in Greenland – that certainly is interesting. More intriguing is that in places where you basically eat whatever you can find or grow, there is no concept of favorite food. I suppose you are just grateful for food and can’t afford to dislike something.

The book also has lots of eye opening facts, such as Mexico ranking number one in worldwide per capita consumption for Coca-Cola, and trailing the U.S. closely on obesity rate; while China enforces an one-child policy for over a decade now, its birth rate is higher than many European countries; how many cigarettes some countries consume (how can Japanese smokes almost 10 cigarette per day and still lives so long??)

Which reminds me of the joke: Japaneses smoke more than Americans, they live longer. French drinks more wine than American, they live longer. Obviously, what kills you is being American…

My favorite photo is the one of the Ecuadorian family. The smile of the whole family is so radiating. You almost feel them welcoming you to share at their table, meager though their fare may be…

Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 4:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=454386&in_page_id=1770

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