What LC Read: Vol. 19 (Artisanal Soy Sauce, Football, Embezzlement, & More)

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Farm | Joanne Ramos
Notes: Like The Handmaid's Tale with the exquisite specificity of Filipino American literature (think remittances, "chosen" families, sacrifice, etc.). The unrealistic, haphazard ending had me bristling, but it's a nevertheless compelling and worthwhile book. Ooh, also: the "villain" of the book is one of those innocuously evil East Asian American sellouts -- you know the ones. Delicious.
Synopsis: Nestled in the Hudson Valley is a sumptuous retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, private fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you get paid big money—more than you've ever dreamed of—to spend a few seasons in this luxurious locale. The catch? For nine months, you belong to the Farm. You cannot leave the grounds; your every move is monitored. Your former life will seem a world away as you dedicate yourself to the all-consuming task of producing the perfect baby for your √ľberwealthy clients.
Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother, is thrilled to make it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her own young daughter's well-being, Jane grows desperate to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she'll receive on delivery—or worse.
Heartbreaking, suspenseful, provocative, The Farm pushes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit to the extremes, and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love.

Normal People | Sally Rooney
Notes: My sister the Literature major hated this one, but I stand by its merits! I think it's one of those rare books written about young adults but for adults. There's enough nuance to curate and encourage nostalgia and empathy; but enough distance to feel sophisticated and retrospectively wise.
Synopsis: At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal.
A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other. Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.

The Misfortune of Marion Palm | Emily Culliton
Note: I'm not really sure what I found so compelling about this book, since it was a drag to read and full of deeply unlikable people. Still, I got through it eventually. No resounding endorsement here.
Synopsis: Marion Palm prefers not to think of herself as a thief but rather "a woman who embezzles." Over the years she has managed to steal $180,000 from her daughters' private school, money that has paid for European vacations, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and perpetually unused state-of-the-art exercise equipment. But, now, when the school faces an audit, Marion pulls piles of rubber-banded cash from their basement hiding places and flees, leaving her family to grapple with the baffled detectives, the irate school board, and the mother-shaped hole in their house. Told from the points of view of Nathan, Marion's husband, heir to a long-diminished family fortune; Ginny, Marion's teenage daughter, who falls helplessly in love at the slightest provocation; Jane, Marion's youngest who is obsessed with a missing person of her own; and Marion herself, on the lam—and hiding in plain sight.

God Help the Child | Toni Morrison
Note: Re-reading Toni Morrison's works because obviously. This wasn't my favorite of hers, probably because it was uncharacteristically sparse. (Is that fair to say? Her works are never excessive, but they've always felt rich and this just didn't.) Still an aching, desperate novel.
Synopsis: God Help the Child is a searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult. At the center: a woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life; but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love until she told a lie that ruined the life of an innocent woman, a lie whose reverberations refuse to diminish ... Booker, the man Bride loves and loses, whose core of anger was born in the wake of the childhood murder of his beloved brother ... Rain, the mysterious white child, who finds in Bride the only person she can talk to about the abuse she's suffered at the hands of her prostitute mother ... and Sweetness, Bride's mother, who takes a lifetime to understand that "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget."

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God | Francis Chan
Note: Probably what C.S. Lewis meant by "if you're looking for comfort, look elsewhere." (The actual quote is: If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.) Very little about my faith has centered on comfort - it's why I keep emphasizing my pursuit of clarity, which is often ugly and unpleasant but has never led me to a forsaken place.
Synopsis: Have you ever wondered if we're missing it?
It's crazy, if you think about it. The God of the universe—the Creator of nitrogen and pine needles, galaxies and E-minor—loves us with a radical, unconditional, self-sacrificing love. And what is our typical response? We go to church, sing songs, and try not to cuss.
Whether you've verbalized it yet or not, we all know something's wrong.
Does something deep inside your heart long to break free from the status quo? Are you hungry for an authentic faith that addresses the problems of our world with tangible, even radical, solutions? God is calling you to a passionate love relationship with Himself. Because the answer to religious complacency isn't working harder at a list of do's and don'ts-it's falling in love with God. And once you encounter His love, as Francis describes it, you will never be the same.
Because when you're wildly in love with someone, it changes everything.

Soy Sauce for Beginners | Kirstin Chen
Note: This had all the elements of an amazing book! Authored by a Chen! "Tension between personal ambition and filial duty!" My favorite Singaporean word, "Ang Mo," (used to describe white people) and its implications on interracial relationships! But I found this book severely lacking in any real meaning or character; I literally could not care less what happened to Gretchen despite wanting so badly to empathize with her. Very disappointing.
Synopsis: Gretchen Lin, adrift at the age of thirty, leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore and immediately finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches she’s avoided her entire adult life: her mother’s drinking problem and the machinations of her father’s artisanal soy sauce business.
Surrounded by family, Gretchen struggles with the tension between personal ambition and filial duty, but still finds time to explore a new romance with the son of a client, an attractive man of few words. When an old American friend comes to town, the two of them are pulled into the controversy surrounding Gretchen’s cousin, the only male grandchild and the heir apparent to Lin’s Soy Sauce. In the midst of increasing pressure from her father to remain permanently in Singapore—and pressure from her mother to do just the opposite—Gretchen must decide whether she will return to her marriage and her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, or sacrifice everything and join her family’s crusade to spread artisanal soy sauce to the world.

The Fifth Risk | Michael Lewis
Note: A dizzying, fast-paced read that reminds you all the horrible, incompetent people you refused to delegate to during group projects are now real adults with significant power and they still don't know how to do anything. Except now you're not there to save them. A shudder of a book. No, a grimace. Highly recommend (as I do of most of Lewis's books!).
Synopsis: "The election happened," remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. "And then there was radio silence." Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.
Michael Lewis’s brilliant narrative takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it’s not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.
Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is upside to ignorance, and downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.
If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system—those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

Book of Hours: Love Poems to God | Rainer Maria Rilke
Note: I don't know what there is left to say about Book of Hours that I haven't already sobbed to anybody who will listen. This was my point of no return to poetry; my personal copy is in tatters. The most divine, elegant, raw and human creation to ever grace earth. I will dedicate my firstborn to Rilke.
Synopsis: At the beginning of this century, a young German poet returned from a journey to Russia, where he had immersed himself in the spirituality he discovered there. He "received" a series of poems about which he did not speak for a long time - he considered them sacred, and different from anything else he ever had done and ever would do again. This poet saw the coming darkness of the century, and saw the struggle we would have in our relationship to the divine. The poet was Rainer Maria Rilke, and these love poems to God make up his Book of Hours.

The Blind Side | Michael Lewis
Note: I started this book with absolutely zero understanding of football. I don't think I've ever held a football in my life. Post-The Blind Side, I know... some things, none of which will prove to be of any practical use. But if you don't mind that your mind will keep wandering towards Sandra Bullock (who of course, played Leigh Anne Tuohy in the eponymous movie), this is such a good read. I love Michael Lewis. I really do. He made me care about sports.
Synopsis: When we first meet Michael Oher, he is one of thirteen children by a mother addicted to crack; he does not know his real name, his father, his birthday, or how to read or write. He takes up football and school after a rich, white, Evangelical family plucks him from the streets. Then two great forces alter Oher: the family's love and the evolution of professional football itself into a game in which the quarterback must be protected at any cost. Our protagonist becomes the priceless package of size, speed, and agility necessary to guard the quarterback's greatest vulnerability: his blind side.

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