Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Review of 'I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives' by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda

Note: this is one of a few reviews that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"The true story of an all-American girl and a boy from an impoverished city in Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment.  Everyone in Caitlin's class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place.  All the other kids picked countries like France or Germany, but when Caitlin saw Zimbabwe written on the board, it sounded like the most exotic place she had ever heard of-- so she chose it.

Martin was lucky to even receive a pen pal letter.  There were only ten letters, and forty kids in her class.  But he was the top student, so he got the first one.

The letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends-- and better people-- through letters.  Their story will inspire readers to look beyond their own lives and wonder about the world at large and their place in it."

I remember picking up this book over the summer when I went on a walk with a little girl and her adorable dog.  My home city and my adopted one are both cool because they have these things called Little Libraries scattered throughout the city in front of businesses and private homes.  I once saw one that looked like the TARDIS from Doctor Who!  But any way, I happened upon this book on our walk in her neighborhood.

This book starts with a simple class project of writing to pen pals around the world.  Each student in Caitlin's class picks a country and writes a letter to someone their age.  They don't know a name, they don't know if they're writing to a boy or a girl... the person on the other side of their correspondence is a mystery.  Caitlin's friends all write to someone in part of Europe.  Caitlin was drawn to Zimbabwe and it was the best decision she ever made for her life.

Martin Ganda was at the top of his class, but struggled to stay in school financially (since he had to pay to go to school).  He was lucky to receive Caitlin's letter.  Had his grades been lower or if he had failed a test or two, he might not have gotten Caitlin's letter.  One thing that I love about Martin is his curiosity towards Caitlin's life in the U.S.  He never complained to Caitlin about the problems he and his family were facing, even though days would go by where his mother would give up food so that her children could live.  When Caitlin asked to see a picture of him, he went and fo und the only picture his family had of him and he sent it to her.  He didn't stop and tell her his situation and that pictures were very expensive.  It's awfully big of him, especially since this is a facade that can be difficult to keep up, and eventually it did become too hard to keep a secret.  

It felt a little odd that Caitlin's family was supporting Martin's family.  I know that they were financially able to support Martin's family and that it was something that they wanted to do... I also know that that helped change Martin and his family's lives forever and that they were extremely grateful... but I have this idea in my head, maybe from something at church where we were talking about relief work and how the best way to help someone is to teach the people in the area that is being relieved a skill.  You can feed people fish and they won't go hungry now, but if you teach them how to fish, they'll never be hungry.  That sort of mentality.  This story didn't match up with this idea in my brain.  But I think what made me feel a lot better was that that support shifted from Caitlin's family to Martin as he finished school and started to go out and show the world what a gifted guy he is.  He's ridiculously good with numbers!

I admired Martin's drive throughout the story.  His drive to not only do well in school, but stay in school and get caught up when he fell so far behind from not being able to pay his tuition to stay in school.  He was resourceful and extremely motivated in a way that a number of students in first world countries (I'm sorry, I don't know a better term) just aren't.  We take our education for granted, whether that is the education we're legally obligated to receive or whether it's higher education at a university, technical, or trade school that we opt to receive.  That was a big thought that ran through my head as I was reading this book.  

I haven't really had a successful pen pal relationship in my life, but this book made me think a lot about the international relationships that I have made and how important those have been in shaping how I think about the world.  It's so cool to read about international connections like the ones that Martin and Caitlin made.  This was a really great read.

I give 'I Will Always Write Back':
Thanks for Reading!


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Review of 'The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures' by Anne Fadiman

Note: This is one of a few reviews leftover from 2015 that I am trying to write and post before I start in on things that I have read in 2016.  Thank you for your patience!

"Lia Lee was born in 1981 to a family of recent Hmong immigrants, and soon developed symptoms of epilepsy.  By 1988 she was living at home but was brain dead after a tragic cycle of misunderstand, over-medication, and culture clash: 'What the doctors viewed as clinical efficiency the Hmong viewed as frosty arrogance.'  The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, written with the deepest of human feeling.  Sherwin Nuland said of the account, 'There are no villains in Fadiman's tale, just s there are no heroes.  People are presented as she saw them, in their humility and their frailty-- and their nobility."

I had a hard time with this book at times.  I loved learning about Hmong culture and it was interesting to read about how Hmong culture and people are adapting to life away from Laos and Cambodia (because that's largely what this book was about-- the people who emigrated with their families away from the places they called home).  It was incredible to read about how people, especially the children, but even the adults, straddled two cultures at once and managed to keep the culture they brought with them intact, though with some adjustments.

I leave this book thinking everyone is at least a little bit at fault.  I'm disappointed in the hospital for not putting translators at a higher priority, especially when they are fully aware of the demographics of the community that they serve.  They knew that there had recently been a huge influx in the Hmong population.  Instead, what was happening was that nurses aides and technicians at the hospital were being hired, especially if they could speak Hmong, and then they were being used as translators on top of the jobs they were originally hired to do.  I don't know how anyone can be expected to do their hospital tech job and then stop that work and go translate for a family and be expected to do well at all of these things and also, I think, not be properly compensated for doing these two jobs for the hospital.  Both of these jobs are important, but they require a lot of time and different skill sets that aren't necessarily related to each other.  It's not fair to those people.

On the other hand, it also bothers me that the Lee family didn't know even basic words of English that might have helped the doctors diagnose Lia.  If not before the first visit, at least for the subsequent visits before she had an established medical record and a reputation.  Words like "hot," "shake," or "asleep" might have helped the doctors know that she was unconscious and that she had been convulsing (for how long, that's something that the doctors would have to figure out, but at least they'd have some clues).  I think it was especially important to have these words, especially since Lia kept being admitted into the emergency room again and again for the same problems.

The hospital also got too frustrated with the Lee family.  I know that they didn't have a good amount of background knowledge on Hmong culture and beliefs, but you'd think the doctors and nurses would glean that their culture was different than the one the hospital and many of the staff are part of.  Clearly, they can't handle Lia Lee's case in the same way as they can with white patients.  I noticed that towards the end of the book, they had worked themselves into kind of a routine with Lia and as a result, sometimes they became careless.

The family is also quite stubborn.  I became frustrated with some of their interactions with the hospital.  My feeling is that when you come to the hospital, you're recognizing that the situation at hand is bigger than what you can handle and so you go to the doctors who are much more equipped to handle these big situations.  The patient and/or their family ultimately gets to make the choice what happens, but it's the doctors job to use their knowledge to advise the patient and their family in order to help them get well.  It's not the family's job to tell the doctors that they're not doing their job.  That is my biggest point of contention with the Lee family.

As far as language is concerned in this book, I was happy to have my soon to be mother-in-law to talk to about this, as she had read this book for one of her college classes (as I was supposed to have done in my anthropology class, but didn't until a couple years later).  At one of her former churches, they had a decent-sized Koren (Kuh-Ren) population and so the church offered English classes to help these families accomplish basic tasks like grocery shopping and going on a doctor's visit (or other things like that).  I can't remember the question that she asked, but it was something about why they didn't learn some English a little sooner.  Not a question asked in an accusing way, but one that was asked out of curiosity and that was how it was taken.  The answer was basically that they lost their home and they didn't want to lose their culture and native language too.  To me, that's makes sense, but I am having trouble marrying my thoughts on these separate matters together as one coherent thought on the matter.  It seems that there are no winners in this situation and this is something that I need to accept and take into consideration.  I've determined that it's impossible to pick one side, especially when you don't completely agree with how they conducted themselves or how they contradict the "opposing team," so to speak.

I would recommend this book if you don't know a lot about Hmong culture and their history and I would also recommend it if you need a huge issue to chew over for a while.  I don't feel done with this book.  It's given me a lot to think about, absolutely.

I give this book:
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, January 11, 2016

Four Reasons Why You Should Study Abroad (Any Where)

At the end of August 2014, I found myself on a plane going from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, where I would catch a train and go to Leiden, the Netherlands and spend the next four and a half months there.  I was scared out of my mind upon landing, but living in Leiden became the best experience I could have asked for.  I know that a number of other people who decide to study abroad feel similar by the end of their experience.  With that, here are __ reasons why you should consider studying abroad, whether that means this coming spring semester if the deadlines haven't passed or in the summer or fall, depending on your program.

1. Explore the Places You've Only Read About or Seen in Movies.  Since I lived in Europe and near a big international airport (Schipol Airport), the world was my oyster.  I ended up visiting eight countries (if you include the Netherlands and also if you include Vatican City, which is a city state) during my semester abroad.  I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris when my family came to visit, I saw the Colosseum on my 21st birthday, I saw Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when my fiance came to visit, I went through the Anne Frank House twice while living in the Netherlands.  Being in these places in person is so much better than keeping at a distance with books and films.  It's very hard to describe.

2. Get to Know Yourself Better.  This is a very important one.  While living abroad, you're usually away from your family and people you know and so you have to figure things out on your own.  You learn your limits-- things that you're okay and comfortable with and things that you're not okay with and may even make you feel unsafe.  My solo trip to England comes to mind immediately.  I was comfortable using the Tube and finding my way around London on a map, but I was not comfortable staying out after dark in this strange city while I was on my own, so I made sure to be back at my hostel by then.  On a more positive note, you learn about what you're capable of.  I never thought that I would be able to walk into a grocery story in the Netherlands and not speak a word of English while I found my food and checked out with an actual Dutch person.  If you can't tell, I'm still very proud of myself for this.  You also learn what it important to you when you learn about a part of history or a culture that truly moves you or when you prioritize going to see one thing over another when you visit another place for a short while.

3. Live Like a Local.  If you've been living in roughly the same place all your life, it can be hard to fathom what it's like for other people around the world to live in their day-to-day life.  When you study abroad with a program that doesn't do everything for you, you shop at the same grocery stores that local people shop at, you know when market day is, you celebrate the holidays as they are happening in the city... you basically become one of the locals, if only for a short period of time.

4. Learn a Language.  There is nothing like total immersion when it comes to learning a language.  Doing DuoLingo or even studying a language in school can compare to total immersion.  My experience is probably not the best example, because a number of Dutch people speak English, especially in the University town where I lived, but for people who live in smaller cities abroad or who find the special pockets of the big cities and practice what language they know will be able to practice with native speakers and you try and work out what you want to say and what other people are saying to you.  I won't say that there is no "out" to using the native language of the place where you're living, but there are fewer opportunities for switching to English that if you were doing DuoLingo or studying at school.  You struggle through the interaction, but you're a lot better speaker of that language for it.

There are a million reasons why you should absolutely study abroad, but here are four you should take into consideration as you prepare for your great adventure!

Thanks for Reading!


Friday, January 8, 2016

Book Blogger Hop: The Evolution of a Blog

Book Blogger Hop
Hello there!  I haven't done a blog hop for quite some time-- I'd like to get back into doing them every couple of weeks or so.  If you're new here, I go by Jude on this blog.  I've been reviewing books for around five years now.  My taste in books tends not to be books that are making headlines (at least not right away), but rather books that interest me.

The question for this week comes from Elizabeth at Silver's Reviews:

Have you made any improvements on your blog since you started your blog?  Did you change the format?  Did you change your header?  Did you add or remove items from your sidebar?

My blog changes quite frequently (and by frequently, I mean every three to six months).  I tend to look for a space of time where I can revamp absolutely everything on my blog at once and then I leave it until I get tired of looking at it or just need a change.  Right now, my current layout reflects an older me who is a bit more experienced in life.  When I started this blog, it was horrendous.  Layout didn't really matter to me, so I splattered the page in content and if I remember correctly, my blog was full to the brim with... stuff... I like to think it's a little cleaner now.  My first layout reflected the fifteen/sixteen year old me while this layout reflects how I feel I am as a twenty-two year old.  It's an odd transformation.  There are very few elements that have no been changed since the beginning of this blog.  But I think that's healthy, since people change over time.

If you're interested in reading reviews that I have written, there is a button below the header that says "Book Reviews" and also a tag in the "Cloud of Labels" that says "Reviews-- Books" where you can browse write-ups on books that I've read to your heart's content.

If you're stopping by on the blog hop, feel free to leave a nice message with your url and I'll do my best to come and visit you during the blog hop!

Thanks for Reading!


Friday, January 1, 2016

Blogging and Life Goals for 2016

2015 is finished and now it's time to start looking forward into 2016.  I have a good feeling about this year and I have some decent hopes for it as well.  Here are some goals that I would like to accomplish over the course of this year:

Blogging/Reading Goals

  1. Read/Listen to 60 Books.  I have accomplished reading over 50 books in a year before, so now it's time to up the ante a little.  At the time I am writing this, I have about 250 written reviews.  My goal this year is to, at the very least, break 300 reviews written and published on this blog.
  2. Blog Regularly (Have a Schedule).  This has been my greatest weakness on this blog.  I kind of blog whenever I please, but I think I'm realizing that I do better when I have a deadline.  So for 2016, I am going to do my best to stick to posting at 3pm my time on Wednesdays.  I am going to mark this on my calendar so that I know.  Occasionally I will have a cool thing going on in my life, so those posts will come up as the events happen and every once in a while, there will be more than one book review in a week.  I can't say right now when those times will be, so you'll be just as surprised as I am.
  3. Watch 20 New Movies.  Maybe it's because I recently saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens in theaters for the second time and had such a strong reaction to it, but I want to start writing about movies again.  I did this a while ago, but it petered out rather quickly.  I'd like to give this a try again.  Because this is my second attempt doing this, I will not have a specific schedule for writing about movies.
  4. Keep Blogging About Life.  I was scrolling through my previous posts and I really liked being able to look back at my study abroad adventures and things that I did this summer and during the school year.  I feel like there's more of myself in this blog than there ever has been.  I kind of like that.  So I'm going to keep it up.

Health Goals

  1. Get Serious About Food.  I've been learning something about myself lately.  Food is kind of important to me.  I like eating food, but it's also largely the source of how I feel about myself.  If I feel like I've eaten too much unhealthy food in a day, my mood tends to suffer.  This isn't going to be a diet-- I'm not going to adopt the paleo diet or drop carbs altogether or anything extreme like that, but I want to make better choices and do it for the sake of my own happiness.
  2. Develop An Exercise Routine and Stick To It.  How many years have I (and everyone else on the planet) posted something like this?  It's ridiculous that I always find an excuse for not exercising or doing it for a while and then stopping for no reason.  I want to get serious about making this a thing in my life.  I like to bike, walk, and do yoga among other things.  Now I just need to make them routine.
  3. Be Cleaner.  Another thing that I've learned about myself is that my mood really improves when I'm living in a clean and calm environment.  The problem is, I'm not very good about keeping my environment clean.  So I want to develop a list that I must look at right before bed and I'm not allowed to go to sleep until that list is complete.  Something I learned from reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is that once the deep cleaning is done, as long as I keep up with the daily mess, I'll only spend 5-10 minutes cleaning every day as opposed to several hours every few months.  It worked for her, so I really want to try this.
  4. Take Care Of Your Brain.  My professor for one of my capstone classes introduced us to meditation.  One of the extra credit assignments was to try and develop a meditation practice.  Since there was nothing to lose, I decided to give it a try.  And I felt a lot better doing it.  It helped with anxiety and my head felt clearer somehow, even though work didn't go away.  I want that feeling back.  I'm going to try and take care of my brain better by giving it time.

Life Goals

  1. Get Married.  Can you believe it, we've been engaged for a little over a year now!  Now it's time to do something about it.  Winter break is probably going to be the time to figure out what is going on with this whole wedding thing.
  2. Graduate.  Right now, I'm slated to graduate in December (one more year!) after I finish student teaching.  I don't anticipate that this will change, but it is getting to be that time when I am feeling more burned out than ever about school.  I put this goal here to remind myself just how important this is to me and also to remind myself just how close I am to being finished with my undergraduate career.
  3. Apply for Teach for America.  I have been talking about this with friends and family and I really think that this is my natural next step.  It will help me get the certification that I want (ESL certification) and help me forgive some of my debt because I'll be placed in a Title I school somewhere.  Again, I have some work to do with this, but I want for this to work out really badly.
  4. Find a Way to Travel.  I kept returning to my study abroad posts throughout this year and I wanted so badly to experience that feeling of having the world open to me the way I did when I lived in the Netherlands.  I don't know if international travel is in my immediate future (as in this year... probably not with a wedding in the works), but I would like to visit places outside of Minnesota at least.  Even if that means going for a long weekend in Chicago by MegaBus.  
  5. Get Published.  There are many opportunities to show off writing and art at my school.  I have one more year to take advantage of these opportunities.  If nothing else, I want to at least send in work to be considered.  There are a number of deadlines coming up in early January, so I'm going to have to get busy.
This is going to be a big year and a great one as well.  I can feel it and I will make it so.