Book Review: Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

I literally just snapped this picture, so photo courtesy of me. I was done with having reviews with no pictures and I’m sure you were, too.

It’s late and I’m rather sleepy (it’s early technically but I’m an early bird so I have to go to bed early so I can wake up early) so this review isn’t going to be as long as I hoped, but I just finished this novel by Jennifer Egan, who also wrote A Visit from the Goon Squad. While I wasn’t a huge fan of that book (I don’t even remember if I got through it or not), I really liked this one called Look At Me. It’s about this young woman whose modeling career and entire life do a 360 when she gets in a car accident and sustains severe injuries, namely an injury to her face. The injury is so bad that the doctors have to put in eighty titanium screws to keep it all together. While her appearance isn’t totally altered, her mind is, and throughout the book she is just trying to regain her sense of self after enduring this traumatic accident. The novel shifts from her perspective to that of the third person, because we get to meet one of the kids of Charlotte’s old friend from school, and this kid happens to be named Charlotte. Charlotte has her own problems she is dealing with, namely with boys. She ends up falling for this older teacher named Mr. West, and is having a hard time confessing her feelings for him to her friends.

Honestly, this is sad to say, but I can’t remember much of the other characters in the book, so this isn’t a character analysis or anything. What engrossed me most about the novel was Charlotte’s perspective. It’s probably because I read first person narratives most of the time, but her narrative is what got me through the book. The third person narrative, I found myself trying to figure out who was who, and the only people I remember from the third person are young Charlotte (the daughter of first person Charlotte’s friend) and Mr. West. The book was well written but it’s sort of like Michael Chabon or even Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity: you can’t let the incredibly descriptive and psychoanalytical language get in the way of you learning about the characters and how they develop as the novel goes on. I felt like I was just getting lost in the characters’ heads throughout the book, and I didn’t know whose head I was getting lost in: Moose’s, Charlotte’s, young Charlotte, the character towards the end named Aziz (“Z”). It wasn’t a bad book, very well written, but I couldn’t tell if it was on me or on Jennifer Egan to help me stay focused on the plot and the characters’ actions instead of just their thoughts.

Or actually, now that I think about it, it is one of those books that is so well-written that you need to read it again because the language just captures you, absorbs you, and then leaves you to figure out what the book meant at the end. I would love to go back and read this book; I am normally not someone who re-reads books (except for college; I was re-reading not for fun, but to discuss the book and then write an essay analysis on it for a grade) but I wouldn’t feel bored if I re-read this book because then I would understand better who the characters are. It would probably also help if I do end up reading it again to take notes on it so that I know who is who. It got so much acclaim (and as you can see on the cover, was a National Book Award finalist) that I hated finishing this book and thinking, What was the point? Because the writing was excellent and I was very much engrossed; but I don’t want to keep forgetting characters when I read books and the characters in this novel were so important.

Look At Me: A Novel. Jennifer Egan. 2001. 415 pp.

Book Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

The first novel I read by Jonathan Franzen was Freedom, which was really good. Then I was at a book sale, and I wanted to read more of his books, so I found one of his more recent novels, Purity. It is about a young woman named Purity, who goes by “Pip” and lives in Oakland, California with her student debt, a low-paying job, and a bunch of roommates. Not to mention that she has a thing for one of them, but he is already married. She hears about this internship that a guy from Germany named Andreas Wolf founded and decides to pursue it since she wants to leave her stressful situation in hopes for a better one. But along the way, she discovers some dark truths about her past, in particular her relationship with her parents. She finds out that her mother secretly kept all this money from her rather than letting her access it so she could pay off her student debt and afford her rent. She also finds out that Andreas is more complicated than she at first assumed he would be, and the power dynamic between him and her was interesting. And this is where the characters got to be a bit harder to follow than the characters from Freedom, and honestly the book was 500 pages and I didn’t take notes, so I could not remember much of Andreas’s character development. All I remember is that he was conflicted about how he felt about Pip because he was sexually attracted to her, and then he broke up with her, and then this whole confusing thing happened between Pip and him.

One thing I do remember though, is the descriptiveness of the natural surroundings. I think this imagery is really what kept me reading the book even when I couldn’t always understand the characters. I felt like I was walking with Pip the whole time, in her apartment, at the coffee shop she worked at, at the internship… Another thing I noticed (and while I hate comparing writers since each writer has their own experiences and style they bring to the pages) is that Franzen’s writing in this novel was similar to Michael Chabon’s writing. Michael Chabon is the author of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Telegraph Avenue. Reading Purity felt sort of like reading Telegraph Avenue, and this is why I am not sure where I stand on what rating to give this book, because while Purity wasn’t bad, it was like Telegraph Avenue, which is super heavy with psychological third person character analysis and rich vocabulary, so it took me a while to finish it and to catch up on the characters and important details about them. But maybe that’s the point of reading at all: reading these kinds of books for pleasure will leave you thinking, What did I just read? Which character did what and with whom? What was the name of their great-grandmother again? You need to look up words, slow down, think about the characters in greater depth, which is something I should have done in order to remember more in-depth analysis of Andreas and Annagret, and Pip’s mother and father.

Again, it wasn’t bad, just not what I expected. I would probably have to read it again, but I am already reading new books, so probably won’t get to read it again for a while.

Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen. 563 pp. 2015.

Book Review: Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder by Reshma Saujani

I needed to read this book after my friend recommended it to me. My life depended on it. I started it last night and finished it this morning. Why? Because I am a Grade-1 perfectionist and people-pleaser and I could relate to everything the author talked about. Of course, there is nothing wrong with saying “yes” to things, but if you say “yes” too many times, people get used to the idea that you will just do what they want 24/7 without you making any time for yourself. In this book, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani talks about how she struggled with (and still struggles with, but is getting better at) having the confidence to stop putting other people’s agendas before her own and follow her passion even at the risk of so-called “failing”. According to Saujani, society has conditioned women to not embrace failure and to see it as a burden rather than as an opportunity to keep trying at something that we may not always be good at. From the time people are boys and girls, historical social norms dictate that boys are supposed to get their hands dirty and if they mess up, to just grit their teeth and keep going, while girls are told to play nice and not cause a fuss at the risk of hurting other people’s feelings. Fast forward to when girls become women and those gender norms continue to hold women back and let men move forward.

I remember when I was applying for jobs, I was unemployed and depressed, but I remember one of my friends telling me to keep applying for jobs even though I didn’t have 100 percent of the qualifications for the job. I’m not saying that I blame my tendency to be modest on any of the past jobs I’ve had, and I frankly don’t regret working as a dishwasher, daycare teacher, a barista, or today as a legal office clerk because not only did these jobs teach me how to just show up and do the work even if I was depressed, but for the simple reason that they helped me make money so I could do the things I wanted, even something as simple as buying a $10 tabbouleh, grape leaf dolma, fruit and greens salad for dinner one night during one of my shifts. Although I will say that I still have a deep-seated fear when it comes to applying for jobs where I would make more money, because I don’t want to be seen as ungrateful for my current position, or moreover that I didn’t have all the qualifications and thus, why bother trying? Recently I was looking at jobs in the entertainment industry and I love film and TV just as much as I love music, but the idea of even applying for the job gave me that sickening feeling of “well, if I pitch this idea, what if it’s not what they want?” or even something like just playing and practicing music that someone else wrote because I fear writing my own music. Although quite a few people have told me to just start writing music even though I don’t have a formal degree in music or film composition, I still hold on to this deep-seated fear that if I produce my own compositions for cello or start pitching compositions to producers or other highly successful people in the industry, they will find out I’m not as experienced or as confident as I seem, or worse yet, that they will reject my music because it’s not what they are looking for.

But what’s beautiful and genius about Reshma’s book is that she encourages girls and women to worry not about whether or not we get accepted or rejected, but instead to worry about not trying at all. I auditioned for an orchestra and got on the substitute cellist list back in 2016, and thought I totally messed up when I emailed the personnel manager about how to obtain copies of the cello parts for the season so I could practice them in case they called me to sub for someone. Even though looking back, it was for the best, I still remember days when I would cry and think about how I offended the personnel manager and how, the minute he got my email, he harrumphed and thought, “Well! I never. How rude of her to even inquire!” But after seeking guidance and chanting daimoku about my situation, I realized that he could have not answered my email for a variety of reasons that were out of my control: maybe he wasn’t allowed to make copies because of copyright policies. Or the cellists were all present for their rehearsals (I wouldn’t wish the common cold on any of them, even though we’re human and it happens). Maybe he got busy and had a flurry of other emails to answer. The list goes on. Bottom line is, I auditioned for another orchestra after not getting any opportunities to sub for anyone, got rejected by that orchestra, cried about getting rejected from that. I auditioned for another orchestra after that, submitting my audition videos online, got rejected by that. I submitted those videos for a cello festival, got rejected, too. At first I wallowed in frustration and pity: why couldn’t I get in any professional orchestras? I stopped practicing as much because I was putting all my hopes into, mind you, one of several career paths for musicians. Then, my teacher told me about this opportunity to join a community orchestra, and how the director wanted me to join because they were looking for a cellist. At first, I was still salty about not getting into any professional orchestras, but I took this one because I was tired of sitting alone in my room and practicing in hopes that someone would notice my hard work and talent and magically whisk me away to play with the New York Philharmonic. So I joined and to this day, I love playing in the orchestra. Now of course, I’m also looking into additional music opportunities, but this orchestra will provide the training I need to play with other people. I remember meeting one of the cellists of this orchestra I saw one night. She was one of a handful of women in the cello section and I remember being so happy to meet her and talk with her, and the best advice she gave me was to go for the audition but to not put all my eggs in one basket and not stress out about the audition being the only important thing in the world. She was right; as much as I have looked up on the Internet “how to be a successful cellist” or “how to be a successful musician”, there’s no clear cut answer, and at the end of the day, you don’t become a rich success after acing one audition, no matter how much the media wants you to think so. Orchestra musicians still have to pay their bills and find other avenues to make money, because being in an orchestra by itself will not pay all of your bills. It’s just like being any other musician; it pays, but you should still keep your day job in case gigs aren’t coming in as steadily as you hoped. It is a great opportunity and there are also more creative ways to make money as a musician. You just have to be willing to work with what you’ve got and bring your ideas and talents to the table whether or not you fail or succeed at doing so.

Another important point Saujani makes is that practicing gratitude is important when confronting rejection or failure. Even if we didn’t get the job, or win the political campaign, we should be appreciative of the people who helped us on that path, and especially appreciate that there was even an opportunity to go outside our comfort zone and try something new. I recently started keeping a gratitude journal and while at first I started listing the basics, I found it was hard to stop writing and by the time I was done I had listed at least 50 things I was grateful for that day. It’s hard to be grateful when we’re suffering, but it’s the thing that keeps us going. Looking back, my depression stemmed from a lack of appreciation for my life, and coming to understand this has helped me grow so much more. I remember one time a professional dancer told me that to succeed as an artist, you need to love yourself and have an attitude of appreciation. I think this is especially important as a classical musician, because so much time and money goes into lessons, coachings, festivals, that many of us (myself included) forget that there are people out there learning an instrument who don’t have all those financial resources at their easy access, or they may not have access to an instrument at all. This perspective actually helps my performances and fuels my passion because I am less hung up on the idea that I need to be 100 percent perfect so that the one music critic in the back marking up the mistakes I need to go back on with his/her/their score in hand doesn’t criticize my performance one bit. After reading Saujani’s book, I realize that the reason I couldn’t overcome those butterflies in my stomach when, on audition day, I stepped into the church and checked in at the desk, when I sat in the practice room with my hands clamming up, trying to nail any trouble spots, when I walked into the choral practice room and saw the judges writing their criticisms of the last audition in steely silence, was that I wanted to please each and every one of them.

But I remember watching an interview that cellist Alisa Weilerstein did with Zsolt Bognar of Living the Classical Life, and she said that you can’t please everyone and you just have to perform in a way that is true to yourself whether you think people will like it or not. I remember another interview that Bognar did with opera singer Nadine Sierra, and she talks about how she got teased when she was younger for loving opera and when she got older she got more and more criticism from people who didn’t like her performances, but she tells Zsolt that you shouldn’t worry about pleasing everyone because not everyone is going to like what you do, and that’s ok. Yes, there are times when someone will tell us we are out of tune or need to approach the piece with a different character. However, there is a clear difference between someone who wants you to improve and someone who just wants to vent about how much you stink and should never perform live ever again. And if someone doesn’t like your performance, well, you just keep on performing.

Saujani encourages girls and young women to strive to do our best rather than do a perfect performance without any mistakes. In every performance and rehearsal I have done, there has never been a time where I haven’t played one note out of tune, accidentally rushed or played the wrong bow stroke. However, that hasn’t stopped me from playing music. It may have at times discouraged me from pursuing auditions for a long time, but at the end of the day, it’s important to have a healthy outlook and not put all your life into making the critics happy. My teacher said that it’s important to practice, but you should also practice as if you were going to get up in front of a bunch of people and perform. At times I wondered to myself why I wasn’t getting any better no matter how much I practiced, and after a while, I came to understand that I was working too much on getting every single note perfectly in tune rather than working on the story I wanted to tell through the piece. Technique is important, of course, but it shouldn’t detract you from playing the piece with your own interpretation. At the end of the day, I can only play in the way that is most natural for me. I’m sure that Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline Du Pre, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheku Kanneh-Mason or any other cellist out there would want me or other cellists to stop trying to copy their style and figure out their own interpretation of the piece.

I also like how inclusive Saujani’s definition of bravery is. She references Adam Grant’s book Originals, in which he says that innovative people tend to procrastinate, and take less risks, but unlike people who just let their ideas remain dormant, original people realize that they can’t just keep their ideas to themselves any longer and must share them even if they get rejected, called out, etc. Being a creative person doesn’t mean we need to quit our days jobs so we can spend all the time we need on ideas. Ava DuVernay didn’t quit her day job, neither did Stephen King, John Legend or Steve Wozniak. Instead they pursued their projects while paying their bills just like the rest of society. They showed up and did the work even when it wasn’t perfect, and even when their ideas got rejected multiple times, they kept creating and creating until their projects found a place in the market. Before reading Originals I thought I needed to quit my day job so I could have more practice time. But after reading the experiences of musicians, actors and other people in the arts and entertainment industries, it seemed foolish to quit my day job, especially since I didn’t have much money to begin with. Also, the internet has made it so easy for people to share their art with the world and find fellow artists to collaborate with, versus in the olden days when your talent was the only thing that got you that multimillion dollar break with Capitol Records. While working as a barista, there were times I wouldn’t practice my cello because I was so exhausted from work, but now I do the work even if the practice isn’t perfect or I don’t have all the time in the world to play that one note perfectly. Actors go on auditions even when they wait tables or work in IT, band members still get together and play even when they are finishing up their graduate theses, and stand-up comedians get up on stage even when they drive passengers around in Uber or Lyft to pay their bills. It’s better to try and fail at your craft each day than to put in the towel and quit just because you don’t have all of the financial means or time to succeed in it. Being brave to me means practicing my music even when I’m not (yet) a world class performer. Being brave means writing this post even if I’m not (yet) a best-selling author. Being brave means putting my music on Soundcloud and YouTube even when I don’t (yet) have a big following. (Saujani also encourages girls and women to say “yet” instead of “I haven’t accomplished [x] and will never accomplish [x].”

I’m also more inspired to finish my JavaScript course now that I’ve read Brave, Not Perfect. In fact, Saujani says she had no coding experience prior to starting Girls Who Code, but what motivated her to get the initiative running was seeing a lack of girls in the field of STEM and wanting to change that narrative. Had she waited until she got the skills to start it, she wouldn’t have followed her gut and just done the thing (a.k.a. addressing the lack of opportunities given to girls to learn coding). I remember not coding for a while and even quitting one of my coding courses because I didn’t do as well as I wanted when putting together my final project for my HTML and CSS courses. But I’m going to finish the Javascript Basics course whether or not I think I’m good at it simply because I get an opportunity to work with numbers. I feared math even after taking years of learning center math after school, and even after acing one of my favorite subjects, algebra (probably because geometry and pre-calculus were my least successful subjects), but coding gives me a chance to start afresh, and much evidence has shown that coding is great for creative types like me. So here goes nothing, and cheers to celebrating my willingness to try.

Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder. Reshma Saujani. 194 pp. 2019.

Book Review: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few years ago, in my philosophy course on Animal Rights, our professor had us read and discuss Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer’s exploration of factory farming and the ethical dilemma he found (and still finds) himself in with regards to cutting meat 100 percent out of his diet. From what I can remember (I’d probably have to go back and read the book despite reading it several times in that one course) Eating Animals mainly talks about the ethical implications of factory farming and how factory farming puts these animals in cruel conditions. In We Are the Weather, published this very year, it goes to another level to talk about the impact of factory farming on the planet. This book attracted me because he forces us to sit back and reflect on not just factory farming and global warming, but on the deeper meanings behind our actions, like in Part 2 he gives these disturbing statistics about climate change and the average carbon footprint, and the ways in which factory farming contributes to increased greenhouse gas production and, in turn, higher climate temperatures. He also talks earlier in the book about the film An Inconvenient Truth (the film that inspired me to go on a save-the-planet movement when I was in middle school). But then in Part 3, “Only Home”, he talks about the concept of home and how it relates to the ways we treat the planet. In one of the chapters of Part 3, called “Mortgaging the Home”, he talks about how his family was just one of many American families with the “American Dream” mindset, where his grandparents’ house was larger than his parents’ house, and how his house is larger than his parents’ house. The “American Dream” dictates that one’s lifestyle should be more expansive than that of one’s parents, but now that climate change is worsening and people are using more resources than the planet can provide, we have to ask ourselves: is The American Dream sustainable? What do we have to lose by sacrificing it? Foer talks about the debt that many Americans have: credit card, student loans, car debt, mortgages, but he takes it to another level by forcing us to think about the debt we owe to our only real home, Planet Earth. He says in the beginning of the chapter that we will need four planets to sustain the average American lifestyle for all 7.5 billion and counting people on the planet, while in other countries that are less affluent, we would only need one planet or so to do that.

I have lately been reading about lifestyle inflation and never thought that our planet would live long enough to still sustain the kind of lifestyles that the American Dream pressures us to pursue. I am fine living below my means, but I can’t speak for everyone since everyone has different goals and situations. But this book left me with this bittersweet feeling of, like, I am hopeful that we will mitigate what we’ve done to the planet, and at the same time I think about all the species that have gone extinct and the communities that have to deal with the worsening effects of climate change (coastal places mainly). I am a vegan, but I also drive a car to work, I keep my phone on everyday, and I have flown a lot in the past on planes and still crave that spirit of travel. I also try to compost and not waste too much food, since I watched the documentary Wasted and realized that being vegan by itself wasn’t going to cut down on greenhouse gases if all the food I ate was being thrown away in the trash so it could go and rot on a landfill and emit even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Part of me wants to start a composting program at my workplace, but since I have composted before, I can tell you that it attracts a lot of critters and that wouldn’t necessarily be good for the firm’s business. Still, I get sad when our office manager has to throw out all this uneaten fruit at the end of the day, and no matter how much fruit I try to take home I know it won’t fit my tiny Pyrex container. So you can only do so much.

I guess I gelled with Foer’s book because in Buddhism, we talk about karma, and how it means that we create karma through our thoughts, actions and words each day, but from Nichiren Buddhism, yes, our karma is deep but we don’t have to be fatalistic and think it’s the end of the world. We can transform this karma not just through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo but also through taking actions in our daily lives to transform the effects of this karma. In a way, as a collective of individuals we have created a social karma through setting up these institutions and systems that perpetuate discrimination and consumerism. And Foer recognizes that people who say we should stop eating meat and flying aren’t being super practical, and also that this perspective might as well be saying that we should become “air-a-tarians” and abstain from having fun altogether. But he also recognizes that the far end of the perspective, aka cynicism, won’t help. He writes a lot about hopelessness and suicide in the last part of his book, and suicide being one of the leading causes of death, but that we need to still have hope even at a time when we don’t know how we’ll adapt to global warming. He says that we can’t just sit back and pray for stuff to happen, but instead, we can take action

“by having honest conversations. bridging the familiar with the unfamiliar, planting messages for the future, digging up messages from the past, digging up messages from the future, disputing with our souls and refusing to stop. And we must do this together: everyone’s hand wrapped around the same pen, every breath of everyone exhaling the shared prayer.”

Foer, We Are The Weather, page 224

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Jonathan Safran Foer. 272 pp. 2019.

Book Review: Cold Mountain

Now this book took me quite a while to get through, not just because I had a lot of other books I was reading at the time, but because I couldn’t stomach most of the pain that the soldiers went through during the Civil War. The depictions of violence are graphic because the author, Charles Frazier, wanted readers to see how awful this war was. While of course the love story between a soldier named Inman and a preacher’s daughter named Ada, who used to be his love before the war, while reading this book I was mainly focused on how messed up the war was and the psychological, emotional and physical damage it did to not just the soldiers fighting in the war, but also those family and friends of soldiers that the war affected. Also how people had to survive at that time makes me feel incredibly spoiled to have access to grocery stores, to schools, to three square meals a day, not to mention the fact that I can eat vegan and feel full. Back in the day you couldn’t eat vegan if you were trying to just survive in the South during that time. I felt like I was reading the book version of The Revenant (I haven’t seen that movie, but from the trailer I know it’s about survival).

This book reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s short story collection The Things They Carried because even though his book and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are set during different wars (The Things They Carried takes place during the Vietnam War) the depictions of war are so vivid and brutal to read about and stomach. But that’s why these kinds of books exist, to show us how war can tear people apart. I don’t remember much about the book in detail because I read it over a span of days and didn’t take notes while reading it, but all I know is that I had to take breaks and stop reading because of the horrors that Inman and his fellow soldiers endured at that time. It’s one thing to learn about it in school because while they teach how bad the Civil War was, reading a novel like Cold Mountain serves as a grim reminder of how war messes people up. Frazier’s language captures both the grimness of war and the beauty of love, and this language is what kept me reading even when I didn’t think I could handle the rest of the book. I actually found out about this book a long time ago, and put it on my list of books to read, but yet again, like many other books, I didn’t get around to it (I was also much too young to read it. Now that I’m older I was slightly able to handle the novel’s mature content more). But I finally decided to read it because I had put it off for a long time. Hopefully the book is just as good as the film, although after reading the novel I don’t know if I can stomach the film. Overall, excellent novel.

Cold Mountain. 1997. Charles Frazier. 358 pp.

Book Review: Originals by Adam Grant

I had been meaning to read the book Originals, by Adam Grant, for a while, especially since I loved its colorful design on the front cover. But I never got around to it, like many great books. Finally, I stopped at a bookstore at lunch and thought, Sure I can get this at the library, but why not splurge on my own personal copy I can keep and write in? After all, a book about people who go against the grain sounds like it was written specially for me. So I bought my own copy, and oh my goodness, I devoured that book as if it was a molten chocolate brownie sundae from The Cheesecake Factory (not that I can eat that much sugar anyway, but you get the idea).

In Originals, Adam Grant examines how creative people think differently about success and the plans they take to make that success happen. One thing that stood out to me was that a lot of originals don’t quit their jobs, contrary to popular belief. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, musician John Legend and the creators of the glasses company Warby Parker are just a few originals who kept their day jobs while working on their creative pursuits. There’s this idea that if you quit your day job you will somehow have more time to “follow your passion”, but to be honest, even if I were to quit my day job (which I don’t want to, thank you very much) I would still need to work hard as a freelance musician. Being freelance would mean I would need to always be promoting my work, always negotiating my salary, and always practicing my instrument. Work is work whether you work for someone or work for yourself.

And Grant argues that while it may seem that day jobs distract us from our passions, they actually don’t, because “having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.” (Grant 19). I needed money to buy the domain for this blog, I needed the time and money to read books, stream movies on YouTube and Amazon so I could write these fun movie reviews, and…well, okay, I didn’t have to buy Pandora because I can stream it free as long as I play ads, but I do have to have money so I can buy the sheet music for all the cool pieces I want to play (aka the pieces I can’t get on IMSLP). Even though at first I thought having a day job would mean less time for my passion, it has actually made me more creative. I find myself thinking of new ideas as I file emails and do a variety of repetitive tasks at the desk. I listen to Pandora at work and explore a variety of artists, like Youssou N’Dour, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens and ’90’s hip-hop artists like Biggie Smalls and Tupac. These artists help influence my own musical performance. After listening to the scores during films, I have gone from solely focusing on being in a professional orchestra to “Hey, what if I did music but also integrated it with film? What if I shot for the moon and got a Grammy? What if I played cello on a feature-length film score? What if I collaborated on a cello-voice duet with Lady Gaga?” Having this time to figure out what kind of musician I want to be is valuable and rare, and it took me quite a long time to appreciate this fact. I am also glad I went to college while pursuing music. While I could have majored in music, I didn’t, and I ended up loving philosophy and Africana Studies while still also loving my music and spending a lot of time in the Music Department after classes. My (albeit rather brief) jobs as a dishwasher and as a daycare teacher not only helped me make money, they were another thing that I did outside of my studies and music. Working with kids taught me that it’s ok to be silly sometimes and to not always read heavy stuff by Foucault and Descartes. I read so many children’s books while working at the daycare, and can say I felt quite nostalgic walking into that kids section in the local library basement. Working as a dishwasher taught me organizational skills and how to manage my time since I often had to sub for people. Basically, having a day job has helped me take risks in my writing: an f-bomb here, a messy draft there, a spoiled bratty character in that part of the story. Risks I wouldn’t dare take in my day job.

On that note, Grant says that what helps a lot of originals create new ideas is taking breaks while working on their ideas because taking time off from the project gives us time to process ideas. He also says that originals draw from a broad range of references and influences in their work, by always learning something new (i.e. learning about a different culture, learning a new craft, or even getting trained at their job to learn a different set of skills). When I feel stuck in my practice sessions, I take a break and read a book or watch a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm (yes, I recently got into that show). Even learning how to code has helped me become more creative in my music, not just during my practice sessions but also in terms of what kind of career I want to have. By learning how to code, I have learned that I love numbers just as much as I love the written word. I am not always good at coding, and bombed more than a few projects in Javascript, and I might not get a coding job right away since I am taking my time learning all these programming languages. But it’s learning something outside of my comfort zone, and I think the job market needs people to do this. I can no longer entertain the fantasy that my music dream job is going to fall in my lap if I just spend my time saving money and mastering the Tchaikovsky pieces, the Dvorak pieces, that absurdly hard Kodaly Cello Sonata that requires you to tune down an entire string. That fantasy has gone bye-bye. It is no longer a reality because there are so many talented people out there who are not only playing their instruments, but brushing up on new skills. There are quite a few classical musicians who are also web developers making the salary they need to play gigs.

Originals also learn how to take criticism. Sometimes we have an idea and we want people to accept it so badly, but that’s not always the case. Many times people are going to reject your idea or think it’s not practical. Publishers were reluctant to sign on J.K. Rowling because they thought her book wouldn’t sell due to its length. They thought no kid would want to read something more than 35 pages, but they turned out to be wrong because that book sold like hotcakes, and guess what? It’s probably still selling like hotcakes because people still reference Harry Potter all the time. Also, the books were just good, end of story. In college I didn’t want to give my writing to professors or peers because I was worried they wouldn’t like it. I was so focused on pleasing people and getting them to agree with me that I wasn’t looking the cold and hard truth in the face: everyone is entitled to their opinion, and sometimes they may have a few good points you can use to improve your performance. This goes for any field, not just creative arts fields. Grant says that originals seek out people who don’t agree with them rather than sticking with people who agree with them on everything. This is the point of communication; it’s not to get people to agree with everything you say all the time. It’s important to not agree on everything because then you might find that person to agree with you on certain things.

Excellent book with a lot of great historical examples of originals in action. I highly recommend it. Oh, and watch Grant’s TED Talk because it is also really good.

Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World. Adam Grant. 2016. 321 pp.

Book Review: I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella

I just finished the book I Owe You One by Sophie Kinsella and it is absolutely marvelous! This is probably the umpteenth (not literally) book I have read by this author and I swear, every time I read her books she spellbinds me with her writing. I devoured this book like her other books, a sweet devil’s food cake. It is about this young woman named Fixie Farr who runs a small shop with her brother, Jake, her sister, Nicole, and her mother. The family is struggling to cope with the death of their father and Jake’s ego gets the best of him when he threatens to revamp the shop so they can cater to a wealthier clientele, meaning that a lot of the inexpensive goods Farr’s would sell wouldn’t sell anymore and that pricier goods would replace the old ones. Moreover, Fixie’s ex-boyfriend, Ryan, who is just as egotistical as Jake, moves back to London with no money and no job after a failed attempt to make it as a film producer in Los Angeles. It gets worse when Fixie goes to a coffee shop and the ceiling collapses on her, leaving her soaking wet. A mysterious man named Sebastian has her watch his laptop, and mystically, the laptop goes undamaged even when Fixie herself is soaking wet from the damage. Sebastian not only thanks her in person for saving his laptop, he gives her a coffee sleeve with the letters “I.O.U” so that he will repay the favor to Fixie someday. Sebastian teaches Fixie a lot of important life lessons, the main one that while it’s ok to do nice things for others, you also have to do nice things for yourself and create some boundaries with others. Otherwise you just burn yourself out and cannot make yourself happy.

Take for instance, Nicole, Fixie’s sister. She doesn’t do much around the house and when Jake lays out his plan at a family dinner while their mom is on vacation, Nicole says that they should not only tear down the merchandise that’s already there, they should have a yoga studio in the store and an Instagram page. But the Instagram page ends up just being Nicole taking photos of herself and not of the store’s merchandise. Nicole is so used to Fixie doing everything that she doesn’t make any real contributions to the household. Even though my struggles weren’t the same as Fixie’s, I can relate to her personality because she is an empath. I am an empath myself and the women in my family are empaths, too, and while being an empath helps me experience the world in ways I wouldn’t normally experience it, and while it helps me awaken to the beauty that life can hold, being an empath can be a mental and emotional drain. I think that’s why Fixie has a hard time accepting that she is in a loving mutual relationship with Sebastian where the two give to each other as much as take from each other. Fixie feels like she should do all the cooking, cleaning, and other stuff, which is how Ryan viewed their relationship (i.e. the woman does all the household stuff and takes care of me while I try to become successful and get a lot of money again). Sebastian, however, respected Fixie and knew how to take care of himself and his own business (he even makes her fudge. Ryan doesn’t even cook, let alone clean).

This book is truly awesome, and I crieda lot towards the end because Sebastian and Fixie’s chemistry was amazing, and how Fixie grows closer to her family by honestly communicating with them about how they give her most of the responsibility. Fixie also comes to terms with the fact that you can’t please everyone and can’t solve everyone’s problems. Ryan bullies Fixie to get him a job because he finds out about the I.O.U. from Sebastian, and Fixie gives in because she thinks Ryan will break up with her if she says no. Fixie has this idealistic vision of her and Ryan in a long-lasting beautiful commitment, and yet her friends warn her that Ryan is flaky and does not like commitment. Fixie doesn’t listen though and gives Ryan the benefit of the doubt, only to realize that he really doesn’t care about her and the only reason he comes over is because he doesn’t want to work hard for his own money or take any responsibility for his own life. Jake eventually realizes that he is in debt due to his excessive lifestyle and that he spent so much time trying to impress others that he hasn’t take the time to reflect on himself and what really makes him happy in life. He eventually goes back to not taking himself so seriously, and this helps humble him.

I can kind of relate because I had this lofty goal of getting into a professional orchestra, and I sort of put on airs about it, but I didn’t have any full-time work. I was also getting rejected by a bunch of other jobs, and at the same time looking down on people who worked jobs in the service industry (ok, not really looking down, but I was pretty indifferent to working in food service). So it’s little surprise that the universe sent me a magical gift: I got a job at a coffee shop, and while I did apply to coffee shops because I needed the money, I expected them to reject me, too. Working this job at the coffee shop really taught me that while I should work hard and do my best at work, I shouldn’t take myself too seriously or else my job wouldn’t be fun. When Jake trades in his expensive lifestyle for full-time work at the shop during the holidays, he is funnier and feels a lot better and more relaxed around his family. When Nicole, Jake and Fixie communicate honestly with each other, they develop a deeper bond than before, which showed me how important genuine communication is. Genuine communication isn’t as pretty as sweeping stuff under the rug, but it is way better than holding in all these negative feelings and letting them fester until it becomes a problem and the person holding in those feelings takes out their anger on themselves. Like Fixie, I bottled up the anger I felt when I felt like I was expounding too much energy taking care of someone else’s mess, and like Fixie, I blamed myself for not making everyone happy and fixing their problems. But eventually I had to realize that you can’t please everyone, and that when you realize this your life actually becomes more fulfilling.

Overall, I loved this book and because there is so much happening in the world today, I needed some fiction to calm me down. So thank you once again, Sophie Kinsella, for your wonderful writing. I wonder how this book would be if it became a film, but the films don’t always do justice to the books (probably for copyright reasons). I could read this book again; it is truly a treasure! 🙂

I Owe You One: A Novel. Sophie Kinsella. 435 pp.

Book Review: Peace, Justice and the Poetic Mind by Daisaku Ikeda and Stuart Rees

I just finished this amazing dialogue between Soka Gakkai International president Daisaku Ikeda and Stuart Rees, who is the former director of the Sydney Peace Foundation and professor emeritus at the University of Sydney. This dialogue was published just last year and we need dialogues like it more than ever.

I needed to read this dialogue because there is so much happening in the world. The trade war between the U.S. and China, Britain threatening to leave the E.U. and recent mass shootings, as well as the damaging that has been done to the planet and is just getting worse. But then I read Peace, Justice and the Poetic Mind, and I can honestly say how empowered I feel to be a part of the movement to foster a more just and peaceful society. What I love about this dialogue is that Professor Rees and President Ikeda go deeper than the surface level definition of peace, which usually means no more war. Because, as Ikeda and Rees agree upon, the discussion around peace and justice is more complicated than just stopping wars. It involves bringing peace and justice studies into our schools’ curriculum, finding ways to take care of the planet and giving voices to marginalized individuals. They also emphasize in the dialogue the need for more discussion around the history of settler colonial countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, where Indigenous populations faced genocide and greed at the hands of white European settlers. Climate justice should involve Indigenous voices because this was their land first. Indigenous communities still face a ton of injustice today at the hands of the state, and while the communities of persons have fought so hard and so long for their sovereignty to the land’s resources,and while individuals in the U.S. and Canadian and Australian governments have spoken out against this injustice, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

That is the thing, I guess, about social justice. You have to keep talking about it. It’s not something you talk about and then all the problems of the world are gone. And more people are aware of this reality. In Nichiren Buddhism, if you want to understand what is happening in the present, you need to look at the past, and in order to understand what will happen in the future, you need to look at the present. Individuals create karma throughout their lives, and so this collective karma that we have with settler colonialism, global warming, the trade war, gun violence, injustice against immigrants and poverty, is because certain individuals created the cause of abusing their power and after many years, the effects have shown themselves in ugly ways. Which is why art is so important, because while I need to be nice at my day job, I don’t want to be so nice in my art. It’s why I painted a picture of an elephant and a polar bear standing on melting ice caps and sweating while the sun, which has a hole in its ozone layer, beats down on them. I was angry with the status quo and wanted to do something about it, and watching how Greta Thunberg fought hard to address climate change showed me that even as an introverted person, I can still speak up about these issues through creative means. Rees, in the dialogue says, that “artists break down the walls of habitual practice and promote visions of world citizenship. In this way, they touch the hearts and minds of so many people.” (p. 59 of Peace, Justice and the Poetic Mind) As an artist, I need to speak out. And as a human, I need to be willing to have the tough conversations. I need to also use my art and my pen to create art that will move the human spirit, inspire a dialogue about the tough stuff.

Peace, Justice and the Poetic Mind: Conversations on the Path of Nonviolence. Stuart Rees and Daisaku Ikeda. 2018. 218 pp.

Book Review: Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs

Well, I officially have finished my 40th book of my 50 book reading goal this year, thanks to this savory (yes, pun intended) novel by Kate Jacobs, author of the equally-as-savory The Friday Night Knitting Club and Knit Two, its sequel. This novel is about a fifty-year-old chef named Augusta “Gus” Simpson, who is a New York-based widow with two daughters and a cooking career that is going down the toilet when her show’s ratings go down. Alan, who helps manage her show, forces her to team up with Carmen, a model from Spain who tries to outdo Gus in cooking so that people stop focusing on her looks and value her for her love of food. Meanwhile, Gus’ daughters are grown and one (Sabrina) is engaged and still torn about getting back with her ex-boyfriend Troy, while the other (Ammie) isn’t interested in finding love yet and is still figuring life out. Hannah is Gus’ neighbor and a former tennis player who suffered a major career throwback and rarely goes out in public, and while she doesn’t cook much herself (she is fond of candy) she often eats many of Gus’s delicious dishes. Oliver is Gus’s assistant on the show and he slowly develops a romantic interest in her. While at first it is a disaster for Gus to have everyone on her show and while many times the characters fight and disagree on a lot of things, they end up finding out they have more in common than they thought and come to realize how much the art of cooking can bring them together despite the differences in their expertise or lack thereof.

I also got this at the same bookstore that I got My Sister from the Black Lagoon and A Long Way Down. I had been meaning to read Comfort Food for a while, but like many other delicious novels, never got around to it. I devoured this one in days like all the delicious meals that make their way into the novel’s pages. For some reason I kept envisioning Martha Stewart as Gus, John Cena as Oliver (because he is over six feet tall in the book) and Sofia Vergara as Carmen, only because I recently saw Sofia Vergara in the film Chef, which, like Comfort Food, is about cooking. Overall, this book was amazing and hopefully I will get a chance to read more books by Kate Jacobs! 🙂

Comfort Food: A Novel. Kate Jacobs. 328 pp.

Book Review: My Sister from the Black Lagoon by Laurie Fox

Like A Long Way Down, I got this at a book sale. The cover looked interesting so I thought I would read it. At first I wasn’t going to get it because I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but then I figured, Hey, I get a great deal at this booksale, so I might as well make the most of it. So I got it.

Little did I know that when I sat down to read this book, I would pore through it faster than I expected. It is an semi-autobigraphical novel about a young Jewish woman named Lorna Persons who lives with her parents and older sister, Lonnie, in the San Fernando Valley of California. Lorna’s family has a history with mental illness, and Lonnie herself has mental health issues. Lorna describes the day to day life she experienced with her sister and how she, along with her parents, struggled to provide support to Lonnie. Lorna grows up and finds love, gets her heart broken, then finds love again, but while this is happening she is thinking about her relationship with Lonnie and how it is going to evolve when they get older. The novel is of the coming of age genre, which is what attracted me to it because I love coming-of-age films and movies. Even though Lorna and I live different lives, I found my teenage self embodied in Lorna to some degree, namely because both of us find solace in the arts as well as our empathic personalities. Lorna’s father works in television, and so she goes to Hollywood a lot as a kid, and eventually she goes to theatre school and finds herself escaping her problems at home by throwing herself into her work as a theatre student. I also find solace in the arts, even though I don’t act and instead play a musical instrument. Although I definitely love me some theatre.

This review is short because I can’t really speak much myself about the author’s life or what inspired her to write this book, and my struggles with mental health were my own, just like Lonnie’s struggles with mental health were her own. It did kind of resonate with me though because I remember how hard my struggles with mental health were for my family. Really good book.

My Sister from the Black Lagoon: A Novel of My Life. Laurie Fox. 1998. 334 pp.