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.

Book Review: A Long Way Down (cw: suicide, depression)

I got this novel at a book sale ($10 for a huge paper bag of used books? Count me in any day of the week!) and was not sure whether I would like it or not. Then again, this is how I approach any book I read, with a curiosity, not expecting what treasures I am going to uncover when I read the first pages. I love Nick Hornby’s other books (About a Boy, Slam, and How to Be Good) so I expected this one to be equally as awesome as they were.

So the first fifty pages or so I had to go back and reread. Maybe it was because I was sitting at a restaurant at the airport with chatter and ’80s rock music playing in the background and had ordered a $17 (yes, you heard that right, 1-7 bucks with tax) Beyond Meat burger, and was wondering when I would get it in time for my flight (I had an hour and a half to kill, what could possibly go wrong?) Or it was because I was going to miss the city I visited and was already feeling a burning desire to move there permanently even though I only spent a few days there. All I knew was that within 60 pages I was confused. Why were these random people standing on the top of a building. I got that all four of these people in the book were suicidal, but their backstories seemed jumbled. When I got on the plane, I reread a second time. Who was Chas? Then I reread those pages a third time and finally went, Ah, and kept reading. Also, I was reading for fun, whereas if I had been reading this for some class, I would have underlined and highlighted like I was never going to read it again.

Ok, so here is the summary of the book. Four people living in London all lead lives of depression and despair, all brought about by different circumstances. Martin was once a successful TV person who slept with his 15 year old co-star Penny (Martin is a middle aged married man with children) and lost his job and his marriage as a result. Jess’ boyfriend, Chas, is a jerk who doesn’t understand her, and neither do her parents, especially after her mom accuses Jess of stealing her earrings after her sister mysteriously disappears. JJ is a Chicago native who went to England, found love and success with his band, and then died inside when his band broke up and, with them, his girlfriend, leaving JJ with nothing to do but deliver pizzas and read books. Finally, Maureen is suffering because her son has a disability and Maureen feels like she can no longer take care of him since she finds it exhausting. All four of these characters end up meeting on top of a building (literally called Topper House. They explain why in the book, so no spoilers here), and are of course quite annoyed to find each other on the roof. It’s like each of them is thinking, Why can’t all these other people just let me kill myself in peace? However, they end up sorting out why they are going to kill themselves, and then they make plans to resolve the problems that are making them want to commit suicide, such as going with Martin to visit Penny and his ex-wife and getting Chas to apologize to Jess for being such a jerk to her. They set a time period where they won’t go on with their plan to kill themselves, and when they hit Valentine’s Day, the set date, they end up postponing it because they have spent so much time with each other that they find it is pointless to try and kill themselves. Each of the characters also ends up getting their friends and family together to tell them about their depression, showing how the time they spent together helped them feel more comfortable being honest with each other and in turn being honest with other people.

While I found some parts funny, for the most part this book makes a pretty serious commentary on mental health and the ways in which people do and do not talk about it. All of the characters have this feeling that they are alone in their problems and that their friends and family won’t understand why they would want to take their own lives, and that people would be better off without them. Truth is, committing suicide would have just caused more pain and suffering to their friends and family. I have been to hell and back with depression, and I will tell you, it is a living nightmare. Even if you are in a room of people, you can still feel like you’re the only one who is suffering. Even when your life is great, stuff happens and before you know it, your world comes crashing down and even the worst event to happen around the world seems like a field day compared to what you are going through. In Buddhism, we call that life state the world of Hell, where you feel no one can help you, no matter how much help you may get. However, what makes this situation bearable for everyone in the book is the sheer act of showing up for each other. Even though Jess, Martin, JJ and Maureen are all depressed and suicidal, they each show up for one another even if they disagree on a lot of things (for Maureen, it’s the constant f-words and s-bombs that JJ, Jess and Martin throw around) and even if they don’t want to share their backstories with each other at first. If anything, this book has taught me that honest discussions about mental health are not something that happens in a day, and it takes courage to talk honestly about how awful and numb you feel each day. And as someone who went through depression, I can honestly tell you that showing up for someone can do a lot, even when it doesn’t seem like it’s going to cure their depression overnight. I remember people showing up for me even when I closed myself off and didn’t open up about my mental health issues for fear of seeming weak.

The characters also come to understand, through the time they spend with each other, that yes, life is hard, but it’s the imperfections that make life worth living. If everything had been going perfectly in the lives of JJ, Jess, Martin and Maureen, they would probably would not have bonded with each other (and thus Nick wouldn’t have needed to write this book). Especially in an age of social media and constant comparisons (then again, it’s human nature to compare ourselves with others and it has been around since the pre-historic age) this book is more important than ever. Although our society is more connected through social media and smartphones we are lonelier than ever, and a lot of people think that if their life isn’t perfect, that they don’t deserve to keep living. When we actually talk face to face with someone though, oftentimes we see past that facade and get to know people’s lives for who they really are.

A Long Way Down: A Novel. Nick Hornby. 2005. 333 pp.

Book Review: Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

Wow. Honestly. I do not know what to say after reading this book, especially since I have never lived the author’s reality. Jose Antonio Vargas (no accent over the “e”, he talks about this in the book) discusses the complex narrative of being an undocumented citizen in the United States. His mother, who is from the Philippines, sent Jose to America when he was 12 so he could live with his grandparents. He never got an adequate explanation for why she did this, but he spent his whole life living undocumented in the country. Many people later on would ask him why he didn’t simply just apply for citizenship and get his green card, and I myself was guilty of thinking this way, but Jose lays it all out for us: it goes back to the history of the U.S. and its immigration policy, as well as the history of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. All of the presidents of the United States, including Obama himself, dealt with immigration poorly and the current president, as Vargas discusses in his account, is only making it worse with his constant overt anti-immigrant rhetoric.

As someone who is a born and raised citizen of my country, I took a lot of good things for granted. Even as a person of color, I do not have to worry about my status as a citizen. Even though people of color have been treated as second class citizens for many years in the U.S., I never have to think about my citizen status, which was why I would often be indifferent about my right to vote. I do not have to spend every waking hour wondering if ICE is going to deport me. The fact that I didn’t even think about what undocumented citizens go through each day of their lives is a sign that I have lived a privileged existence. I could go into my job and all I had to do was provide basic information, but for undocumented citizens like Jose, it is a whole different animal. Jose wanted to be a journalist for the longest time, and while he says he is fortunate to have had a lot of support from friends he met in school and on the journalism team there, he still had to navigate the tricky realm of not getting deported. The whole time I read this, I thought about a movie I saw a few years ago called Babel. It is really split into four stories, but one of the stories is about a Mexican immigrant named Amelia who takes care of the kids for this white couple in the U.S. named Richard and Susan. She goes to her son’s wedding even though Richard tells her she must stay with the kids. However, Amelia’s nephew, Santiago, offers to drive her and the kids there. After the wedding, Santiago insists on driving even though he’s drunk, and him, Amelia and the kids drive back home when border agents stop Santiago. Even though they show them their passports, they do not have letters of consent from Richard and Susan letting them take the kids out of the country. Amelia is later arrested by a Border Patrol agent and is told that while Richard didn’t press charges against her taking the kids out of the country, she will get deported because she is undocumented. This scene, along with the subsequent scene where she greets her son in Mexico in tears, had me bawling because Amelia had worked so hard to make it in this country, and had lived in America for more than a decade, had made family with Richard, Susan and their kids, and now it was over all because of unjust laws that dictated who was and who wasn’t a citizen.

It is also a stark reminder that America’s immigration system hasn’t changed much even with programs like DACA. At first, I thought, “Yes! Go DACA!” but as Jose reminded me in his memoir, DACA ain’t perfect. It may have allowed a few more people to come to the U.S. but still, there were restrictions based on age and other complicated factors. When I was in college, there was a huge movement to stand up for the rights of undocumented students, but I was indifferent to it. I was like, “hooray” but I never actually was a good ally because I never thought the issue pertained to me, so why bother showing up? Well now that I have read this book, I need to continue educating myself on immigration law and what undocumented immigrants have to go through all just to live the “American Dream”. In fact, this book made me seriously question what we meant all along when was said “The American Dream.” I remember learning about the various quotas placed on immigration during the late 19th century, but what I didn’t pay much attention to was the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that Congress passed after the Civil Rights Act and before the Voting Rights Act, both of which I studied quite a bit about in U.S. history class. Even though a lot of people (myself included) know little about the significance of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Jose says in the book that “between 1965 and 2015, new immigrants and their offspring accounted for 55 percent of U.S. population growth, according to the Pew Research Center” (Vargas, pp. 132). Kennedy, whose grandparents were immigrants from Ireland, welcomed immigrants, and like Jose, I think it is ironic that Trump doesn’t like immigrants because his grandfather is an immigrant from Germany. I of course cannot speak to having immigrant family because my family was forced to come here on slave ships a long time ago and I can barely remember their history (probably because their masters forbade them from reading and writing), but still, I had to laugh at the irony.

I remember a presentation that a friend of mine gave on her senior thesis on undocumented citizens and the impacts of U.S. immigration law on these people’s lives, and at first I was taken aback when she said President Barack Obama had played a huge role in deporting immigrants even with his promise of DACA. But during the Democratic debates, the other candidates were grilling Joe Biden on the platform because he and Obama deported a lot of undocumented citizens, and I started believing it more. But then I read Dear America, and I understand now that me ignoring what the rulers of our country did (like I said, it’s not just Obama, it was presidents before him that are accountable, too, and now the current president who screams about building a pointless and expensive wall between Mexico and the U.S. every chance he can get) was me letting my privilege make it seem okay to be apathetic about what is going on, when really it wasn’t okay. Jose didn’t have a say about coming to America, and also he had strained relations with his parents and grandparents, particularly after he came out as gay and they insisted he work hard and save his money and marry an American citizen who is a woman. On top of that, he doesn’t know if he will keep his job. I would be remiss to simply applaud Jose for sharing his lived experiences as an undocumented citizen with the world because that would cheapen the fact that he spent an entire 232 pages calling out the messed-up system for what it was. And he says it wasn’t by accident, which is pretty much true; America has been divided on how it treats immigrants for many years. This country was founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples and later the back-breaking labor of black slaves who didn’t have a choice to come to this country, and it didn’t treat newcomers any better. Sure, it allowed European immigrants to gain access to racial whiteness and afforded them privileges so that many of them wouldn’t ally with black people, and other immigrant communities were used as pawns in the racial game, too. But it’s a complex history that cannot be summarized, and what’s more complicated is the relations between immigrants who have their green cards and immigrants who have struggled to get one but cannot (esp. because green cards are expensive). Some of the members in the audience at Jose’s lectures said that it wasn’t fair that he lived most of his life in the country as an undocumented person, while everyone else had to go through the process of being a citizen. However, it is important to understand each person’s situation. It’s easy to say, “Well it’s 21 Savage’s fault that ICE detained him,” and it was all I could do to keep from screaming at my fellow American citizen and friend, who was sitting right across from me as he said that very thing when I told him about 21 Savage. I then questioned myself, Was I being irrational by telling my friend it was wrong to shrug this off? But after reading Vargas’ book, I have a greater understanding of why I expressed such rage (and how little I actually knew about the immigration policy in the U.S. even after gaining a narrow knowledge of it in school), and now I understand that talking about immigration and citizenship is so hard because it involves so many things to talk about: the history of immigration, race, class, what is a citizen, what defines American, whiteness, implicit bias, and, moreover, person-hood. I did not do Jose’s memoir justice, but writing about how powerful this book is certainly has helped me process everything I just read about the messiness of U.S. immigration policy and its long-lasting effects on individuals and their loved ones.

Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas. 2018. 232 pp.

Book Review: How to Be Good by Nick Hornby

As a philosophy major in college, I wish I had read this book a lot sooner. It approaches the question of good vs bad in a rather hilarious way. Of course, I didn’t laugh the entire time that I read it, as some parts are quite dark and make you sit and think for a minute. This is the third book I have read by Nick Hornby, besides his novels About a Boy and Slam, and How to Be Good never fails to satisfy me. It’s about this couple named Katie and David who are struggling to maintain a happy life with their two kids, Tom and Molly. They are a middle class couple who both have stable jobs: Katie is a doctor and David is an angry news columnist. But there is one problem: Katie had an affair with a man named Stephen, and now David has to deal with not just his stressful job but his wife cheating on him. However, David goes through this spiritual change through the encouragement of his spiritual doctor DJ Good News. David then quits his job and decides he is going to have everyone on his block, including him and his family, bring in someone on the streets to live with them. At first, everyone on the block is skeptical, but then Monkey, the homeless kid who the family takes in, turns out to be a good guy and even gets back the possessions of one couple on the block whose adopted homeless person stole from them. While Tom and Katie think David and GoodNews are being ludicrous, Molly sides with David and becomes self-righteous. Katie begins to question whether her work as a doctor is as morally sound as the work David and GoodNews are doing with the homeless, but finds out that their plan to do good backfires and they lose hope in humanity.

This novel wrestles with the question of what does it truly mean to be a “good person.” Katie becomes a doctor because she wants to help people, but every day that she works with patients they are not happy. However, when GoodNews intervenes, people start taking his work seriously even though he lacks the qualifications to be a doctor and tries to “treat” people’s medical problems by giving them head massages instead of medicine. Katie eventually realizes that she cannot please everyone and that just because one isn’t doing what David does does not necessarily mean one cannot do good in life. In fact, I believe that if you truly want to do good in life, you should start with your family and friends. In Buddhism, we have a term called “human revolution”, which means that each of us can change the world and foster world peace by changing our attitude and striving to be the best at our workplaces, in our schools, at home. Naturally when we do this we become happy, and we naturally encourage others around us to share in that happiness. There are also the terms “relative happiness” and “absolute happiness”. Relative happiness is defined by material things: great grades, great college, wonderful spouse, your dream job, the nice car, anything that brings you joy in that moment. However, relative happiness is fleeting, because if that thing or person leaves you, breaks or gets destroyed in some way, you feel bad you no longer have it and you sink back into despair. Or even if those things still exist in your life, over time you may find yourself wishing for a better job, a better car, better food, etc. and so you attach your happiness to those things. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t want nice things; we’re human, we go through stuff, we deserve to have hot water, a nice meal, access to Netflix. However, when we define our lives only by the stuff we have and stop valuing others in our life, we feel empty inside. Absolute happiness, however, is a happiness that you feel while you go through struggles in life. Katie doesn’t have the perfect life, but she comes to terms with its imperfections. Life is messy and many times you will cry until your eyes hurt. But I have personally found that the times I remember the most are the times when I challenged myself to my limits and conquered something so seemingly impossible, and over time I laugh when I look back at those times, and I even cry tears of appreciation that I went through that time so that I could learn what I was capable of.

The novel also makes a great point about loving the ones you are with. One night David and GoodNews call people they wronged in the past to apologize and ask forgiveness so that they don’t have to feel guilty and burdened by the past. For David, the person he called was a kid he bullied years ago, and for GoodNews it was his sister Cantata for reasons I am still not clear about (something to do with a poster of Duran Duran frontman Simon LeBon). GoodNews, unlike David, ends up cussing out his sister when she refuses to forgive him and hangs up. Even when Katie tries to console GoodNews he still says that he feels like a failure for what he did to her. Katie realizes that no matter how much she tries to convince him he isn’t a failure, he did in fact mess up. She wonders

who are these people, that they want to save the world and yet they are incapable of forming proper relationships with anybody? As GoodNews so eloquently puts it, it’s love this and love that, but of course it’s so easy to love someone you don’t know, whether it’s George Clooney or Monkey. Staying civil to someone with whom you’ve ever shared Christmas turkey–now, there’s a miracle.

“How To Be Good”, Hornby, pp. 275

I have found from personal experience that even as a social justice activist, I need to be a human being and look out for my family and friends while also being an activist. There are lots and lots of problems in the world: poverty, suicide bombings, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, white nationalism, global warming, the list goes on (why do you think there’s a Good News section in your Microsoft Newsfeed? Life is tough and we all could use some acts of compassion once in a while). However, as I am not God, I cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But what I can control is my outlook on life. I can choose to value my current friendships, my family ties, and having such ties grounds my approach to activism. Sure, working at a coffeeshop after college wasn’t equivalent to being the CEO of the International Monetary Fund, or being the star onstage playing the Eduord Lalo Cello Concerto for a climate change festival (although I would actually love to do this someday, to be honest), or bring principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. But if anything, it was this: a way to bring home money and pay my bills so I can in fact afford to pursue my music activities and charitable pursuits. In order to take care of others, I had to take care of myself, which meant taking care of my finances, saving money for myself, getting rid of any debt, and spending time with family and friends. When I was in college, I invested a lot of my rage in theses about the factories polluting the predominantly black low income Altgeld Gardens in Chicago. I threw myself in my papers on the Harlem Renaissance, police brutality, and the ethics of freegans.

Yet I had quit my job at the local daycare because I felt this work was more important, when the reality is that other kids had to work while studying so they could send home money to an ailing parent or provide for their kid. I wasn’t focused on the preschoolers I needed to show up for every day as part of my work study, I wasn’t focused on taking care of my finances, I was solely concerned with my grades. And while I don’t regret my college experience and appreciate even just going to college, I will say that I took a lot of things for granted, like thinking I could survive each waking day after staying up studying until 2 am to polish the perfect two page essay for that medieval philosophers class, or the times I left my phone off and didn’t call my family to check in on them. Like Katie said, it is easier to value someone outside of our immediate environment, and if we can’t treasure the people closest to us while we are out saving the world, we may end up regretting that we didn’t spend more time with them. I know I cannot speak for everyone, but this has just been my experience, so even if I go to graduate school because I want to study some noble thing and go on to make big contributions to society (because, to be honest, I want to do this), I still need to value my loved ones so that when they pass away (as I will, too, someday, like everyone and everything on this planet) I will look back on the time I spent with them with a sense of deep gratitude rather than wishing I could have spent more time with them.

Reading How to Be Good taught me that taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, and it doesn’t mean you did something bad for society. And doing acts of kindness is a good thing; I would never want to say it was something people should stop doing. I myself remember doing an acts of kindness project for a class I took in high school, and it was so much fun because I had to do it anonymously. However, it’s important to have a healthy relationship with yourself and your boundaries so that you can carry that healthy self-esteem in your relationships and in broader terms your work for world peace. This novel was a New York Times bestseller when it came out almost two decades ago, and I can see why. I finished it in just a couple of days, it was that good.

How to Be Good. Nick Hornby. 2001. 305 pp.