Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review : Below Stairs

Image result for below stairs cover
Shoutout to all the librarians of the world, whose expertly-crafted displays entice even the most introverted of bookworms, who sure as heck aren't brave enough to ask you for a direct recommendation. Such a makeup was how I got my hands on this memoir, this past February! 

Margaret Powell’s iconic memoir Below Stairs provides a fascinating first-hand account of the back staircases and cramped servants’ quarters of the English elite, in the space between the two World Wars. Her vivid portraits of past employers, and powerful hindsight commentary applied to her unique experiences, have inspired the likes of quintessential British programming, such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. 

This fiesty writer rose not just through the ranks of household staff in her places of employment, but also from her class position, in order to become a vibrant, humorous memoirist. I especially loved her determined spirit and incensed perspectives on both past and contemporary (at the time) expectations of working women. She focuses on both the disparity of social classes and the power complexities of being a young woman in a working environment with a seasoned eye that still comes across as quite modern for her time.

Her origins and evolution provide an intriguing background to the changing modernist dynamics of that time period: having been raised in relative poverty, to waiting on aristocracy, to interacting with artists and the elite, and then going back to poverty and charity reliance once she left the workforce again after she got married, still comes across as a saga. The deliberate points she makes to illuminate various facets of these struggles raises important questions about the relationship and interactions between social classes, even nowadays!

In one memorable section of the memoirs, she even calls herself a feminist by name. Raised in the time of the suffragettes and having written the book itself in the midst of the tumultuous sixties, this struck me as particularly valid. If there’s anyone who warrants that title, it’s those of her stripes, quietly (and not-so-quietly) struggling for those rights at a time where such behavior was unthinkable. Being that we can barely convince today’s Hollywood darlings and pop stars to own up to those kinds of titles that women like Powell worked so hard to bestow, the ownership of the phrase seemed particularly poignant. 

One particularly moving emotional moment – which occurred fairly early on in these memoirs – was that of Agnes, the parlourmaid, at Margaret’s first place of work. While questions about abortion are still carried on today, in even the highest courts of our country and others, the fact that this has been such a documented turmoil on behalf of womenkind for such a long time also lends the memoir a significant amount of feminist credence. When women were widely without protection or options, and men met little to no consequence, this kind of issue could ruin the lives of those with the least security, and hearing about Agnes’ silent suffering and subsequent dismissal were hard to read about, especially in 2017.

Same with the descriptions of Powell’s experiences with poverty, and the expected subservience of the poorer classes on multiple levels – such as demonstrating semi-fealty to community “charity” groups - despite the fact that either she or her husband was regularly working. Deliberate social constructs that kept both her and her sons from pursuing higher education were especially annoying to read about, because anyone could see that this girl was smart, and observant. Empathy should always remain at the root of charity and community, and these examples were perfect illustrations as to why: demonstrated suffering shouldn't serve as a requirement to being poor. 

(As Charlie Chaplin said, "Judge a man not by how he treats his equals but by how he treats his inferiors." No one escapes this book without Powell bestowing some well-deserved karmic payback.) 

Due to the unique nature of these perspectives - as well as the incredibly humorous, interesting anecdotes peppered throughout the work - I would love to read more about the interactions between servants and their employers during this time period. They really did know everything that was going on in a household, even things that their employers were working hard to keep hidden! 

Final Verdict: Below Stairs is invaluable reading for not just fans of the period piece or British writing, but those looking for uncommon perspectives on feminism and social equality.

Are you a fan of shows like Downton Abbey? What's your favorite period memoir? Let me know, in the comments below! 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moonlighting: Daffodil Festival 2017

Another April has come and (nearly) past, and the daffodils that sprung up so valiantly in our front yard, are sleepily bowing their heads for another year's rest. Which means, we've wrapped up another Spring spent with the Daffodil Festival!

I've written on my love of the Festival and it's frequent space in my writing life before, but beyond the occasional chaperone gig, and regular attendance of major Daffodil events, I've stayed out of its greater operations... until this year. I was not only asked to continue my regular reporting, but also, serve as one of fives judges who decide the Festival Queen from among the pool of 23 Princesses, as well as contribute to a major Daffodil special edition of the Tacoma Weekly with a series of articles, too.

And as if that wasn't enough, the Festival schedule had been revised this year, to concentrate activity in a two-week period with both the Coronation and the Parade, so my pool of time for Daffodil was really a three-week intensive period. Not to mention the fact that all of this was happening at the same time as my family was preparing for a Spring Break trip to Oregon, which was falling in the exact middle of the major Daffodil dates.

Let me break it down for you:

The actual turnaround time was only a few days between each event... I was writing the Daffodil special edition articles the same week I was attending regular judging events, and the day after Coronation, my family left for Oregon, where I had to finish both those articles, as well as my Coronation correspondence, within the first two days of vacation.

That week, in my absence, that special edition and front pager came out, and the morning after we returned to Tacoma, I was out at 9AM with my Mom, cheering on the Festival from the sidewalk of Pacific Ave in Downtown Tacoma. Two days later, my Parade coverage was due to the Weekly, too.

(And two days after that, the primary draft for my portion of the UW Research Team I'm involved with was due, too. You know that saying, about how 'When it rains, it pours' and that saying, 'April showers bring May flowers'? I think we should really just condense that to 'It rains a lot in April - in more ways than one - so bring a poncho and some rain boots and strap in.')

I didn't want my family to stress out on my behalf - especially because at the point where I was starting to feel the crunch, we were only a few days out from embarking on our long-awaited vacation - so I actually didn't tell them what I'd done until that first Weekly issue itself had already come out. The only person who was in on the secret was my amazing baby (ie, fifteen-year-old) brother, who I had caved to in a fit of self-imposed panic, and who dutifully guarded my weird behavior the entire time until everything was published.

But enough about the blood, sweat, and flowers it took to get us here. Here, in the order of their publication, are all of the Daffodil Tacoma Weekly coverage that I contributed to this Festival season: 

from the front page of the Thursday, April 6th edition - Daffodil Festival Crowns Queen Marin Sasaki

from the Daffodil special edition section: 

from the front page of the Thursday, April 13th editionDaffodil Festival Grand Floral Parade

And, for the first time in my so-far-brief writing career, I actually received two pieces of fan mail!

The first bit of correspondence was forwarded on to me by the editor of the Weekly who serves as my primary contact, and was a well-written postcard addressed to the publication, containing a few brief paragraphs about why they loved the special issue, and how - going off the bylines - I was the person to thank for it. The second came courtesy of a late-night Facebook message from the vice principal of my middle school, who said she was impressed by the number of articles I wrote.

I'm not trying to toot my own horn by mentioning these things or anything... it was just that, after spending so much time not only generating the concepts and content for those articles, but putting them all together in such a high stress period, as well as not informing anyone around me of what the heck I was doing, it was nice to get that extra bit of kudos.

But, of course, no one could have loved it better than my Festival family. The outpouring of admiration and support I got from them in the wake of my articles running in the Weekly was so unexpected and stupendous, and even friends from other Festivals - like Seattle's Seafair Commodores - made me feel very loved and appreciated through their reactions, too. I am so incredibly blessed to come from such a tight-knit and loving community... they make it so easy to write about our events, because all I'm really doing is bragging about the cool stuff my cool friends are up to! 

Does your hometown have any special traditions or festivals of their own? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Things that Will Instantly Make Me Want to Read a Book

"Top Ten Tuesday" is a weekly bookish meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish!

Leave it to me to do two Top Ten Tuesday lists in the month of January alone, and then not touch any topics until three months later! Of course, a theme this alluring gave me more than enough reasons to jump back into the game.

Reflecting on my "Top Ten Things That Will Instantly Make Me Want to Pick Up a Book" made me meditate on some of my favorite bookish themes, sub-sub-genres, cliches, and characters... and honestly, kind of made want to pick up some of them again!

So, here are ten perfectly great reasons why a book might launch to the front of my TBR pile, and some examples of titles that have made the leap before. (Got any that you think might fit my bill? Make sure to leave your recommendation in a comment!)

1. The name "Jennifer Egan"
It's no secret that I've long been obsessed with the unique perspectives of popular postmodern author and Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan, but her work rarely follows the same pattern. That means that when I pick her titles up based on author status alone, I'm taking a serious chance that I'll like the book at all, but for her, I'm more than willing to make the leap.

2. High Feminist Fantasy
What started as an early adolescent fixation on the many (many, many) works of Tamora Pierce, has manifested itself in adulthood with a preoccupation with books like Erika Johansen's The Queen of the Tearling and Naomi Novik's Uprooted. I'm more than happy to dive into any old high fantasy... but if it's helmed by a fearless female, it's moving to the top of my TBR.

3. Jaw-Droppingly Beautiful Covers
Book bloggers have long been known for dutifully ignoring that age-old adage, "don't judge a book by it's cover," but sometimes, that drives itself to extremes. Anything with interesting patterns, vibrant colors, cool fonts, or intricate detailing, will automatically catch my interest. See: Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed or Renee Ahdieh's The Wrath and the Dawn.

4. Books About Books
The only way bookworms can increase in bookishness is by making sure the books they're reading are also written about books. Case in point are titles like Celia Blue Johnson's Odd Type Writers, which details the strange tendencies of famous authors, or Samantha Ellis' How to Be a Heroine, a memoir charted by way of the iconic heroines who have shaped her life.

5. Not-So-SuperHeroes
The only thing better than a hero? A hero-with-issues. A hero-with-demons. A hero-with-enemies-within-and-without. Anything with a compelling, troubled vanquisher fighting near the front means that complex characters will most likely be found elsewhere in its pages, and serves as a decent measure of narrative intricacy. Interpersonal politics abound where there are grey heroes, and I love it.

6. Set in the PNW
Yeah, I'm from Washington. I love our trees, mountains, coastline, and quirky indie spirit, married to the glittering metal towers and bustling sea travelers of the tech and port industries. And, of course, authors have found it to be rife with the paranormal, which is also a quick way to catch my attention. (I mean, this is why I read the Twilight books in the first place, y'all.)

7. Meta-Secrets and Cult Followings
With everything from codes wound into the words, to multi-media scavenger hunts leading to deeper colonies of conspiracy theorists abounding online, I love getting obsessed with the same things others have been obsessed with before me. From Alex Hirsch's Journal Three from the world of Gravity Falls, to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, if there are greater machinations lurking deeper than the heart of your work, I'm desperate to find them.

8. "Victoria Schwab" 
My most recent - yet no less passionate - author idol, Victoria Schwab (aka, V. E. Schwab) writes so compellingly that I've been tempted to return paperback purchases to the bookstore for hardcover (tbh, I'm still debating it, especially with the Gathering of Shadows series). I've still got more than half a year left in my Resolution to prevent me from doing so, but the good news is, I also still have Vicious in my stack, to tide me over until 2018.

9. Antiquated and Prestigious (Fictional, Often Magical) Schools 
Surprise, surprise: the kid who had a life-alteringly awful public school experience in her childhood always daydreamed of living far away in a mysterious boarding school, complete with the prerequisite plaid skirts, close companions to go adventuring with, and tons of secrets twisted into the tendrils of ivy growing over our red-brick turrets. Even now that I've graduated college, I'm still likely to reach for books that feature this classic trope, including Lev Grossman's The Magicians, or even Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle. 

10. Folklore, Epic, and Mythology Retellings
I mean, it's a classic, and out of this list, the one I think I'm most likely to see on other blogger lists, as well. While I've kind of grown out of the fractured-contemporary-fairy-tale proclivities of my YA reading, there is still plenty of room left on my shelves for fresh updates on epic adventures and world mythos. I've most recently cried actual tears over Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, and have been collecting news stories about the new adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods on my desktop.

What's in your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The Empathy Exams

Despite the hectic nature of these past few weeks - what with my Daffodil judgeship and newspaper coverage, my UW research team, and juggling responsibilities in household full of other busy people - I was granted a brief respite by way of my younger siblings' Spring Break, and a week-long trip to Oregon. 

Once I had finally gotten work squared away, I had the chance to really get down to some relaxing reading, and try to play catch-up with my Goodreads goal! Which meant picking easy, fun reads, and... lol, no. 

I dove into an exploratory collection of literary essays about how we communicate human pain. 

From gang turf tours and prison visits, to medicalized experiences of personal pain, to the cross-media interpretation of documentary subjects and reality-TV struggles, no lens of human interaction and suffering is beyond the scope of Leslie Jamison. This extraordinary selection of essays finds its grounding in life experiences of its author - in its inception, Jamison's work as a paid medical actor, testing wannabe practitioners on their ability to compassionately treat patients; hence the title, The Empathy Exams - and bolsters conversations pertaining to not just the topic of pain or how it is felt, but how it is communicated so to be felt in others. 

A New York Times Best Seller and Winner of the Graywolf Press Prize for Nonfiction, you're prepared for the tone of Jamison's essays before you've cracked the spine: with dense diction and winding theoretical language, she takes the tone of an academic, even when exploring her own personal experiences and feelings.

As a result, her tone is a little self-aggrandizing in parts, which is enough to drive any reader up the wall. Whenever anyone discusses the subject of their own pain, it's bound to get a little trying after twenty pages, especially when, due to the nature of the book itself, the discussion is an exploration - which can easily transmute into reveling, or in the author's own words, "wallowing" - and its subject, someone whose personal nature is lost in the inflection of personality: she gets wrapped up less in the pain itself, but in the fact that it's hers.

However, in a way, the somewhat alienating tone might just be one of the most central points to Jamison's work, as the performance of pain was a strong underlying current throughout the collection.

Particularly in chapters about Jamison getting assaulted during a mugging in Nicaragua, or in the interpretations of documentary subjects in the series of films about the West Memphis Three, it isn't just about her understanding of others' pain, but at the degrees at which it could be experienced and demonstrated. 

In some depictions, this takes the form of her comprehension of the scope of her own personal pain, like in the opening chapter, in which she discusses both an abortion and heart surgery that took place within the space of two months, and how she subconsciously chose to share that individualized struggle with others; particularly, her family and boyfriend. In others, the distance between human contact is mediated by a television screen, translating experience into feeling through other forms of stylistic, performative choices, like music and coverage.

The chapters involving her travels - primarily to Central and South America - are particularly interesting, as they explore not just translation of pain or struggle across language, art, and culture, but additionally, the absolute unknowable components that gets lost in the translation. She exorcises her own guilt about the ability to "visit" empathy by travel - you leave the deadly, stuffy mine, the dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhood, the poverty-stricken village, but too many don't have that luxury - and how this temporary sense of commiseration grows greater self-impressions of empathy, without direct demonstration of insertion or effort.

The collection deliberately doesn't pit one group against another - even in essays that clearly demonstrate a sense of class division or disenfranchisement - because to do so would involve the inflection of empathy into only one side of the argument: we don't just need Team A to be empathizing with Team B for the benefit of Team B's goals, or to place Team B on equal footing for the time being, we need them to be compassionate towards each other all the time. Even when tackling taboo subjects, like abortion, incarceration, poverty, and female pain, the reader is drawn to connect with Jamison's subject not on the grounds of political lines, but because of genuine human connection.

In fact, that absence of judgement was one of the most compelling arguments for the necessity of empathy. It was reserving judgement about someone else's reality - medical reality, judicial reality - whether the components that made it up were real or not: the pain itself was not imaginary, and it was demanding to be felt. You might not feel the symptoms yourself, but you could identify with the result.

Naturally, the range of subjects around the status of empathy explored in this collection are too numerous to all tackle in one review, so let me just give a few a brief shoutout: Jamison speaks eloquently on the subjects of the fetishization of pain, discusses negative space pain, explores the condemnation of pain performance, observes the commodification of pain for entertainment and why audiences seek that secondhand empathy, as well as discusses the literary values of aspects of empathy, like over-sentimentality and "authentic" emotion.

Some of my favorite subjects had to do with completely separate conversations, from interactions with a support system for Morgellon's disease sufferers - a medical complication that is not officially recognized by the medical community, but still acutely felt by its victims - to the lengthy final chapter, a discussion on the difficult relationship the female gender has with pain, from glamorizing female suffering - be it through childbirth, eating disorders, rape and assault, or mental trauma - to the iconic "The Girl Who Cried Pain" medical bias study, to the lengths female artists go to draw closer to or distance themselves from figures of pain (like Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, etc).

As a result, Jamison undoubtedly sets herself as one of these such figures, a personification of the multi-faceted nature of how we translate the suffering of our neighbors into our own.

Final Verdict: The Empathy Exams are essential reading for anyone seeking to meditate on the status of human nature as a conduit for compassion. Despite the author's sometimes self-important tone, she attempts to communicate movingly the importance of empathetic response, and after all, isn't the point of empathy to try and understand?

What is your favorite essay collection? Would you ever read a book like The Empathy Exams? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

News and Things: March Favorites

Okay, okay... I realize this is coming to you all a little late. And I realize I haven't gotten the chance to update the blog in almost two weeks. However, lemme give you a really good excuse: I have been a busy, busy girl!

For starters, as I may have mentioned before, I've had the distinct pleasure of being a part of a UW Research Team project as an alumni, exploring how we communicate usability design in classroom settings, with the intention of publishing the article in a technology-oriented journal. Our rough drafts for the preliminary part of our article was due earlier this week, and it was a mad dash to get things finalized in a way that I liked.

I've also been absolutely stoked for the last week of March or so, to be a part of the Judging Panel for this year's Queen Coronation for the Daffodil Festival. Not only has it been a ton of fun for me to see another side of this organization that I love so much, but I've gotten the chance to know this year's participants fairly well (at the cost of an insane amount of sleep, sure... but it's worth it).

Additionally, I have been continuing my time as a Special News Correspondent for the Tacoma Weekly, and reporting on notable Daffodil events, like, say, the very Coronation for which I was judging. Oh, and there's going to be a special commemorative issue this year, where Daffodil is taking over the entire B section in anticipation of the Parade, so you'll be seeing my byline splashed all over those pages, too!

So in case you've been wondering why I couldn't muster up the motivation to write out a blog post or two, it's because I've been writing over 18 single-spaced pages of material for other important writing projects I'm working on. IN THE PAST WEEK AND A HALF.

But enough of me complaining.

I'm in Oregon now, for the Spring Break of my younger siblings, and Tacoma is far behind us for the next week. March is over, and you probably know the drill: there's been a lot of News. And there's been a lot of Things. So it's time for News and Things!

My teenage siblings recently threw me for a loop when they showed me how they write papers - here's a hint: it involves direct voice-to-text software and several layers of email - so this write-up by the Washington Post, on how today's kids are being raised with technological voice assistants like Siri and Alexa, was of special interest to me.

As I've moved back home and had to cope with greater distances between myself and some of my best friends, I've been feeling pretty alone out here in Tacoma. As it turns out, I'm not the only one: in fact, millenials are getting lonelier... and The Financial Diet has the breakdown. 

We often think of publishing being one of the more diverse hiring fields - due to the kinds of many different kinds of stories that get published - but Publishing Weekly's Industry Salary Survey of 2016 proves that we still have a ways to go.

I've been a vocal supporter of journaling for nearly my whole life, so I was pleased to see one of my favorite YouTubers, Lavendaire, discussing her own #journaljunkiehabits.

Okay, so it's not exactly news, but Out of Print Clothing has finally started selling pins! I'm desperate to add a few to my button-bedecked library bag... especially the library stamp and card set. 

'90s America's unofficial favorite teacher, William Daniels - aka, Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World - published a memoir, called There I Go AgainBrooklyn Magazine gives us some of the highlights of Daniels' epic career... like that time he met Lin Manuel Miranda.

Ever wondered what the technical aspects behind staging the battle at Helm's Deep were? Nerdwriter put together this analytical love letter to one of the greatest fantasy battle scenes in cinematic history. 

And in recent headlines that make you look like you're chewing on a lemon news... the New York Times charts the rise of alt-righters who love Jane Austen. 

I've been a huge fan of Practical Folks' Drunk Disney segments for years now... but my sister and I have recently grown enamored with their Game of Thrones themed "Power Hour" segments, hosted by Cersei Lannister and Petyr Balish, to hilarious effect. Remember, power is power!

After years of begging, I finally convinced my game-crazy teenage brother to watch one of my favorite webseries: The Guild! Because the episodes are so short - and they're all strung together, easy to watch, on Netflix - he's already finished with Season 3. In his words: "Poor, crazy Codex."

It's always a weird feeling when one of your favorite skincare products grows up... I haven't repurchased The Body Shop's Tea Tree Foaming Cleanser since my Junior year of college, because it literally lasts forever, which is why I was quite surprised to see how it now is kind of packaged like a dude's product. Regardless, it still works great!

Wrong directions from my mother last month resulted in me showing up to pick her up from the bus about an hour early... luckily, there's a Trader Joes only about ten minutes away from the transit center! My despondent shelf-browsing resulted in picking up an old favorite again: Toblerone chocolate bars. Because nothing helps you forget you're sitting in a rainy parking lot with a bag of soggy groceries and a half an hour more to kill quite like a Toblerone.

When I'm don't feel like having a full lunch, I like to reach for Trader Joes' sliced organic apples and selection of sliced tapas cheeses. Both are require zero prep, and make for an excellent pairing together, but you can always build them out to a bigger, ploughman's style lunch if needed.

Good news, everyone: The Voice is finally back on television! However, last season, I became a Sundance Head superfan early on, and there's no one who's really catching my attention. Who are you already rooting for?

And did you really think I'd be closing out this post without mentioning the new Beauty and the Beast??? I know that it's drummed up a lot of polarizing reactions from fans, but I've got to tell you... I loved Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, I loved the new music and their variations on the old ones, and I had so much fun crying through it the first time, that I went back two days later to see it again with friends, and cried all over them too!

A bit of a personal favorite: my sister Delaney was on Spring Break for about two weeks of March! She blew us off for a weekend to hang out with a friend in San Diego - where she tried In and Out for the first time - but having her home was definitely a lot of fun.

What have been some of your favorite news headlines and products this month? Let me know, in the comments below!