A Year of Lady Book Wormery

woman-readingMy nerdy, introverted, curious self often likes to snuggle under the covers with a good book. This year was busier than usual with work and life commitments which meant that I didn’t have as much time or energy to escape with my book friends as I would’ve liked. My Kindle shamefully has dozens of titles bought this year that are at 10% or 25%. The ones I did manage to finish, however, all seem to have a theme – memoirs written by women. There is something pleasurably vicarious about reading about other women’s lives, riding the ups and downs with them, especially when there are happy endings (the story kind).

I was transported to Somalia with Canadian Amanda Lindhout’s story of her time being kidnapped and held hostage after working as a journalist in the region. There is only one word to describe A House in the Sky: harrowing. It’s incredible that Lindhout survived her horrific ordeal in which unimaginable things were done to her, and has now emerged as a poised and confident activist and aspiring psychologist. While the author’s plight is not for the faint of heart, the story is gripping and eye-opening. In sharing her experiences, Lindhoudt shines a light on Islam in Somalia and the politics of the region. Ultimately, it is a story of hope as Lindhout demonstrates an unbelievable amount of perseverance and resilience and even compassion as in the end, she chooses to forgive her captors and torturers. This is not to discount the trauma that Lindhout continues to experience, but is testament to the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The takeaway message? Well, there are two: first, don’t go to Somalia; second, it is possible to rebuild one’s life after the most extreme adversity.

On a much lighter note was Australian Sarah Turnbull’s All Good Things, an ultimately uplifting account of her time living in Tahiti with her French husband, her challenges falling pregnant as an older woman and her return to Sydney with her family after living as an expatriate in Paris for many years. Turnball writes honestly and reflectively about her daily life and the emotional roller coaster she rides as she tries to adjust to the South Pacific then back to her homeland. I have been fortunate enough to visit Tahiti, so it was with great interest that I read her nuanced impressions and descriptions of day-to-day life on this ‘paradise’. With her carefully constructed prose, she brings to light the complexities of getting what you want, highlighting the peaks and valleys of her journey.

Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable is a collection of brilliantly written essays about her life, her work, her health and her relationships. While there are plenty of wonderfully written sentences that explode like firecrackers, the biggest delight is in her penchant for brutal honesty. It’s incredibly refreshing, especially for an upper middle class white American woman living in Los Angeles to express herself so forthrightly about the things were all thinking, but not saying. The way she tactfully yet scathingly portrays her mother is almost shocking. The world needs more woman writers like this, to expose the reality of our lives, the complexity, the messiness, the taboos. She is definitely not afraid to say the unspeakable.

Another writer I read this year for the first time (well, technically last year) was Elisabeth Eaves whose memoir Wanderlust about traveling and working in five continents is also very brave, honest and self-revelatory. Eaves’ memoir is about her need to explore, to keep moving forward, to run away from herself and anything she perceives as trapping her, like an apartment in Paris that she shares with her diplomat boyfriend. She does this with candor and self-awareness, always weighing up the costs and benefits of her actions and their consequences (which usually involve quitting jobs, moving countries and and breaking hearts). Now a successful journalist based in New York, we see Eaves’ evolution from a curious high school student to the powerful woman she has become today. She is a blond, red lipstick-wearing Type A risk-taker, living a life we usually associate with the most thrill-seeking, adventurous and virile male writers who trot from country to country, and bed to bed chasing their next story.

Food writer Molly Wizenberg’s Delancy is her second memoir, this time about the pizzeria she opened with her husband. Her writing paints a cozy picture of her life in Seattle with her family (she has a toddler) but she is careful to never romanticize or idealize how hard it is to open a restaurant from scratch and run it successfully. She writes simply yet eloquently about the good times and the bad – the reader is right there with her as she exposes the blood, sweat and tears of making her and her husband’s dreams a reality. Her narrative weaves in recipes, which makes it a delight for the unpretentious foodie.

 

Rewind, Unwind

The past month haupintheairs flown by (almost literally, I have been on eight flights), yet at the same time, it feels like forever since I sat down at my desk to write. There have been ups and downs, good things and bad things, interesting things and mundane things that have happened in that time. Let’s go back a few weeks to when I was on Jeju Island.

I was trying to have a good time, enjoying my little group of ten sweet 10 year olds and their spontaneity, creativity and intelligence. Sometimes it was fun, most of the time it was exhausting. By night, there was time to relax and rejuvenate by using the incredible gym and pool facilities, or going for a walk in nature. And as always, thank God for the Kindle app which meant I could have any book I wanted at my fingertips. Alas, there was one piece of the whole experience that really irked me. Like really fucking pissed me off.

It is a fact of life of living in Korea, and I should be used to it by now, but maybe getting used to it is a kind of acceptance. And I am resisting the reality, coming up against it and trying to deny it. It is the large population of idiot white males who come here for the social life (read socially acceptable and sanctioned alcoholism) and the women (“the sea of pussy”) as one of them told me. I dislike them for many reasons, not least of which these unqualified, unprofessional imbeciles get paid more than me because they have a penis. I detest the chauvinistic, misogynistic, derogatory way they treat and talk about women. It’s appalling. And yet, nobody cares and there are no consequences. I guess it annoyed me more than usual because I was the minority (white female) trapped on both an island and a campus with them and therefore could not escape or avoid them.

At least it’s not as bad as the situation between foreign men and local women in Thailand. But still.

My time in Thailand will be for another post. For now, having been back in the country a few days, my focus is on forgetting those jerks as much as possible. And, mindful that when I returned from Cambodia months ago, I fell into a bottomless pit of depression (not for any good reason, maybe just a combination of transition, hormones, stress, unrealistic expectations, processing of experience, perspective etc), I am now slowly re-entering my life here. Although, because I wasn’t away for long, the transition will be much smoother. Still, I couldn’t face the world upon my return and so opted to spend three days lying in bed reading and catching up on random websites. In fact, I spent one entire day looking around this incredible site, Brain Pickings, which can best be described as book porn. Or, in the words of its creator, “Brain Pickings is a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are.”

If I had more time, energy, willingness and technical know-how, my vision for this blog would be similar to Brain Pickings. A little sleuthing revealed that the founder of the site, the woman who creates most of the content from her apartment in Brooklyn, dedicates 100 hours a week to it, in addition to having another job. I’m like, ‘whaaat?!’ That’s crazy. I struggle to give two hours a week to my blog.

But anyway, you get the gist – it’s a really amazing creation. And it brought to my attention this gem from legendary Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl:

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Amen.

“The most interesting safe country” An Afternoon with The Economist’s Daniel Tudor

TudorToday I attended 10 Magazine’s Book Club which featured an afternoon of Q&A with The Economist’s Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor. He has just written a book called Korea: The Impossible Country. I admit to not having read the book, but I was interested in what he had to say about the country and his experience here. Listening to him, I was validated in many of my own insights, opinions and experiences. We both like being here because of the warmth of the Korean people, and also because it is a dynamic and fascinating country that is continually changing (in his words, “the most interesting safe country”). Here I will summarize some of his most astute observations and opinions.

The Korean Wave: It was inevitable as other developed Asian countries have had their time in the limelight, but now it’s time to move on…

Working in a Korean Company: They are very hierarchical, aged-based and working in one made him feel like a little boy. As a white foreigner with a degree from Oxford, he felt that people were either too nice to him or unnecessarily obnoxious. He talked about the resentment of the other workers who had to stay until 11pm with nothing much to do while he went home at 7pm because he didn’t see a future there for him.

Compulsory Military Service: It is a kind of socialisation and prepares young men for the hierarchicalism that they will experience in company life and gets them used to being ordered around. It is also a very important bonding experience for the men who often stay in touch throughout their lives.

Freedom of Press: As a member of the foreign press, he has a lot of freedom but laments that national newspapers cannot overtly criticize large companies because 10-20% of the papers’ advertising budget comes from them. However, because the mainstream press is muzzled, people can go to the outskirts and express their views in smaller, online forums.

The Issue of North Korea: He believes that the country is essentially capitalist at its roots and also at the top, but the latter is riddled with corruption. He would like to see more foreign businesses operating in North Korea and raising the standard of living for its citizens. He is concerned that North Korea is being seen as increasingly foreign by the younger generation and that there is an apathy among many Koreans towards reunification.

Women’s Roles: He stated that it would be good for the economy for women to go back into the workforce after raising children and also that if they had a job outside of raising children, they wouldn’t be obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Kims’ in terms of pressuring their children to succeed and compete. They could break out of the Tiger Mum role.

The Economy: There won’t be another Asian Tiger phenomenon. Korea can’t compete with China and so should focus on competing with Switzerland and Germany. He predicts that unless some very savvy investing occurs, the national pension office will be empty by 2040.

Society: Korea has a certain open-mindedness and the ability to self-correct as it evolves, unlike Japan which, although aware of its social and economic problems, remains in denial, stagnant and doesn’t strive to change. Korea should now focus on fostering a wider definition of success and celebrate those interested in creative pursuits as well as entrepreneurs.