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Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for, and the Children They Love

By Tasha Blaine
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Like Tasha Blaine, I once took a job working as a nanny. Also like the author, I thought it would be a relatively easy gig that would allow me the freedom to write while working in a nice, supportive environment. We both quickly realized that working as a nanny is one of the most intense, draining, undervalued, and emotionally taxing jobs in our modern society.
In Just Like Family, Blaine combines her personal insights, her MFA, and several years of research to closely follow the lives of three different nannies in three different cities over the course of one year. The portraits she paints read more like a novel than the sociological study they really are, and that makes her book as entertaining as it is informative. There is Claudia, a young mother who came to New York City from Dominica and still dreams of a career in nursing; Vivian, a college educated career nanny in Massachusetts running for nanny of the year; and Kim, a nanny with twenty years of experience who accepted a live-in position in Texas on the eve of her second divorce.
It is the intimacy of these stories that make the book so compelling. That level of absorption allows a unique opportunity for Blaine to educate readers about how complicated it is to work in such an emotionally intense environment. A nanny is not only charged with raising young children, but must navigate the complexities of another family from the inside, all the while enduring the stresses and hardships of a primary care giver in a society that still holds childcare near the bottom rung of the economic food chain.
Whether or not to have children, and then how to go about raising them, will be a central issue of feminism as long as a feminist movement is necessary. Childcare is simply not very highly valued here in the United States. It is not monetarily valued, and it is not socially valued. The author Ann Crittendon said that someone once asked of her, “Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittendon?” when she was home with her first child. I know how she felt.
When I decided to stay home with my twins, I found that even those closest to me suddenly treated me as though I’d died and been mysteriously replaced by a cardboard mommy cutout. Having no idea how completely consuming it is taking care of small children, they assumed my sudden loss of interest in pop culture (and personal hygiene) must have had more to do with my giving up on life than with not having time to spare for it.
There is a widespread cultural bias against the work of childcare that completely ignores how much time and energy it takes to raise a child. And in a culture where human resource and intellect is fast becoming the most important currency, it is astonishing that childcare is dismissed as something less than absolutely crucial to our survival. If I could afford a nanny, believe me I’d have one, but I’d be a much better employer for having read this book.
Review by Jen Wilson Lloyd

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Cancer is a Bitch: (Or, I'd Rather Be Having A Midlife Crisis)

By Gail Konop Baker
De Capo Press

After completing her second novel (one about a woman dealing with breast cancer that her agent wasn't very excited about), Gail Konop Baker was actually diagnosed with the disease herself. In this book, she takes the journals that kick started her column "Bare-Breasted Mama" and turns them into this smart, funny, insightful, and intimate book about an event in her life that really rocked her world.

I selected this read because it seems like cancer has been creeping around the six-degree-edges of my life lately. Neighbors, coworkers, friends of friends—every week I hear about someone else who was diagnosed. People who seemed to be the picture of good health are suddenly meeting with doctors and surgeons to form battle plans, knowing that any treatment they select is still going to be unpleasant. And I imagine some of their experiences are not so unlike Baker's description of trying to dress for the exam:

"...waking that morning in disbelief that I had an appointment with an oncologist. Oncologist? That word was for other people, older people, unlucky people. People who die. I stared into my bureau drawers, agonizing over what to wear, wondering why they didn't send that information with the postcard appointment reminder and how I was supposed to navigate all these decisions without more guidance? You get an instruction booklet with a toaster oven but no instructions for marriage or motherhood or cancer."

Cancer is the antagonist in this story, but the real trip is an inside look at the messy, emotional, day-to-day of a woman's life, a woman who by chance also happens to be a very funny, witty, and exuberant writer. I not only laughed out loud reading Cancer Is a Bitch; I also paused to consider my life as a mother and as a human being while continually nodding my head as I thought of yet another friend that I wanted to recommend it to.

It is the small observations that make this book. Her own analysis of her twenty-year marriage, of how love can ebb and flow with seemingly irrational meandering and then come back to center. Like when she describes dropping her daughter off to start college: 

"And as I stand here in the quad I feel the rush of all the years passing in this moment. I didn't mean to rush it. I didn't mean to ever feel frustrated and bored, to want to get everything done, to ever think, 'When she finally grows up I'll get my life back,' because it isn't true. She was and is my life and I'm not ready to let go...and we're both crying now, our bodies trembling as she whispers, 'It's okay, Mom. We're both going to be okay.'"

That voice is what I enjoyed so much, because of its ablity to freak out and yet still see the irony, and the humor.

Review by Jen Wilson Lloyd
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I stayed up - afraid to go to sleep like I did in 2000, only to wake up horrified... but it looks solid... WE DID IT! 
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Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change

Edited by Lauran R. Hartley and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani
Duke University Press

As a student of comparative religion in the early nineties, I became fascinated by Tibet and, specifically, by Tibetan Buddhism. I had the pleasure of hearing the Dalai Lama speak on Cornell’s campus and meeting monks who were living in upstate New York as refugees. My college experience was decorated by “Free Tibet” bumper stickers, yet it has been some time since I have actively educated myself. I am not a scholar of Tibetan literature, but I did not find that to be any impediment to enjoying this collection of essays.

I selected to read Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change with the desire for a deeper understanding of Tibetan culture, and I certainly received it. This collection is very approachable for such a scholarly work. Some of the language describing the writing of poetry was beautiful - true for any writer, in any language. I appreciated the introduction to writers who I probably would not have encountered on my own, and most of all, I gained a deeper understanding of what happens when a country is taken over, or shall I say “liberated”, by another.

The sweeping social change made by Chinese communism to what was a relatively small, indigenous culture subsequently created the emerging writers who now struggle to define their heritage and their own artistic voices. These fourteen essays offer a comprehensive study that begins at the start of the twentieth century and traces Chinese rule and domination, along with the near complete loss of language and culture, for the subsequent generations. The fact that modern writers primarily educated in Chinese are now learning the Tibetan language in order to renew its use as a cultural signifier is fascinating. As Tsering Shakya puts it, “The development of modern Tibetan literature cannot be separated from the politics of identity. Tibetan literature emerged as an assertion of Tibetan space in a period of increasing intrusion by the metropolitan colonial inscription. For Tibetan writers and intellectuals, the Tibetan language alone has the power to preserve and reinvent Tibet.”

In 1975 a Swedish journalist went to Lhasa intending to meet contemporary Tibetan writers, and the TAR government could not present even one. This spurred the encouragement of modern writing, obviously beginning with very specific adherences, and several literary journals were started. Now, with over twenty years in print, these journals have spread the words of many talented writers who themselves are forging a new identity for modern Tibet. This book is a rich resource, as the first comprehensive collection of its kind, for any scholarly inquiry into Tibetan literature. 

Review by Jennifer M. Wilson
Current Music:
old man grumbling in a coffee shop
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On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam

By Joyce Hoffman
Da Capo Press

Joyce Hoffman read a book about journalists who reported on American involvement in Vietnam in the sixties and wondered to herself, “Where are the women?” Considering that she holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, a job teaching journalism to college students, and pens a biweekly op-ed column about journalism accuracy and fairness issues, it was not unlikely that she would write the book that would answer that question. On Their Own offers a thoroughly researched account of fifteen women who played vital, if varying, roles in the reporting of the Vietnam War.

For myself, when I studied the media industry in college, I became so disenchanted with the corporate system of information dissemination in the United States that instead of packing the tailored black suit in my closet upon graduation, I grabbed a rucksack and waited tables for awhile. But journalism still fascinates me, and for that reason, I wish that I had read this book in school. Many of these women simply bought a plane ticket and showed up in Saigon, determined to find their own stories. They believed that if they did their job well, they would be published by many of the male editors who told them they couldn’t do it in the first place, as they indeed were.

As a pleasure read, On Their Own can be a bit dense with historical detail that sometimes stifles the narrative of each experience; however, this detail makes the book richer for any student of the history of journalism. I had a hard time getting started with it, but I soon realized that my difficulty was because the first 100 pages deal mainly with more socially conservative women who believed in the United State’s right to be in Vietnam and felt that the people there needed to be Westernized for their own good - talented and outspoken reporters, but not women I wanted to spend much time with. Once I got into chapter three, I found stories that were not only adventurous, but personally inspiring.

Frankie Fitzgerald’s story is one that any aspiring and socially conscious non-fiction writer should become acquainted with. Daughter of the CIA’s director of operations, she spent years in Vietnam, on her own, writing with a sense of purpose. Convinced that the war was immoral and wrong, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. “She once asked a Vietnamese associate what he thought would happen if the United States withdrew. He told her: ‘Don’t ask us that. It’s none of your business. We just want you to leave.’”

Reporting on a war requires much more than death tolls and fire fight descriptions. Today, it seems obvious that different perspectives on the impact of war on societies engaged in it add invaluable relevance to that body of journalism. We are still faced with government influence and spin. The more people are reporting on events, the better we can understand them and use that knowledge to avoid mistakes in the future. Right?

Review by Jennifer M. Wilson
Current Music:
When the President Talks to God - Conor Oberst
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1.Southwestern U.S. an unbranded calf, cow, or steer, esp. an unbranded calf that is separated from its mother.
2.a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.
3.(initial capital letter) an electro-optically guided U.S. air-to-ground tactical missile for destroying tanks and other hardened targets at ranges up to 15 mi. (24 km).

[Origin: 1865–70, Americanism; after Samuel A. Maverick (1803–70), Texas pioneer who left his calves unbranded]

—Synonyms 2. nonconformist, independent, loner.
Current Location:
watching debate
Current Mood:
annoyed annoyed
Current Music:
Add it up - Violent Femmes
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An American Fable 

If you grow up in Hawaii, raised by your grandparents, you're "exotic, different." 
Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers, a quintessential American story? 

If your name is Barack you're a radical, unpatriotic Muslim. 
Name your kids Willow, Trig and Track, you're a maverick? 

Graduate from Harvard law School and you are unstable. 
Attend 5 different small colleges before graduating, you're well grounded? 

If you spend 3 years as a brilliant community organizer, become the first black President of the Harvard Law Review, create a voter registration drive that registers 150,000 new voters, spend 12 years as a Constitutional Law professor, spend 8 years as a State Senator representing a district with over 
750,000 people, become chairman of the state Senate's Health and Human Services committee, spend 4 years in the United States Senate representing astate of? 13 million people while sponsoring 131 bills and serving on the Foreign Affairs, 
Environment and Public Works and Veteran's Affairs committees, you don't have any real leadership experience. 
> If your total resume is: local weather girl, 4 years on the city council and 6 years as the mayor of a town with less than 7,000 people, 20 months as the governor of a state with only 650,000 people, then you're qualified to become the country's second highest ranking executive? 

If you have been married to the same woman for 19 years while raising 2 beautiful daughters, all within Protestant churches, you're not a real Christian. 
If you cheated on your first wife with a rich heiress, and left your 
disfigured wife and married the heiress the next month, you're a Christian.? 

If you teach responsible, age appropriate sex education, including the proper use of birth control, you are eroding the fiber of society. 
If , while governor, you staunchly advocate abstinence only, with no other option in sex education in your state's school system while your unwed teen daughter ends up pregnant , you're very responsible.?

If your wife is a Harvard graduate laywer who gave up a position in a prestigious law firm to work for the betterment of her inner city community, then gave that up to raise a family, your family's values don't represent America's. 

If you're husband is nicknamed "First Dude", with at least one DWI conviction and no college education, who didn't register to vote until age 25 and once was a member of a group that advocated the secession of Alaska from the USA, your 
family is extremely admirable.?
Current Music:
Breeze - Dr. Dog
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So JMW.com is gone - that's fine... I changed my name anyway. The kids are almost three and a half, one potty trained, one pending... Sleeping in big beds, asking me a million questions that make me question my own judgement when I answer them honestly. But life is good. A writer's critique group here keeps me sane, my Ebay mama side biz keeps me in pocket change, and reviews help me find a place in the greater world beyond the windshield of the minivan. A brother is due to arrive later this month and an old friend is flying in for a visit. I watched Bourdain in Seattle last night after my writer's group met, and for the first time I didn't feel that ache of missing a place almost as much as you would miss a person. For the first time, I realized that I am exactly where I need to be, and that the next few years are going to really and truly determine the rest of my life. If I can pull off the hat trick I so desire, everything will work out just fine... and if not? Well, the sushi around here has improved 100% in the last three years, so I think I'll manage. Preschool starts next month. I can TASTE those hours of time... I am going to drop them off at school and take the laptop to the nearby coffee house and type for my life. It isn't much - those hours... but I have learned a lot in the last five years - about myself, my craft, life in general. And I am ready to do it without the net.

Current Music:
Ting Tings - Shut up and let me go
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Friday, June 13, 2008

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

By Robert Paarlberg
Harvard University Press

As a mom who does what I can to buy organic food for my family, I completely understand the general distaste most of us have for genetically modified (GM) foods. The very thought of vegetables altered by scientists in labs seems creepy and somehow inherently wrong, doesn’t it? But when I read Starved for Science, I quickly realized that such a romanticized and emotional standpoint in such a critical debate as starvation is not only uninformed, it is just plain irresponsible. I also realized that, whether we like it or not, most of us are already eating GM foods on a daily basis.

In plain language and with plentiful sources to back up his positions, Paarlberg describes how in first world countries, where food is plentiful and obesity more of a problem than starvation, people can afford to pine for the days of small neighborhood farms - and can turn up their noses at the agribusiness and subsequent science that has allowed us to take for granted having not only enough to eat, but a wide choice in what and where we get our food. In Europe, the negative public opinion toward genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) has led to labeling and bans on imports suspected to be “contaminated” by genetically altered seeds. Greenpeace and many NGO’s are working actively to keep African farmers on small plots of land using techniques that date back thousands of years, but to the detriment and hardship of those very farmers.

Paarlberg describes how rich countries have come to fear and dislike GMO’s, stopping funding and support easily where food is in no shortage, and yet when it is convenient, still continue to fund their use in the pharmaceutical industry where a longevity benefit can be gained. And governments in African countries situated in urban areas that are highly influenced by European bias, both in cultural influence and monetary flow, follow suit. Therefore, they are not developing their own programs to find strains of seeds that could resist drought, and it isn’t worth enough money to anyone else to do so for them.

The majority of small farms in Africa are currently run by women, as men often leave to find other jobs in mines or more urban areas to supplement family incomes. Children stay out of school to help with the farming, and they do it all with wooden tools and poorly fed animal labor. Green movements in China and India have brought these countries to a position where starvation in no longer such a pressing issue; however, in Africa the problem is worse than ever.

Paarlberg admits to having kept his research a bit under wraps until now, knowing the reaction he would get from his own circle of friends and colleagues. It could be said that being ‘socially conscious’ has taken on certain assumptions (and presumptions) among the wealthier strata of our urban world with a borg-like uniformity, and in the case of poverty in Africa, maintaining a position of being purely organic could easily be likened to saying “let them eat cake.”

Review by Jennifer M. Wilson
Current Music:
Peace Love and Happiness - G Love
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