The Underground Girls of Kabul (An Inside Look into the Lives of Afghan Women)

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The Underground Girls of Kabul, written by journalist Jenny Nordberg, is a look into Afgan culture and the lives of Afgan women. Nordberg specifically explores the phenomenon of families dressing their daughters as boys, or bacha posh.

In Afganistan, a girl child is called “dokhtar” (daughter) while the boy is “bacha” (child). The girl is not the chosen child, she is “other”. The phrase “bacha posh” means “dressed like a boy” and is the term for those children who are neither son nor daughter. They are the girls dressed as boys.

Before reading this book I assumed it might be a heart-wrenching look into the confined lives of Afgan women, but this book proves over and over how much of a falsehood that thought was. In many ways, Afgan women are indeed mistreated and confined, but this book is a hopeful look at how their society might be transformed and is in the process of transforming right now.  The presence and existence of these girls proves there is a kind of resistance to the control of society and a subversion of the tightly controlled roles and rules surrounding the behavior of women.

Reading this book also helped to open my eyes to the actual culture of Afganistan and its people and history. To be honest, I hadn’t read that much about Afgan culture before this and I was surprised in many ways to hear stories from the women themselves. Of course, there are some truly horrible and saddening moments in the book, but I understand more clearly why their society behaves this way.

For example, one eye-opening moment for me was when Nordberg points out that in some ways the West is more obsessed with gender roles (in childhood) than Afghans are. A woman she interviewed explains that, in Afghanistan, “people are driven by something much more basic- sexuality. Everything before puberty is just preparation for procreation. That is the purpose of life here.”

Part of the reason that Afghan culture keeps women so tightly confined is that they are in a constant state of war. When everything else is unstable, the Afghan men keep a tight grip on any reasons they have, specifically their reputation and their women. Controlling women means that, to an extent, they have control over life- the literal production of life which can mean safety and future security for their family.

Nordberg’s suggestions in the epilogue of the book as to how Afghanistan can move out of this cultural mindset include two important factors, that the country must enter a sustained time of peace, and that part of the change must begin with “powerful men educating many other men”. The women in Afghanistan won’t be able to achieve economic or political power until they are supported by their fathers and husbands.

This book really changed my perspective on Afghan culture and the Middle East. Nordberg helped me understand a little more clearly what living on the inside of such a culture looks like. Ultimately, there is great potential for hope and progress, but the road towards that goal will be long and difficult.

 

 

The Book Life: Comparing Bookstores and Libraries

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I recently started a job at a library, meaning that I now work two jobs that leave me surrounded by books. Stacks of them. Shelves of them.

Picture books are returned slightly sticky from young fingers.

The recipe books leave me feeling hungry.

cookbook        everday korean      milkbar life

I spend my time shelving, putting books on hold, and searching for that one book about knitting someone requested. I also see endless amounts of crappy romance novels. The tagline of the day: “Scot rhymes with HOT!” (Yes, it was a romance set in Scotland, if you haven’t guessed it already.)

 

My other job surrounded by books is at a bookstore.

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I love how, by necessity, small bookstores can only offer a curated selection of books. Some of these are the kind you buy to show to others, the ones with the beautiful photography. The ones you keep on a coffee table on a kitchen counter. The travel books and cookbooks.

Some of these books are memoirs, academic books, textbooks, picture books, or religious books. These are the bestselling books, the ones the store hopes it can make a profit on.

Books at a bookstore are in pristine condition and are meant to be bought and brought home to find a place on your bookshelves.

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Here, I spend my time helping customers find books and selling them books at the register.

Here, a book might be on sale or 25% off or even as a $5 fiction book. Also here is where some books might be $40 or more (I’m talking about textbooks or books with an expensive binding). Things can start to add up.

A busy day at the bookstore means there was a lot of people. A busy day at the library means there was a lot of books.

Here are the major differences and similarities between the two:

  1. Bookstores are fundamentally a retail setting. This means that there is always some transfer of money happening for the products (and no, I don’t have control over the prices.)
  2. Libraries work as a circulation system, not a one-time sale. There is a constant flow of books going out and coming back in. Unlike the bookstore, the circulation system in the library is constantly flowing and there is almost always more books to be reshelved.
  3. Both host authors and events. And summer reading programs!
  4. Both engage and encourage the community, in slightly different ways. A library is fully open to the community for meetings, but a bookstore can more easily show a movie or host live music.
  5. Both open discussions, spread information and promote learning.
  6. Customer service is very important in both settings. (I was forced to watch a training video on this very subject called “Give ‘em the Pickle”).

In the end, even if being around books every day and can get a little bit tiring, I love seeing what people are reading. I love being part of the process to help people engage with new ideas and stories. I love working at places people can come to get work done or research or just read and relax.

 

So, for now, I’ll just be over here. Living the book life.

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Everything Happens for a Reason (A Look at Dealing with Tragedy)

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The book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) is a memoir by Kate Bowler about her life after being diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Her heavy, beautiful writing discusses her view of faith in the face of tragedy and living life when your sense of certainty has been completely stripped away.

Bowler was a professor at Duke Divinity School, mother of a two-year-old, and wife to the love of her life when she was told she had cancer and had only two years left to live. Her diagnosis ripped away her old life immediately and left her wondering how to live in the face of death.

This book is a perfectly paced story, carefully balancing all the darkest moments with snippets of information and daily life which makes it all bearable. For example, at the end of chapter two, “Object Lesson”, we learn that Bowler had previously had a miscarriage. This moment is one of the heaviest and most heart-breaking in the book. As Bowler shares this moment she says:

“I felt something strange and ran to the bathroom. I started to scream for Toban. As I sat crouched there, everything moved around me in a blur…When we had said all we could say and I had cried all I could cry, we stood there like fools, without language or focus… I could not look down. I was nothing but blood and water.”

But the next chapter begins again with something much more light-hearted: a magic show that Bowler attends wither her friend Blair. By taking the reader from one scene of heartbreak to another, lighter scene, Bowler is able to make this memoir readable and meaningful rather than overwhelming.

Another key part of this book is the two appendixes giving advice on how to interact with someone going through a tragedy. The first appendix, “Absolutely never say this to people experiencing terrible times: a short list”, is full of things to not say to someone (even if you think you are being relatable). Number 5 on the list is the lie “Everything happens for a reason” to which Bowler says:

“The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering you own [reasons]. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.”

The second appendix contains suggestions for positive, helpful ways to interact with someone going through rough times. It includes items like “Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.” and “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?”

Bowler writes about her tragedy and her faith in such a beautiful, vulnerable way. At the very end of this memoir she writes:

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.

Zach is beside me in our big bed as I write these words, rolling around like a polar bear cub… It’s another beautiful morning, and it’s time to yell with the pitch of the coffee grinder and make him French toast. I will die, yes, but not today.”

If you are looking for a memoir exploring life during (and through) personal tragedy, Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason is excellent and honest. I loved it!

The Calculus of Change

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The Calculus of Change by Jessie Hilb follows Aden through her senior year of high school as she meets, and immediately falls for a Jewish boy named Tate. This novel confronts real teenage issues in an honest way, letting the characters make mistakes and deal with the consequences. Nothing in life is perfect, and this book reflects that.

The Calculus of Change begins with math. Calculus, actually. Aden loves calculus and the idea of “infinitesimal change”.

“Small changes in several steps makes sense to me because it feels like I can somehow control it. I am in charge of getting numbers and symbols where they need to go… What I can’t control in real life is the sudden, catastrophic change that often comes without steps or warning and makes life insufferably different. Like a dead mom. Calculus? Calculus is change I can wrap my head around.”

Throughout the novel we see Aden dealing with body image issues and the ideas of change and control. At the beginning of the book, Aden is desperately trying to keep things under control in her family as she helps her brother with his relationships and walks carefully around her dad’s mood swings. She slowly comes to realize that there are many things in life that can’t be controlled; like your mom dying of cancer.

On the other hand, she also realizes just how many things she can control—like choosing to love herself and make healthy decisions to deal with grief and her relationship with Tate.

Just compare these two parts of the book, one from the beginning and one from the end:

“[Maggie’s] wearing a loose, high-cut top and leggings, and I can see her thin—her stomach—because her arms are reaching up to wrap around Tate’s neck. My eyes water involuntarily at the sight of them together. Kissing.”

“This transformation—it’s like I’ve finally found a way to anchor my body to my soul…. What I see isn’t perfect, but it’s mine. And as I look at myself, I think, I look beautiful because I’m strong.” 

I will say that this book left me feeling a little sad. Not all of my questions got answered (not because it was a bad ending, but because life changes can only happen one at a time) and not everything was perfectly happy. But Aden’s growth was so real and honest that I loved seeing her inner strength shine through.

My other favorite character was Aden’s best friend Marissa. Marissa is thin and popular when Aden is not, but the two girls support each other through every up and down. They choose to love each other even when they make mistakes. One of the best moments in their friendship is when Aden picks up Marissa after a party (and a heartbreak). In their little gestures, we can see how much they mean to each other.

“We need comfort food.” I say. “Greasy diner or donuts?”

“Greasy diner,” she says.

“Good choice.” And I squeeze her hand again. She squeezes back.

This book comes with its sad and heavy moments, but I definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a good contemporary novel about growing up and finding peace with who you are.

Girl, Wash Your Face (and Other Good Advice)

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A mix of motivational, honest, and funny, Girl, Wash Your Face exposes some of the lies we believe about ourselves.

Author Rachel Hollis debunks lies like “I’m Going to Marry Matt Damon” (Chapter 13) and “I am Defined by My Weight” (Chapter 17), spending time discussing everything from pregnancy to becoming a career woman. Her goal is that in exposing these lies, we can recognize a deeper truth: That we are responsible for who we become and how happy we are.

One of the biggest draws of this book is the openness Hollis uses when she discusses topics, even ones that are considered taboo (like Chapter 7: I’m Bad at Sex). In a marketplace that tends to avoid the nitty-gritty details of what many women believe to be major issues in their lives, Hollis doesn’t shy away from these conversations.

For example, in Chapter Five: Loving Him is Enough For Me, she is real about what makes a relationship work (communication, respect and most importantly, self-respect) and what anxieties women go through in life.

I also loved reading her stories related to stress during Chapter Three on the lie, “I’m Not Good Enough”. Hollis explains that at nineteen she got Bell’s Palsy and half of her face became paralyzed. This happened again during a vacation to Paris, during which she posed next to the Eiffel tower, eye patch and all (since her eye couldn’t close by itself). These severe physical symptoms came on as a reaction to the stress she put herself under trying to prove her worth to herself.

In a culture of “hard work now = success later” and the mentality that you must be doing something to be accepted, I could definitely relate to what Hollis was talking about. She explains that,

“Learning to rest is an ongoing process. Like any other lifelong behavior, I constantly fight the desire to slip back into the role I’ve played for so long… I learned that I am a recovering workaholic, but through this process, I also learned that I am a child of God—and that trumps everything else.” (30)

Truly learning to find that balance of work and rest takes some commitment. It’s not about spending time doing nothing (although that can be important too), it’s about finding those soul refreshing actions that rejuvenate you for the next challenge.

I also loved how Hollis walks through life with you by opening up her life to you. She shares some of her toughest moments and biggest challenges in this book, including her five-year-long journey towards adoption. Her stories are so impactful because they are lessons learned the hard way, and battles won only after a long fight towards victory.

After having several heart-breaking moments with her foster care experience, Hollis and her husband, Dave, turned to independent adoption and began the waiting process all over again. Hollis shares,

“During those months we waited, I walked in faith. My steps weren’t bold or filled with the bravado I’d had at the beginning of the journey nearly five years before. My faith walk became cautious and unsure. I blindly stumbled my way down a path I could not see. I chose to move forward because, while I knew I would find pain, I also knew I would draw strength. I could look at the six months prior or five years in total and choose to be angry. Or I could look at the whole long journey and recognize all that we’d been given.” (173)

Though the path may be difficult, Hollis encourages women to walk in faith and to take those steps to meet their own goals. We are the only ones who have the power to truly change our own lives. Not our moms. Not our best friends. Just us.

I definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a motivating and honest book about the realities (and the lies) we face on a daily basis. I hope you read it and feel your own power to conquer your fear, win your battles, and meet your goals. I know I did.

“Rise up from where you’ve been, scrub away the tears and the pain of yesterday, and start again… Girl, wash your face!” (213)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Bird

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Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen is a contemporary young adult novel exploring how we become broken and how we can piece ourselves back together again.

Wren is a troubled fourteen-year-old who ends up at a wilderness survival camp in the Utah desert as her last chance to turn her life around. She’s gotten a little lost and found herself involved in drugs, underage drinking and distanced herself from her family.

Part of Wren’s story involves her turbulent relationship with her family. She has an older sister, Anabella, who is “perfect” in the ways Wren is not: looks, grades, and friends. When the family moves, she abandons her sister for a quickly made friend group and won’t even talk to her sister at school. Wren is forced to find her own way, one that leads her to a disastrous friendship with a girl named Meadow.

Van Draanen uses Wren’s brokenness and her broken relationships to expose what it means to become truly vulnerable and honest with yourself. Wren must stop running in denial and face her mistakes with an inner strength of character that frees her from her past.

“There’s a wisdom passed through the ages that says that if we walk far but are angry as we journey, we travel nowhere. If we hold grudges as we scale mountains, our view remains the same.” (237)

Wren’s journey into her very core takes readers into a soul parched for friendship and understanding. Over time she realizes that these needs won’t come from an angry, embittered heart but only one that has achieved an understanding of itself. Learning to know who she is, not just who she was, enables her to create a future for who she could be.

“And then, unexpectedly, tickling me from inside, I recognize a long-lost feeling. The one I looked for whenever I got stoned or drunk. The one I tried to corner by outsmarting Anabella, my parents, Meadow. The one that kept drifting past me, promising me I would find it right…over…there.

…In the desert, making food in the dirt, and somehow, against everything I’ve said and thought and expected, it’s found me?

I laugh out loud. It’s so ironic. But there it is. Happiness. Happiness from inside.

… I can do stuff. And knowing that — owning that– makes me feel… unstoppable. … This is who I want to be.” (272)

Part of the beauty of Wild Bird is the realistic and human way each character is written, exposing individual flaws and their attempts to improve and grow. By the end of the book, we recognize how much her family has begun to prioritize each other over the other things in their lives.

When seeing a handwritten letter from her mom, Wren understand just how much her family has begun to change too.

“…all the letters in between flow together, connecting letters into words, words into thoughts, thoughts into love. I can just feel it, coming off the page.

I don’t know why seeing a letter from my mom in her own handwriting means so much to me, but it does. …Maybe it’s because I feel like she touched the page, didn’t just press print. Maybe because it means she listened.” (304)

Finally, one of the most powerful quotes of the book happens just before Wren’s most vulnerable moment:

“Today I’ve been considering how life’s journey is not about the distance we move our feet, but how we are moved in our heart.” (237)

Wren has the courage to face her past and take that always uncertain step towards the future. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a fantastic story of a girl getting a little lost in order to be truly found.

May we all be moved more in our hearts. May we all find our place to be wildly free.