june 2014 books.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong
The author recommends that a person read this whole book, and then go back and do the twelve steps. Each chapter is a step, and you're not supposed to advance to the next step until you've completed the ones before. Many of the steps involve performing Mettā meditation, which involves sending out loving thoughts to others.

Having finished the book, I am not sure whether I'm going to go back and actually do the steps. Not because I don't need or want to be a more compassionate person, but because I'm lazy. I need to read a book first about being a less lazy person, I guess.

I'll give a little summary of the twelve steps. Hopefully, I didn't completely misunderstand anything.
  1. Learn about compassion - Armstrong is a scholar of comparative religion, and she goes through the major world religions and shows how they all agree that we need to treat each other with compassion. We spend a lot of time worrying about where we disagree, sometimes on cosmically insignificant details. Yet we often fail at something that is central to many faiths.
  2. Look at your own world - examine the particular needs of your community.
  3. Compassion for yourself - "Love your neighbor as yourself" only works as an instruction if you love yourself first. It's likely you know someone who treats others badly because of their own insecurities. Don't be that guy.
  4. Empathy - learn to see the pain all around you. Seriously, it is everywhere. Everyone you see every day is suffering from a variety of things you know nothing about.
  5. Mindfulness - Observe the mind to notice its workings, particularly the logical fallacies that often dictate our behavior. As a note, this is kind of where I hit the wall. I was feeling pretty confident about going through the steps (Love myself, yeah!), but treating my mind as separate from my ego is particularly difficult for me.
  6. Action - Remember the small moments that someone went out of their way for you, and how much that affected you. Do the same, as much as possible.
  7. How little we know - Be aware and humble about the limits of our knowledge and understanding.
  8. How should we speak to one another - Be kind and ask questions. Listen. Do not demonize people who disagree with you.
  9. Concern for everybody - Overcome tribalism by accepting the stranger and the foreigner.
  10. Knowledge - She recommends picking a country for this practice and going into book report mode. Learn about the history to understand the modern context and help you become invested in people who you seemingly have nothing in common with.
  11. Recognition - See yourself in others. We are all just people.
  12. Love your enemies - She defines enemies as anyone who threatens you or your way of life. I had trouble thinking of any, but maybe I'm not looking at it right. Maybe I am lucky or delusional.

Now, go out and get your compassion on!

McKay's Bees
Thomas McMahon
This is embarrassing, but I read this book at the beginning of the month and do not remember much about it. It was okay? Sorta quiet and pondering. There were bees and some stuff about slavery. Sorry. I need to write down my thoughts right after finishing the book.

Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale
Charles Brockden Brown
Gah. I only read ten pages of the forty page introduction to this book, but I gathered through the effusive praise for the author that this book is one of the first American novels. All I can say is that first is not necessarily best. It is a good thing that other American authors came along later to justify this great experiment we call the United States. Maybe the other thirty pages of the introduction covered that.

Anyway. This book is narrated by Clara, a lady living outside a city in the woods before the American Revolution. She lives on a plot of family land where her brother also lives in a house with his wife and children. Previously, their father died under mysterious circumstances - having built himself a little temple to pray in, his was discovered there, burned to a crisp.

In the present, there have been mysterious voices. Clara hears a conversation occuring in her closet where two men are plotting to kill her. There is general spookiness, which was sorta fun, and then everything just went off the rails. I'm going to spoil it, because you're never going to read this book. In fact, I recommend that you don't. We find out that Clara's brother, having heard the voices, has killed off his wife and four children. Then it comes to pass that the voices were the product of a mysterious vagrant who had a knack for ventriloquy. However, he claims he did not tell the brother to kill his family, so that part is not resolved. Wikipedia says it is some kind of statement about religious fanaticism.

Okay, so the plot is spooky, and then goofily resolved. The writing is overwrought. Whole chapters of Clara fretting about what she is going to do, with her finally making a decision at the end. The next chapter involves her doing whatever she resolved. The chapter following will be more hang-wringing, possibly a dead faint or two that she will need to recover from.

House Made of Dawn

I did not enjoy this one either, but I think that is my defect. Either me or those Pulitzer people are wrong about this one.

A Native American returns to his reservation after fighting in World War II and finds that he no longer fits in that world. He gets into trouble, eventually moves to the city, but cannot find peace there either. Then he goes back to care for his dying grandfather, and he seems to be sorta finding himself again. That's really it. Momaday says the main character is a composite of many boys he knew from the reservation who were unable to find a place for themselves.

The writing is heavy on the description, and there are a lot of flashback and forths. A lot of work goes into setting a mood more than telling a story, and there are many little vignettes that don't move the plot at all. As a result, I had trouble paying attention, and I did a fair amount of skimming.

This book is credited for sparking the Native American Renaissance. I had not known there was one, but hey, good for them.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead
Heinrich Böll
I liked this one. It starts with a lady turning herself in for murder, then goes back a week or so to show the course of events that led a somewhat prudish professional housekeeper to murder a journalist. The lady meets a man at a party and becomes thoroughly smitten. She takes him home and then helps him escape from the apartment building when it turns out the police are looking for him. That is the extent of their relationship.

The newspapers, however, say that the man is a murderer, and the lady is his longtime lover and accomplice. The paper hounds her, her dying mother, her employers, and her friends, then misquotes them all to indicate that Katharina is a scarlet woman and possibly a Communist. The book is sort of piecing together what happened by recounting statements from different people in the story. It's a little unclear who the "narrator" actually is, but it's a fun read.

Here is another spoiler, which you can skip, because I do actually recommend the book. At the end, we finally get back to the murder that Katharina confessed to in the first scene. She has invited the journalist over for an interview after he has dragged her name through the mud. He shows up and smugly asks if she would like to have sex with him, because she's such a slut, everyone knows it, it's in all the papers. ARGH. I...might have shot him, too.

Saint Francis of Assisi
G.K. Chesterton
Have we talked about Chesterton yet? No? Okay. Well, a few years back, I read The Man Who Was Thursday in one day, then spent a week asking everyone I'd ever met if they knew about Chesterton, then asking the sky why no one was telling anyone about Chesterton.

I am here to tell you about Chesterton. He was freaking great. I would start with Thursday, and not this book, unless you are just really into hagiography. Chesterton was an Christian apologist, which means he writes logical arguments for faith. His writing is just so reasonable, and his turns of phrase so nice that it's easy to go along with him. He describes Francis as a poet and troubadour for God, a man who is unafraid to be the fool because he has nothing to lose. Thus he is able to give away all his stuff, hang out with lepers, and still be happy that way.

One caveat - this book sorta shows its age, particularly with the treatment of Muslims. It was not the main point, so there wasn't a whole lot of discussion, but I got the feeling that if there had been, it would've made me sad.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde
This is a pretty spooky tale, with lots of zingers here and there, including the famous Wilde line, "there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Oh, Oscar.

The story opens with the completion of a painting of a beautiful and charming young man named Dorian Gray. His new friend, who talks hedonism but seems to be all talk, puts the idea into Dorian's head that he needs to enjoy his youth while he can. Dorian has a crisis and prays that he will never age.

And then the prayer comes true. Instead, the Dorian in the picture changes, not just aging, but appearing more cruel and mean. Dorian realizes this and decides to embrace it, essentially making a Faustian bargain. He hides the painting, and then lives as if he is a beautiful and rich young man who can have whatever he wants. He becomes more corrupt and depraved, because when you can have or do anything, you'll press your limits.

I won't spoil it, because I bet you know how it ends. But it was an interesting exploration of youth and beauty and what each of us would do if we could.

And, for funsies, here is a Monty Python sketch, featuring Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This book is a series of letters from Young Werther to his friend Wilhelm. And I tell you, that Young Werther is a sensitive fellow. A man with powerful feelings. He's gone to stay in the country and draw pictures. He meets and falls for the lovely Lotte, who is already engaged. Her fiance is away at first, and Lotte and Werther strike up a close friendship. He is in love, and so he writes about how she looked at him and how beautiful the trees are because she looked at them under the trees.

Ah, but then, her fiance comes back. The pain of seeing them together is too great, so he leaves to take up a job with an ambassador. He is able to mostly put aside thoughts of Lotte, but then he suffers some social embarrassment and returns to the country. However, he just cannot stand to see Lotte and her now-husband together, and his letters become all about how wretched he is and how the trees, once beautiful, are now tainted because they remind him of her.

Werther kills himself. Of course he does.

This book made Goethe famous. However, he later regretted publishing it, partly because it was heavily autobiographical and partly because even when he was an old man and had done much great work since, people still knew him for Werther. There were apparently even copycat suicides (sometimes called, no joke, the Werther effect).

Now, I am an old jaded woman, so mostly I was just annoyed by Werther. Dude, you knew she had a fiance. Dude, why did you go back there? Dude, put down the pistol. Actually, you know what, just do it and shut up already.

Here's some Werther for you: "I sometimes cannot understand how she can love another, how she dares love another, when I love nothing in this world so completely, so devotedly, as I love her, when I know only her, and have no other possession."

Yeah. I'm sorry the force of your love did not cause her to abandon her husband.

At the end of Goethe's live, he sort of gained a little perspective on his early work. While he seemed to also come to the conclusion that no one needs to whine that much, he said "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him." I can remember being fourteen or so and thinking each pop song related directly to my life. Maybe that was the age I should've read this, but maybe it's best that I didn't.

W.G. Sebald
I really loved this. The narrator meets a man by chance named Austerlitz, who was sent away from Prague as a child when the Germans came. He went to live with a Welsh minister and his wife, both rather cold people, and was never being able to make real connections with people. Late in life, he begins to remember part of his past, and he goes in search for his family.

The style is interesting and engaging. There is the narrator, but much of the book is a story told by Austerlitz, their conversations being interrupted several times and then not picking up again for months or years. It's very conversational, with run-on sentences and paragraphs, and it's sometimes easy to forget who is speaking. There are also pictures, which are generally pretty grim, and go along with the story.

Lots of good images. It starts with musing about architecture, particularly fortresses. You build a castle to protect what's inside, yet the castle itself attracts plunderers. So you make the castle bigger and better, but then it takes forever to build and it still attracts attention to those who might wonder what is inside worth protecting. During the construction, the site predicts its own ruins.

Good stuff.


last-minute shopping.

Josh's birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and I didn't have a dang thing to give him. The thing about shopping secondhand is not only do you never know what you're going to find, but you have no idea when you're going to find it. So I might spend the whole year buying lots and lots of thoughtful and appropriate presents for my husband, but then the month of June comes along, and I got nothin'.

The birthday boy is completely unhelpful. I asked him, in my hopefully-charming, straight-forward manner, just what do you want, anyway? And he would wax poetic about how he lacked for nothing, and his life was super great, and he had done nothing to deserve it. In most cases, it is beyond fantastic to be married to an effusively grateful person. It's good for the self-esteem, and I never sweat it when dinner is burnt. It does make shopping difficult.

Without any guide other than a decade and a half of personal history, the weekend before his birthday, I shopped aggressively. I hit every thrift store in town, and I got up extra early for yard sales. This is not always a good strategy, as desperation only entices the thrifting gods to sneer at you. Josh sometimes uses this strategy, and I can always tell, because I receive several small presents that are not quite right. Here, honey, I found this ugly purse, and as far as I've noticed, you are really into ugly purses. I can totally see where he got that impression, but that particular purse was just not the right kind of ugly.

Bad gifts bug me. They make me question my whole relationship with the person. I honestly, like cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, would rather receive nothing at all than have to make my grateful face while I'm internally having a crisis about whether the other person knows me at all. That's probably my own defect.

Anyway, my last-minute present-hunting came up with bupkis. I bought things, sure, but they were sorta-kinda things for me. While I was very exited about the additions to my collection of Awesome Things, and I was sure that Josh would appreciate their awesomeness, there was nothing personal about them that indicated they were gifts specifically for him, other than the fact that he is also full of awesome. So the day before his birthday, I revealed the things to him, like I would show off any yard sale score, but at the same time feeling out whether these things could count as birthday presents.

But hey, I sort of did okay! I found a magnetic hurricane-tracking map and paid a whopping two bucks for it. He was pretty excited about it.  Okay, so was I.

We have sooooo many maps. I try to space them out around the house, but we are already to the point where every single room has at least one. He wanted to hang this one right below the topographical map of western North Carolina and east Tennessee. He called it "the data center," like we were official types who need to track things, rather than people who are just really into decorating with maps. But whatever, it was his birthday.  He can hang his map wherever he wants.

Hurricane season is just starting, so we don't have anything to track just yet. However, we did make use of a silly crab magnet to re-enact a very bad movie we saw once.




We were out on the back porch, talking about Madame Bovary, about how Flaubert took forever to write a book because he agonized over every single word. Josh picked up the book and started reading. I went inside for a few minutes to see if the hamburger meat was thawed. When I came back, Josh started talking about the word "quadruped." He'd read a total of one sentence in that book, and then spent the rest of the time noodling over why Flaubert said "quadruped" and not "beast" or "animal" or "varmint." Seriously, how can he ever finish a book if he reads that way?

I don't read that way. I don't pause on "quadruped," because I know what a quadruped is. I read it, process it, and in my mind, I picture it about the same as I would have if the word had been beast. I process the basic information. It would never occur to me to think that the author had hidden additional information in the individual words. That's gotta be cheating or something.

Josh said he learned how to read this way in high school. And then again in college, too. They would go over passages line by line and talk about individual word choices. If he had only learned it in his higher education, that would've made sense. He went to college to study literature, and they gotta do something to take up four years, so I guess they read like one book, a word at a time. I went to college to study computer languages, and there are no synonyms in computer language.

But he learned this stuff in high school! I feel pretty good about my rural North Carolina public education. Great math, science, and english teachers. We won't talk about history. Not a lot of elective choices, but we had a thriving vocational department. But I don't remember anyone teaching me how to read, or how to parse a book for subtext. When we read books, we talked about themes and symbols and relevance of literature to real life.

I wonder if that last one is really the hardest. How do you get the kids to care about books? Probably not by making them read a sentence at a time.

Josh admits that maybe he was one of the few to get this education from his high school. He was a very responsive student of literature. Maybe the teachers would've loved to teach how to really dig deep in some prose, but there was a test at the end of the year, and no one seemed all that interested. I didn't have a Josh in my class, so no one was raising their hand, asking about the possible differences between quadrupeds and varmints.

So I stopped grumbling about how no one taught me to read. Maybe they tried to teach it, but I didn't learn it. Sometimes that is ineffective teaching, but I can't say that I was always a completely engaged student. In many cases, I learned what I needed for as long as I needed to have the information, but after the test, it slipped out of my mind. The student has to be invested in the process, too.

And that continues on! Because if you stopped learning when there stopped being a teacher, you've done it wrong. You have to be your own teacher. I did not learn how to recognize character development, but I am learning now. I didn't learn how to parse each individual word of a sentence to find the subtext, but now that I know that writers are hiding things in there, I can. Maybe I should start with a short book for that.


doggie daycare.

I'm going to tell you about a crappy job.

Last year, when my brother-in-law moved back into town, he really, really needed a job. He was putting out applications right and left to whatever job would hire him. He ended up at a doggie daycare. In case you're not familiar, this is a place where people leave their dogs for the day so their pups can play with other canines rather than sleep on the futon all day or chew up the house.

The daycare is located in a strip mall. There is no outside where the dogs might frolic in the fresh air. Forget frolicking, the dogs don't even get to poop and pee outside. Where do they do it? Inside the doggie daycare. One of Trevor's responsibilities is to clean it up. There is a bucket in the middle of the room that is meant to work like a fire hydrant and draw the dogs to do their business in one spot of the room. Apparently, it doesn't work. They instead pee everywhere else, for instance on the wall or the crates or on the little tykes climbing castle. More things in the room is just more stuff to clean the pee off of. Trevor has a mop for these messes. He frequently has to change out the mop water, which involves putting all the dogs in their crates so he can leave the room, because if you leave the dogs unsupervised, they might just kill each other while you're gone.

This means that when Trevor needs his own break, he has to use the walkie-talkie to ask someone up front to come watch the dogs while he steps out. He has to ask for bathroom breaks. The dogs are able to just go whenever and wherever they like.

Now, anytime you get a few dogs together, not all of them will get along. There are some dogs that play fine with most others, but not quite all others. And so you have to rotate the dogs in and out of the crates that are in the room. Some dogs don't really get along with anybody. As much as Trevor would like to just lock these dogs up in the crates all day, the owners are bringing their dogs in specifically so they don't have to do that themselves. He could still do that, except that there are cameras in the room so that people can check in and see what a terrible job looks like their sweet pups all day. Trevor actually installed the cameras on his day off for extra cash.

Apparently, some people treat the daycare as more of a kennel, and leave their animals for weeks at a time. As a result, the dogs are woefully untrained. Very few of them even know "sit." Training them is out of the question, as cleaning and keeping the dogs from killing each other take up the whole day.

There are two rooms in the daycare - The Gym, for the big dogs, and the Romp Room for the little ones. Neither of them have windows. So picture being in one of two windowless rooms all day long. There are as many as twenty dogs all around you. Some of them are moments from biting each other. Many of them are barking for no reason at all. Also, there is poop and pee everywhere, all the time.

Every day, Trevor came home and ranted about this horrible job he was doing for $7.50 an hour. He said it was making him hate dogs. I tried to put on my best sympathetic face, but at some point it was just too funny. It was a comically bad job. I had no idea this job existed. I knew about doggie daycares, though I assumed they had outside space, rather than some poor sot performing the Sisyphian task of cleaning up their mess.

Trevor has found a new job. There are no dogs, and he can manage his own bathroom breaks.


moved in, finally.

Our office move is finally complete. We were told to have our cubes packed up into boxes before leaving work on a Wednesday. Then we were to work from home Thursday and Friday while the movers took our cubes and our boxes from one office space to another. By Monday, we'd be back to work as usual, just in a slightly different place.

It did not go that way. The main holdup seemed to be getting the proper permits, and then there was something about the stalls for the bathroom being delivered late. We ended up working from home for two weeks. Except for the sales department, who had to all sit together at a big table in the conference room in the old office.

That sounds particularly miserable, even moreso when compared to my day, which involved working in my pajamas, pausing occasionally to look at the birdies in the backyard or walk the dog. I did go a little stir crazy from not leaving the house all week long. I've never been so excited to go get groceries.

On the Friday we finally got back to our new office, we spent the day redecorating our cubes. They are bigger than our old ones, but still cubes. I hung up my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and my posters from Josh's band.

During the afternoon, we cleaned out the old office. I thought we'd done that already. We'd received a lot of emails about how we were supposed to be doing that, but there still seemed to be an awful lot of stuff lying around. In fact, the shipping warehouse area basically looked exactly the same. A dumpster was pulled up to the backdoor, and we were instructed to chuck basically everything in.

Oh, I hate waste. We threw away so much perfectly useful stuff. Chairs, lamps, whiteboards, CD cases. All the extra computers and monitors we piled into a corner to be hauled away. The cardboard boxes were loaded up and taken to a different dumpster that someone insisted was cardboard recycling, but I never actually saw a sign that said this. I scavenged bits and pieces - a table, some gift bags, heat lamps, a big roll of plastic sheeting, a bit of chain. I do not have specific plans for all these things. Most of it is still sitting in my new cube, where that slight bit of extra space is already paying off.

It was a sweaty day. Aside from my poor frugal heart breaking at the sight of the rapidly-filling dumpster, it was kind of fun. The men were having fun being destructive. We left a lot of metal furniture to be taken away for scrap, and they took turns heaving the pieces at each other to bust them up. I suppose then we can justify throwing it away, as it is now broken. I myself enjoyed chucking sleeves full of CD cases as far into the dumpster as I could. My poor frugal heart just looked away.


may 2014 books.

This is very, very late. I have excuses about leaving my flash drive with half of the text written on it at the office for a couple of weeks, but you're not interested in excuses. I'm not all that sure you're interested in the books either. Anyway, books.

Once on a Time
A.A. Milne
Did you know that A.A. Milne wrote novels? Me neither, until I found this one day.

This is a fairy story, in that it takes place in a far-off kingdom and there are dragons, princesses, and enchantments. In the introduction, Milne says he wrote it for adults, specifically for himself and his wife. He says that children prefer plot-heavy stories, while adults enjoy characters more. I have no idea if this is true. It seems my book club experiences would say otherwise.

In any case, the result is that the plot is mostly silliness. There is a war, but no actual fighting. A prince is turned into a bunny-sheep-lion-thing, but it's mostly just funny. A Countess embezzles tax money meant for an army that doesn't exist so that she can ride around on a horse and throw the money back to the people it came from. The war is ended when someone cuts off the king's moustache. At the end, there is a double wedding.

However, there is some character development. A princess grows into her role as ruler, and a king becomes a swineherd and is much happier. The book is rather morally ambiguous - there is a villain, and while part of her plans are thwarted, she mostly gets what she wants in the end. In fact, the narrator spends a lot of time defending her (he also spends a lot of time complaining about Roger Scurvilegs, who wrote the history books the narrator is pulling his story from). And the handsome prince, who is obnoxious and vain, goes home alone.

Anyway, it was fun.

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
This is not exactly a novel, but more like a bunch of stories that are loosely connected. I guess you could call them "Chronicles." Some of the stories were originally published in sci-fi magazines. I guess Bradbury decided one day that he had enough put together to make a proper book.

The stories deal with astronauts arriving on Mars, meeting the natives, and then colonizing Mars between the years of 1999-2026. I guess I'll just give everything away and tell you that the human race basically mucks it up again by killing most of the natives and then ruining the land by trying to turn it into another planet Earth. But fear not! Meanwhile, on Earth, humans continue to be terrible and there is a massive nuclear war, destroying pretty much everything. Most of the colonists return to their home planet.

If you ever feel cynical about mankind, then you might enjoy this book!

I generally do not care as much for short stories compared with longer fiction. I never feel all that involved and then, whoops! it's over. While there were some chapters that I forgot already (looking through the Wikipedia summary and only vaguely recalling something I read within the past week), some of them keep popping up in my mind again. I think my favorite was the story about what happened to the second expedition. There were four expeditions to Mars, and the first three basically disappeared without a trace. During the second, the astronauts approach the Martians and declare themselves Earthlings, only to be ignored. They are put in an asylum filled with Martians who think they are from Earth. But see, Martians are telepathic, and so if one is insane, he can project his delusions into your mind so you can see them. So the Martians just think that they have one crazy Martian whose delusions are so powerful he can change his appearance and also manifest very complicated visions of three other astronauts and a rocket ship. Good, good stuff.

The Magic Pudding: Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff
Norman Lindsay
You know, I buy a lot of books. And unless it is meant as a gift or perhaps a hardcover upgrade of a paperback favorite, then it goes into my to-read pile. My pile is not a pile at all, but a set of three shelves, alphabetized by author. When I finish a book, I go to my shelves and pick out a new one. Since there are so many, oftentimes I find a book that I have no recollection of acquiring. Sometimes I have no idea what struck me about the book enough to buy it. Other times, the book is instantly intriguing, and though I do not remember the moment specifically, I imagine that I was filled with wonder and excitement to find that not only does such a curious thing exist, it came to me in a shot of secondhand fate. I am able to imagine this moment so vividly, because I relive it right there, except this time it seems even more wonderful that this book not only exists, it has apparently been in my house for some time.

This book is a classic of Australian children's literature, but I enjoyed it, even though I am neither a child nor Australian. It is plot-driven, with very silly characters having very silly adventures, mostly focusing around their puddin', which is an anthropomorphic blob in a bowl that can be eaten and eaten and never run out. A sneaky wombat and possum keep trying to steal the magical puddin', and our heroes are forced to fight them to get it back.

It's really pretty funny and clever, in a completely nonsensical kind of way. There are lovely illustrations, and the story is frequently interrupted by songs and poems. When I was a kid and I read books with poems in them, I just skipped over them completely, like you would if you were reading a birthday card from a spinster aunt. Now that I am trying to develop my poetry bone, I made myself read the songs. In fact, I read them aloud, and I think that helped my enjoyment quite a bit, particularly since I do enjoy lyrical poetry when I hear it.

So, if Milne says that children prefer plot, rather than characters, this book fits that mold. Lindsay apparently wrote this book to settle an argument with a friend who said that children like stories about fairies. He said they liked stories about food and fighting much better.

A Fine Balance
Rohinton Mistry
Man, this was kind of a downer.

This book follows four people who were living miserable lives. They briefly come together, where they make a hodgepodge family for a while. And then circumstances break them up, and their lives suck once more.

The action takes place during Indira Gandhi's term as Prime Minister, specifically during the time known as the Emergency, when a state of emergency was declared across the country, and the PM basically ruled by decree. I know very little about the history of India, but this book does not paint a flattering portrait of the PM and her administration. Rampant corruption, forced sterilizations, demolition of the slums, and then carting off the newly homeless to a labor camp. So, yeah.

The title refers to the balances we all strive to strike in our lives. There were many examples, such as the one between hope and despair when your life is just truly awful. Since my life has never been truly awful, it was harder for me to relate to that (lucky me!). The one that struck me was in our dealings with other people - how to be kind and giving without being taken advantage of. Meanwhile, the other person is doing the same calculations from their own standpoint, and you don't know where they will decide their balance lies.

Overall, the book was okay. The character development was excellent, as each person was forced to reassess their ideas about others, specifically within the caste system. The first part of the book was spent introducing characters and then immediately reading their backstory, which made each one very sympathetic. So while you understand that this person is an antagonist in this other person's life, because you know both people's stories, you feel for both of them. You also feel sad that we just can't get along. And then you get really mad at the government, because they seem to be the antagonist in everyone's story. You want to go back to reading about fighting and food.