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Book Review: Diary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.07.43 PMDiary of an Expat in Singapore by Jennifer Gargiulo

Rating 1/5 stars

Since becoming an expat in 2010, I have enjoyed reading expat memoirs.  They’ve helped me feel less alone when I feel isolated.  Culture shock and confusion are a common experience, not something that makes me a “bad expat.”  Seeing them come to terms with and part of their new home culture is encouraging.  Considering that, “Diary of an Expat in Singapore,” by Jennifer Gargiulo should be a natural addition to my bookcase.  It isn’t.

We are both expat mothers of two children.  Neither of us expected to stay in Singapore long.  As I approach my 4th anniversary, Gargiulo is approaching her 7th.  We both write about our experiences in Singapore, but we do so in very different ways.

I was hoping for an exploration of the transition to expatriate, acclimation to Singapore, and the difficulties one can have reconciling your culture with that of Singapore’s.  I got oversimplified top ten lists and casual racism.

The racism was particularly problematic for me.  I learn that Swedes are most likely to be training for a triathelete (pg 21), Japanese stick together (pg 89), and that it’s surprising that there are so many skin whitening products on sale in Singapore since Singaporean kids are always inside studying (pg 91).  As the mother of half-Indian daughters and the wife of an Indian American, I was unamused to find out that she thinks

The Indian expat launches websites, compares ways to best store a sari in Singapore…[and] lengthy discussions on where to buy gold.” (pg 24)

and that everyone loves India except Indians because they want to get PR in Signapore(pg 157).  All of these are brushed off as “humor” and “political incorrectness.”  They’re not—they are white privilege at its worst—and blatantly racist.

It takes white privilege to be blissfully unaware that many apartment vacancies specifically say “no Indians.”  Gargiulo is blissfully unaware that my biracial family is carefully billed as “American” when we’ve apartment hunted because our agent would never have gotten to American if she had started with Indian.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.41.53 PMScreen shot from Property Guru in a Wall Street Journal article about discrimination in the Singapore housing market

White privilege and class privilege combine to take potshots at a certain type of expatriate—the foreign domestic worker (FDW–aka maid/helper).

For example, revealing one’s maid’s nickname is Slow Mo (as in slow motion) because she washes salad so slowly she gets to know the leaves on a first-name basis” (pg 38).

Here, even the maids have maids. Seriously.” (pg 59)

How domestic workers manage to have not only better phones than the rest of the population but better phone plans as well. They must be working for SingTel. This is the only possible explanation for the amount of time cleaners spend talking on the phone.” (pg 179)

From the descriptions, you would think that FDW’s have it made here.  The truth is that they work for pennies (the average salary range is 400-600 sgd a month), that many are on call 24 hours a day, and that the government isn’t particularly interested in their rights.  An FDW must get a pregnancy and AIDS screening twice a year, and will be sent home if she tests positive for either (Gargiulo and myself have access to hormonal birth control and abortion by contrast).  An FDW may not marry a Singaporean.  An FDW may be fired and deported without cause.

None of these rules apply to an expat like Gargiulo or myself because we’re wealthy enough to be the employer as opposed to the employee.

The complex dance of cross-cultural expectations and understandings are missing, as is the awkwardness of having a stranger live inside your home.  The only thing she discusses about cultural issues is what nationality of maid you might hire

Filipina, Indonesian, or from Myanmar (in other words: speaks English, acts like she speaks English, or really has no idea what you are saying) (pg 38) 

Construction workers are another invisible expat.  In fact, she doesn’t mention them directly at all, rather she only discusses that construction noise inconveniences her (pg. 7) without any thought to the men who work at that site.  She’s thrilled to share that “unemployed immigrants are nonexistent” (pg 65) but doesn’t seem to know or care about the construction workers who get hurt on the job and are summarily fired and deported without compensation.  Although the book was published in late 2013, late enough to include jokes about the hazardous haze in June of that year, there is no mention that construction workers had to continue working outside when the PSI was over 400 (hazardous).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.02 PMNo Haze (pic of myself and a friend)

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.45.07 PMHaze PSI of 300+ (hazardous) taken by my husband from his work window

There is also no mention of how over 150 bus drivers went on strike in 2012.  Four drivers were jailed and then deported, 29 were deported without jail time, and 150 others were given notices by the police—most of them expatriate foreign workers from the People’s Republic of China.

For Gargiulo, expats aren’t maids, construction workers, or bus drivers.  They’re Wealthy, White, and Western (except for the occasional reference to Japanese, Koreans and Indians—the presumption is that they are white).  They have non-black hair.  Expat children go to international schools.  Expat husbands work all the time, and travel even more.

There is nothing the expat spouse likes less than having the working spouse out of town on the weekend. During the week, it’s fine, almost routine. Early dinners with the kids, late-night snacks in front of the TV, no fighting over the remote… but Sunday, that’s another story. (pg 11)

Let’s not joke about solo control of the remote, Jennifer.  Instead, let’s have an honest discussion about how isolating it can be to be the trailing spouse and the effect that can have on a relationship.  Expats have a higher than average divorce rate, and according to my husband’s company the trailing spouse is the most frequent reason an expat employee will leave Singapore.  We spouses (most often wives) are the ones who interact with Singapore the most—we grocery shop, we need to figure out how to get the kids to school, where to send them for a doctor’s appointment, and so forth.  We argue with the building management, with our agent to get whatever’s broken fixed, and more.  Our spouses go to work and come home.  It creates an odd, potentially new, power balance in a marriage, and it is one of the hardest parts of moving to a new country.

Expat spouses are the ones who interact with Singapore, and thus Singaporeans more than our working spouses (who often are in an office full of other expats.)  To Garguiulo, this is like interacting with an alien species.

Singaporeans are obsessed with school; “If you do meet a mom, she is very likely carrying a heavy textbook to brush up on her math before tutoring her child. If it is the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) time of year, you won’t see her for weeks.” (pg 25) 

Singaporean English—legitimate dialect of English, just like American English–is mocked; “Had I not moved to Singapore, I might never have known that the word off can be used as a verb: “Would you like me to off the air con?” (p. 63) 

The customs are weird; “It’s only 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outside… who wouldn’t want a refreshing cup of hot water?” (p. 74) 

Singaporeans are such a puzzle to Garguiulo, who wonders “Why there are so many different types of skin-whitening products at shops in Singapore is a complete mystery to me.…They can thank their kids’ exams for their unblemished skin.”  (p. 91)

As someone who doesn’t live in the expat bubble I’m frustrated by these characterizations.  If Gargiulo made friends with Singaporean moms instead of mocking them, she’d learn about the Singaporean school system.  The PSLE exam determines the rest of the child’s life–what secondary school they can get into, the likelihood of their doing well on O level exams (british system), what Junior College they are eligible for and what A levels they’re likely to have access to, and then what universities the child is eligible to attend.  If you flub the PSLE, there’s no fixing it.  Further, she talks about how some Singaporeans moved into a condo because of schools–yes, they did move there because of the rules about who gets priority to apply into a primary school and those rules are incredibly complex (something I’m dealing with this year).

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 6.47.01 PMRhi’s birthday celebration last year at her school.  She is one of only a few non Singaporean Chinese children.

It’s not that you shouldn’t point out cultural differences or share that you’re baffled by something.  But there’s a difference between doing that and belittling–and too frequently it feels like the latter, not the former.

Living in Singapore, and interacting with Singaporeans (when you can find them, apparently) have an effect our your children.  Sure you wanted them to have an experience and learn Mandarin, but then they cross that line and become too Singaporean.

“When someone asks the kids where they’re from, they answer Singapore” (pg 48),

The kids’ preference for rice over pasta. (pg 50)

The answer to “What sign are you?” is not Sagittarius. It’s Snake (pg 56). 

Rather than discuss the very real ambivalence and concern over whether you’re giving a child “enough” access to their home culture, Garguiulo jokes that they’ve been in Singapore too long because “When asked how they are in Italian, they answer in Chinese” (pg 56).

Raising a third culture kid is hard, so let’s talk about what makes it hard.  I struggle with my children’s identity-my elder will tell you “I’m a little bit Indian, a little bit American, and a little bit Singaporean,” which is a step in the right direction–when she was three she insisted she was Singaporean.

IMG_1882E at the Natural History Museum in NYC, an hour before I flubbed her intro to US History

I’ve barely introduced the idea of the US and American history to Elanor (5).  We went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC, and when walking through the “Plains Indians” exhibit, I tried to explain early colonization–and as a historian I’m not willing to lie about the realities of European/Native interaction.  We have also read age appropriate books about Martin Luther King for Martin Luther King Day.  Elanor’s takeaway from these two pieces of history is that White People are mean–which shows how far over her head my explanations went.  Yes, but….  It’s really hard to introduce her to American History and culture when we’re so divorced from it (and given that I’m not a particularly flag waving type to begin with).

It’s a really touchy subject with me when I get crap from other Americans about sending my kids to local schools because they won’t be “American.”  While I do have the fury of a thousand suns over that, it’s also true that I have some ambivalence and worry over it too.

Sure, I laughed at some of her observations and jokes.  But that doesn’t mean I think that they balanced out the racism and cheap stereotypes.  Being an expat is hard, and I prefer a far more honest and contemplative narrative.  Without serious content to balance the jokes, and a removal of the racism, this just isn’t my kind of book.  I wasn’t familiar with her blog going in–if I were, I probably would’ve passed on the book.

Book Review: Feed by Mira Grant

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 8.03.53 PMFeed by Mira Grant

Rating 4/5 stars

I have a weakness for dystopian YA fiction,and have since I read Pretties by Scott Westerfeld.  I have a new fondness for zombies thanks to The Walking Dead.  Dystopian YA Fiction WITH Zombies?  YES PLEASE!

Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot–in this case, my brother Shaun–deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.  As if we didn’t already know what happens when you mess with a zombie: The zombie turns around and bites you, and you become the thing you poked.  This isn’t a surprise.  It hasn’t been a surprise for more than twenty years, and if you want to be technical, it wasn’t a surprise then.

When the infected first appeared–heralded by screams that the dead were rising and judgment day was at hand–they behaved just like the horror movies had been telling us for decades that they would behave.  The only surprise was that this time it was really happening.

There was no warning before the outbreaks began.  One day, things were normal; the next, people who were supposedly dead were getting up and attacking anything that came into range.  This was upsetting for everyone involved, except for the infected, who were past being upset about that sort of thing.  The initial shock was followed by running and screaming, which eventually devolved into more infection and attacking , that being the way of things.  So what do we have now, in this enlightened age twenty-six years after the Rising?  We have idiots prodding zombies with sticks, which brings us full circle to my brother and why he probably won’t live a long and fulfilling life.

This has to be one of the better openings to a book I’ve run into recently.  I knew I probably wasn’t going to put my phone down until I was done with the book, if it lived up to those first few paragraphs.  It did, and I cheerfully spent the next week or so devouring all 3 “Newsflesh” novels and the 3 Newsflesh Novellas.

George (Georgia) Mason is our main narrator.  She’s a newsie (non fiction news and op/ed piece blogger).  Along with her brother Shaun Mason, an Irwin (named after the croc hunter Steve Irwin)-a blogger who takes risks for blog hits and ratings, and their friend Buffy (Fiction and all things Tech), they run the website After the End Times.  Buffy is actually Georgette (all derivations on George became the most popular names post zombies, in honor of George Romero, whose zombie movies were suddenly like instruction manuals) but in her own words “I’m cute, blonde, and living in a world of zombies.  What do you think I should call myself?”  She’s a Joss Whedon fangirl, and sighs that no one seems to get it.  (Side note, one of the Newsflesh novellas takes place at Comicon 2014 and features a booth of browncoats–referencing the fans of Whedon’s Firefly–Grant is obviously a fellow Whedonite.)

The zombie apocalypse began in 2014 (yay, something to look forward to this year!).  Two viruses (the cure for the common cold and the cure for cancer) combine and infect the world with what becomes known as Kellis-Amberlee. No one gets cancer, no one gets a cold, but everyone turns into a zombie after death.  While the trope of “we were trying to cure cancer and made monsters” is an old one, Newsflesh does it well.  I like the competing viruses setup, and over time we learn more and more about them and how we got from cures to zombies.  Grant is a student of virology and her knowledge shows in the material…and her spin on the trope comes off as plausible.

Zombies, however, aren’t the only danger in a post-Rising world.  The US (where the book is set) has reacted with what feels like a very realistic set of  “safety measures.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 9.29.42 PMsource

Some of the ways the US has given itself over to fear include…..

  • Lots of places have blood tests at the entryway.  All blood tests are rigged to send an automatic signal to the CDC if they come up positive, so that you can be rounded up/shot before you finish amplifying and go on a little terror spree.
  • Public schools require 3 blood tests per day.
  • The government has declared certain towns and the state of Alaska lost.  They are impossible to secure, so you don’t go there (or need permits to go there and understand you’re not likely to make it out alive).
  • There is a law-The Biological Mass Pet Ownership Restrictions–currently under debate to outlaw animals over 40 pounds (the minimum before you can be turned into a zombie–so horses, cows, moose, etc can become zombies, but the average housecat or chicken can’t).
  • Lots of houses have voice prints.  The Mason’s also requires that you read a non sequitor sentence on a pad to prove you still have higher cognitive function.  If you fail, the house’s system will incinerate you.
  • Clothes are washed in industrial grade bleach.  People are also hosed off with bleach.  George is contrary in that rather than accept the inevitable blonde hair due to the bleach, she keeps dyeing it brown.
  • The country is divided into biohazard zones.  Rules are different in each of thezones.
  • Apple has branched out into blood tests, and makes the most expensive/high end ones–because of course they have.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 8.57.05 PMGeorge Cosplay suggestions by Shaylabauwf

George and Shaun are the adopted children of the Masons–originally a Berkley professor and his wife–who lost their child in the early days of the outbreak.  They were some of the earliest blog star to come out of the Rising.  Everything they’ve done since then, including adopting George and Shaun has been done with an eye toward ratings.

Numbers slipping?  Go for a field trip to a zoo.  That’ll get you right back to the top.

After the End Times is chosen to join with the Ryman Presidential Campaign as bloggers.  They’ll be trailblazing as bloggers haven’t ever been invited to be part of the process before..  Although bloggers have become the more reliable media post-rising, official things like campaigns have used the traditional print and video mediums.  Ryman (who comes off in the spirit of all young presidential hopefuls–the JFK/Obama/Clintons) has decided to invite them along as sponsored media.

Since the blogs and website are such an important part of the book, we see Grant talking about  things like blog comments, traffic, editing in a way that feels authentic to the characters and part of the narrative, rather than expository blather.  This is a refreshing change from authors who info dump in the most boring way possible.

Peter Ryman comes off as smooth.

Shaun settled with his back to the wall, affording him the best view of the room.  He may seem like an idiot, but in some ways, he’s the most careful of us all.  You can’t be an Irwin and not learn somet things about keeping your exits open.  If the zombies ever mob en masse again, he’ll be ready.  And filming.

Buffy took the seat nearest the light, where the cameras studded through her jewelry would get the best pickup shots.  her portables work on the principles defined during the big pre-Rising wireless boom; they transmit data to the server on a constant basis, allowing her to come back and later and edit at her leisure.  I once tried to figure out how many transmitter she actually had on her ,but wound up giving up and wandering to do something more productive like answering Shaun’s fan mail.

……

–His tone easy and assured “I’m not going to beat around the bush.  I read your public reports, you op-ed pieces, everything before I agreed to your application.  I know you’re smart and won’t forgive bullshit.  That doesn’t,” he held up a finger, “mean I’m going to be one hundred percent straight with you, because there are some things no reporter ever gets to be privy to.  Mostly having to do with my home life and my family, but still, there are no-go zones.”

The first major campaign covered is an event in a civic center, where Georgia notes that the press outnumber the public two to one because the public doesn’t really like things like political rallies with a bunch of strangers anymore.  Or being anywhere with a large group of people.  We see some of the various segments of the population like the woman who asks him about the Rapture–the zombie outbreak has inspired some to religious fanaticism.  Another asks about the death penalty (especially given that that death penalty is a little different post zombies).  Another brings up public health-because again, this is a different level of priority post-zombies.  And so forth.

However, we see exactly why the public is scared of this sort of event when a zombie outbreak happens post meeting.  None of the alarm systems function correctly, and George is almost taken out among others.  It’s the first in a series of sketchy events that eventually mean our intrepid reporters have a conspiracy to report upon….

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 9.43.55 PMMira Grant’s author picture, which is one of the better I’ve seen.

If you like your books smart, skeptical of the government, and full of zombies, you’ll enjoy Feed and the rest of the Newflesh books….

Snarking Nostalgic–The Baby-sitters Club #1 Kristy’s Great Idea Chapters 1-3

My name is Crystal.  You would think that I went by Kristy in middle and high school because it’s a natural nickname, yes?  You would be WRONG.

I loved The Baby-sitters Club.  I wanted to be a member of The Baby-sitters Club.  I tried to start a Baby-sitters Club in Lisbon Falls Maine when I was in the 7th grade.  I read them from when they first came out (I was 7, a few months away from turning 8) and bought each new one (roughly every other month) as soon as I got my allowance until middle school (and even occasionally in high school I’d pick one up at the library and skim it).  I watched the tv show.  Even though I’d long since stopped reading the books, and even though I was in high school, I will totally admit to seeing the movie.  When I became an elementary/middle school teacher, I started rebuying the books FOR MY CLASSROOM.

I’ve uncovered a great deal of nostalgia for these books among my peers, so when I decided to start the blog, I was thrilled for the excuse to reread and snark them.  I snark with love, friends–I’m still a total fangirl.  So let’s drop what we’re doing, put on our nostalgia goggles, and pretend it’s Monday, Wednesday or Friday at 5:30pm.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.54.50 PMKristy’s Great Idea

Original Publication Date-August 1986

One of the books we know for sure was written by Martin (after book 36, many were ghostwritten)

Chapter 1

The Baby-sitter Club.  I’m proud to say it was totally my idea, even though the four of us worked it out together

Kristy tells us that she got the idea the first Tuesday afternoon of seventh grade. The BSC girls spend books 1-10 (roughly two years) in 7th grade.  They will then spend the rest of the series (aka the next the TWELVE YEARS) in 8th grade.

But before we can learn about how she got the idea for the BSC, we get to hear about her getting into trouble in class, establishing that she’s impulsive and a bit thoughtless.  She gets a hundred word essay on “decorum” because she punched out Alan Gray cheered the end of the school day.  I can totally picture that middle school teacher cracking open a beer and tossing the essay off to the side, smug that a point had been made–let’s see if I let you brats make fans during class time again (except I totally will because it’s too damn hot to teach right now).  Kristy is a REBEL, yo.

“-I can’t keep my mouth shut, and Mary Anne is very quiet and very shy”

We next meet Mary Anne, whose personality (until she manages to land the new resident hunk Logan Bruno in book 10) is that she has braids and is quiet.  She is the anti-Kristy–aka the nice one.  Although, seriously, from a 2014 perspective, only in the late 80’s would a father who let his 12 year old daughter go babysit at stranger’s houses be described as “overprotective.”  Today he’d be wildly permissive, no matter her hairstyle.  Oh, and her mom is dead.  Dead. Dead. Dead.

I pulled her hand out of her mouth and looked at her nails. “Mary Anne!  How do you ever expect to be able to wear nail polish if you keep doing that?”

I’m sorry, Kristy Thomas, but have you met Kristy Thomas–aka the LAST human being on the planet who would give a shit about wearing polish? By the end of the series, this is a woman who would need a significant bribe–like World Series tickets to give a rat’s ass about nail polish.

OH NOES! It’s Tuesday, and Kristy tells us that it’s her day to watch David Michael.  Apparently in Stoneybrook, the elementary school gets out way earlier than the middle or high schools and thus DM’s beating everyone home is a thing that happens.  So K and MA rush to Kristy’s house and there is DM on the stoop having a meltdown.  As they run we get exposition that Charlie (16) and Sam (14) and Kristy (12) each take a day with DM and that Kathy–a 15 year old girl from down the block watches DM the other two days a week.  (We’ll get to you in a moment, Kathy.)

We now get to some exposition about Claudi from across the street.  She’s really into art and junk food.  She’s also way too cool for Kristy and Mary Anne, as evidenced by the fact that they haven’t been hanging out enough and that she’s started to get into boys, the harlot.  Throwaway line about Mr. Kishi being serious about homework because Asian Stereotypes for the win!

In the five minutes it takes for David Michael to have peed and them to have given him some lemonade, Charlie and Sam show up.  They are obviously trustworthy, as they invite Kristy to come along with them to play ball in the Hanson’s yard–forgetting that she’s in charge of David Michael.  I don’t know why DM is getting so upset about the stoop–clearly given the boys level of commitment to their little brother, being forgotten is probably pretty common.

Their mom gets home with a pizza bribe because Kathy has canceled and she needs a sitter.  Charlie, Sam, Kristy, Mary Anne and Claudia are all busy.  Two other high school girls have cheerleading practice (because of course they do) and then she’s out.  She has run through every last teenager in Stoneybrook.  There are no stay at home moms she knows. David Michael has no friends whose moms she can call to set up a playdate with in exchange for a playdate down the road?

Kristy gets the idea of The Baby-sitters club.  The rest (and apparently Kathy) are history.  Which begs the question–what happened to Kathy?  We all know Kristy is way strict–did she take out a hit on Kathy?

Miss one day of your sitting job once and you lose it forever?  Way harsh, Mrs. Thomas.

Also–I can barely remember the time when this is a plausible story line, given technology.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 7.44.46 PM

Chapter 2

We all get to learn what decorum is.  Thanks for that, Kristy.

Exposition about how the club will work.  I kind of get the feeling that Martin decided phone in this part of the chapter with her own notes about plot points.  According to Wikipedia, the BSC was originally going to be a 4 book quartet, and was inspired because a scholastic editor noticed that girls liked this one book about baby-sitting so we should publish some more books about baby-sitting.

Kristy’s mom knocks at the door.  Blah blah blah working mom guilt, blah blah blah her parents are divorced and her dad didn’t even acknowledge her last birthday.  Kristy has to fess up about getting in trouble and her assignment and her mom finds it all pretty funny.

I asked her if she thought The End could count as the ninety-ninth and one-hundreth words, and she smiled and said she hoped so

Mrs. Thomas totally knows that the teacher isn’t going to read that essay.

9PM–flashlight time.  Kristy and Mary Anne have this whole Flashlight morse code thing they do since their bedroom windows face each other.  I’m dying to know what it was like since it was so advanced Kristy could signal her whole idea in under four hours.  I like that MA responds back “WHAT?” instead of another two paragraphs.  The idea is cool, but let’s try to keep it to the realistic fiction genre.

Mrs. Thomas is back–maybe she saw all the flashing and thought that a UFO was landing in the backyard?  Nope, turns out she’d just chickened out last time and needs to tell Kristy that she’s going out with Watson again on Saturday night.  Kristy cops major attitude (UGH he’s BALDING).  Mrs. Thomas eyerolls before getting to the point–could Kristy please baby-sit Watson’s kids on Saturday morning because it’s his weekend to have the kids?  Because that will TOTALLY endear him to Kristy.

Kristy says no, because UGH, Baby-sitting.

Great plan, Mrs. Thomas.  Maybe you should call Kathy, unless she’s already been executed for missing that ONE DAY of baby-sitting?

The chapter ends with Kristy pouting over being asked to baby-sit Karen and Andrew and then getting excited about her Baby-sitters Club idea.  BECAUSE OF COURSE she’s thrilled to start a baby-sitting club after turning down a baby-sitting job out of spite.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 7.45.15 PM

Chapter 3

Kristy hands in her decorum essay.  Can this please be the end of this stupid subplot?

I handed it to him before school, so he wouldn’t have to read it while the entire class was hanging around.  He didn’t count the words, just skimmed it, looked up at me, and said ‘This is fine, Kristy.  Fine work.  You express yourself very nicely on paper.”

Allow me to decode that for you, Kristy.  “I’m never reading this.  You did it. Yay for you.”

After school MA and K are talking.  Kristy wants to know how many of the 8 Pike kids MA is going to baby-sit for and they both seem relieved there will only be two.  I really hope you guys charged the Pikes per kid. Kristy is baby-sitting Jamie Newton and her brother.  They immediately plan to get the four kids together so they can talk.  You guys have the survival instincts of stay-at-home moms, ladies, and as a stay-at-home mom who has planned many a play date so I could hang out with a friend I salute you.

Kristy and David Michael are at the Newton’s door exactly at 3:30 and she tells us she’s NEVER BEEN LATE for a baby-sitting job.  You just know she’s dangling Kathy over a pit of vipers for daring to cancel on her mom.  It occurs to me that Kristy could grow up and become Sheryl Sandberg, lecturing all the other moms about how they’re not leaning in enough.

Jamie (3) and David Michael (6) bond over GI Joes and the moms of 25 years in the future have collective heart failure over the boys playing with branded violent action figures and start a collection to time travel backwards and hand out waldorf toys to the children of Stoneybrook.

Mrs. Newton shares that it’s 8 weeks until the new baby comes.  Kristy says she can’t wait and Mrs. Newton gives her the stink-eye.

Mrs. Newton leaves and Kristy calls MA to give her the all-clear and come over.  Because asking permission is lame.  Thank god she’s not planning on starting a professional baby-sitting service.  Oh, wait…..

Kristy and Mary Anne are sitting and talking about starting their TOTALLY PROFESSIONAL baby-sitting business when they hear a scream and look up and see that Jamie had fallen.  He’s totally being three about it, but MA grabs the girls and makes a hasty exit.  They plan to go over and see Claudia after the baby-sitting is over.

Kristy exposits about how Claudia is growing up faster.  DUDES, SHE’S WEARING A BRA!!!!  Slut  Kristy is disgusted because the boys in their grade are gross-what the fuck is WRONG with Claudia?

After that glowing recommendation, Kristy rings Claudia’s doorbell and we are treated to the first of a million descriptions of Claudia’s outfits

She was wearing short, very baggy lavender plaid overalls, a white lacy blouse, a black fedora, and red high-top sneakers without socks.  Her long black hair was carefully arranged in four braids.  I felt extremely blah compared to her

Don’t we all, Kristy.  Don’t we all.

But then—-

I was so used to seeing Claudia in outfits like that that I didn’t bat an eye.  What I did notice was that she was wearing makeup.  There was blue stuff on her eyelids, gold stuff about her eyes, and magenta stuff on her cheeks.

Weren’t you worried about Mary Anne’s access to nail polish in chapter 1, Kristy?

Kristy calls Claudia a tramp clown (no, really–a clown) and for reasons beyond understanding Claudia lets her in instead of slamming the door in Kristy’s face.

We get exposition about how Claudia is Japanese, her parents immigrated as kids (if not read carefully it sounds like they came over together), her parents are conservative and don’t understand her (and she babysits to get her crazy clothes because her parents won’t buy that stuff for her).  Claudia’s grandmother lives with them.  Janine is Claudia’s 15 year old genius older sister who takes college classes (HI ASIAN STEREOTYPES).  Martin then gives us Janine’s IQ–196, and indulges in some nerd bashing about how Janine’s a grammar nazi, her bff is a 14 year old math genius and her other bff is her computer–NERD.

Side note–if Claudia’s makeup, jewelery, art supplies and junk food are all paid for with baby-sitting money, she must baby-sit way more or charge way more than anyone else in Stoneybrook.

Mary Anne shows up and Kristy explains her whole “baby-sitters club” idea.

Claudia, seeing dollar signs, offers her room for meetings since she has her OWN PHONE LINE.  She is so much cooler than all of us.

Claudia also knows someone who could join the club–this new girl Stacey McGill.  She just moved here from NEW YORK CITY (new game–every time the BSC tells us Stacey is from NEW YORK CITY, we all put a piece of hay between our teeth, make our eyes really big and say in our most hickified voice NOO YAWK SEETEE?).

They agree to all meet the next day at 530 for the first meeting of the baby-sitters club.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 7.50.43 PMSource-Halloween Costume Idea (GUYS WE NEED TO DO THIS)

And our lives would never be the same again….

Part 2  (chapters 4-8) is here.

Book Review–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

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Magic’s Pawn   by Mercedes Lackey

Rating 5/5 stars

It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically.  There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you.  Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.

Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books.  YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section.  My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money).  There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis.  One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.

In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon.  After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next.  Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.

Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay.  Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing.  I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me.  I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.

Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met.  Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was.  After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine.  When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals.  And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.

Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author.  She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor.  These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it.  That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later.  Someday I will give you my full rant about which books are good, which are okay, and which flat out need to be burned.

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Picture Credit-Drunkfu on DeviantArt

Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard.  Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him.  He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.”  Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”

Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.

When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse.  Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal.  He’s so hurt that he decides

It was so simple–just don’t give a damn.  Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.

But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.

Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.)  His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard.  He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir.  Vanyel is left without hope for the future.

Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences.  It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible.  Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…

“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.”  She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip.  “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”

Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment.  When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor.  It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.

“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger.  “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”

“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice.  “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”

“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could.  “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months.  Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do.  I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple.  Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact.  There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted.  They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold.  And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”

Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence.  The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.”  It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging.  Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.

While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel.  More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family.  Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side.  Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but.  When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.

—and that’s just the first half of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.10.08 PMMercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)

The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters.  These are complex characters.  Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk.  He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea.  He is self-centered and arrogant.  He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring.  Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does.  Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough.  Characters are imperfect and they screw up.

Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful.  The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing.  Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.

If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.

In defense of the E-Reader

I’ve always been the kind of person who starts to panic without a book or three on their person at all times.  The problem with the volume and speed with which I read is that my bedrooms/apartments have been in danger of the books staging a take over since I was a kid.  I used the library more when I was young, but as an adult I fell into bad return habits, at which point it was often cheaper just to buy the book.  The advent of Amazon was VERY bad for my budget because I was no longer restricted to the books available in nearby brick and mortar stores.

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One of the bookcases in my house.

While I am often an early adopter of technology, I was a bit skeptical of e-readers and the Kindle app.  But two events happened that were key in my conversion from skeptic to devotee.

The first was purchasing a smart phone; the second was the birth of my elder daughter.  While it is easy to do a lot of things while holding a book in one hand, I began to discover that baby care wasn’t necessarily one of them.  Holding a phone, though, was much more manageable.  I began to read the occasional book on my phone.

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In 2010 our family moved from the US to Singapore (read my expat blog here).  The issue with an international move is that there is only so much space to pack your belongings, and there’s always the fear that a move away from your new home may have to happen on your own dime–which would mean abandoning the majority of your possessions.  When it came to furniture, we opted to buy Ikea-no great loss if abandoned.  When it came to books, we brought far too many, but we also brought Kindles.  At that point, neither of us used the kindles very much–it was another electronic you had to carry around with you–and a fairly fragile one at that.  The 2o10 Kindle was huge-it didn’t fit easily into my purse.  Having to take it out of my bag, unzip the giant case, turn it on and find the book was time consuming when compared with pulling a book out of my bag.

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While the physical kindle was a waste of money, I did start using the app on my phone.  I switched from iPhone to Android during the summer when apple and amazon were fighting, and it was up for grabs if ios would even support the kindle app in the future (I want to say 2011).  I even upgraded the size of my phone to get a compromise between a larger screen and something I could still hold in my hand.   At the time of this post, I use a Samsung Galaxy S4, although I’m planning to upgrade my phone soon, once the S5 is out.

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So why use an e-reader?

  • Space in your house.  Space is at a premium in our household.  Something had to give, and the adult’s books were the easy choice.  We have several hundred kid’s books, so room had to be made.  We can also only fit so many bookcases into our house, before it became out of hand.
  • Price.  E books have hit a point where they are as or more cheap than their physical counterparts in the US.  Living abroad, they are significantly cheaper.
  • Capacity.  Just sitting on my phone, I have over 100 books, which means if my current to read (or reads–I usually have several going) isn’t working, I can go reread an old friend.  For someone who devours books at the pace I do (I logged 100 books on goodreads last year, but it was probably just north of that as I sometimes forget to log books there-so I average roughly two books a week), having a large number of books on standby is reassuring.  For example, the entire Harry Potter series take up over 4,000 pages–hard to fit in your bag.
  • Ease of reading.  I generally have my phone in my hand or next to me.  This means I can sneak in a few pages of reading while waiting for an elevator, waiting for my elder daughter to get released from school, waiting in line at the grocery store and so forth.  I wouldn’t get through as many books without that.

Sure I love the feel of a physical book, and I do have those books I’m unwilling to part with.  I have books that just aren’t available on kindle or other e-reader formats.  I have autographed books, which you can pry from my cold, dead fingers (I waited hours to get Maya Angelou’s signature in college).  Then there are those that I’m keeping for sentimental reasons.

The transition can be rough–but once you get used to it, it’s surprising how much you may like it.

Introduction

Hello fellow bookworms.

There is nothing better than a good book.  I learned this at a young age, and a full blown addiction was born–one I’ve never recovered from.  Now that I’m a mom of two, I’m excited to be passing along the obsession to the next generation.

Be Quiet! Mommy’s Reading will be a mixture of book reviews (anything I like, regardless of genre), reading commentary (I hope to snark some kid’s books like early Baby-Sitter’s Club books), book v movie comparisons (warning-I almost always like the book better) and really anything that I think will be fun or interesting and relates to reading.

You’re welcome to add me if you’re also on Goodreads.