Wednesday, June 24, 2015

‘Oh, Yeah, Audrey!’ (Book Review)

Last year must have been a big year for Audrey Hepburn fans because Oh, Yeah, Audrey! A Novel (Amulet Books/Abrams, 2014) by Tucker Shaw is the second teen novel inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and written by a man) that I’ve read that was published in 2014. At its bare bones, I liked the book. SPOILER ALERT! Teenaged Gemma, obsessed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, meets up in New York City with other fans she’s met online. Their goal is to complete a walking tour of places associated with the book and movie and finish up with a movie screening, all in honor of some anniversary. Blinded by her love and admiration for Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn), Gemma refuses to see the character for what she is: a prostitute. Gemma is convinced that the men in the book just liked handing over money for the sheer privilege of being in Holly’s company.

The meetup and tour get started, but Gemma quickly finds herself swept off her feet by one of the guys she met online. So much so that she abandons the rest of her friends and the tour. And who wouldn’t? Dusty is filthy rich and well-connected. He buys Gemma a vintage evening dress (previously owned by Hepburn herself). He takes Gemma to an exclusive art gallery opening, an overbooked classy restaurant, and an underground music venue. Gemma is infatuated with him but unaware that Dusty doesn’t share her feelings. He just considers it all advance payment for the services she’s expected to render at the end of their evening.

With this storyline, I think Oh, Yeah, Audrey had a lot of promise. However, when it comes to the execution, I would’ve preferred more. The book got a really, really slow start. And I mean really. Over 100 pages in (out of 243 pages total), I still didn’t know the plot. The author could’ve speeded things up by jumping right into the action, revealing the necessary background information as each character was introduced rather than placing so much at the beginning.

The characters didn’t need so much introduction anyway. They were rather cookie-cutter, even for Young Adult Fiction. It’s far-fetched enough to have one rich guy spending money like water on the heroine, but to be honest, two is a bit ridiculous. The book also fed off of some particularly annoying stereotypes: all Californians are rich, all Asian men are gay, and all gays are fashionable. All this wrapped up into one dreadful character, or should I say caricature. Or maybe it’s brilliant parody of Mickey Rooney’s dreadful portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. I can’t tell. At any rate, it does raise the question of why a Japanese-American would be so in-love with the whole Breakfast at Tiffany’s craze.

As for improving the main plot: I would’ve liked to have seen Gemma come into conflict with Holly Golightly’s other unseemly characteristics, not just her escort service. It seemed as if Shaw’s heroine had read a rose-colored version of Truman Capote’s short-story, free of theft, racism, and slander. The subplots also could’ve benefited from further development. I don’t think Shaw got his money’s worth out of them. Gemma and her friends come to terms with their sort-of-enemy way too early in the course of the story. Gemma’s parental issues seem relegated to needless filler. I also think that the significance of the heroine abandoning the walking tour for a date is lost when the reader considers that she and her friends together had abandoned it to go shopping and checkout the Hepburn dress auction beforehand.

I guess in the end I have to admit disappointment. Oh, Yeah, Audrey had not just an entertaining story to tell, but also an important lesson about how na├»ve young people can end up in trouble. I really wish the book had been a draft, not the finished product. Some teen girls will probably like it, but I think it ended up as merely a shadow of what it could’ve been. If asked, I’d have to recommend Being Audrey Hepburn by Mitchell Kriegman instead.

Monday, June 22, 2015

‘Going Clear’ (Book Review)

After reading insider Jenna Miscavige Hill’s tell-all memoir Beyond Belief about her growing up in the Church of Scientology, I thought it would be a good idea to read something that would give me a slightly more objective view about L. Ron Hubbard and his religious creation. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013) was just the thing.

In this book, author Lawrence Wright pulls together material from considerable research and numerous personal interviews to tell story of one of the newest and one of the most controversial religions around today. He starts off with Hubbard’s early life and goes into his wobbly career with the U.S. Navy, his involvement with the Occult, and his stormy relationships with his wives (both official and common) and children. This helps the reader really put Hubbard’s science fiction writing, development of Dianetics, and founding of Scientology into a larger perspective.

While at first, Going Clear might appear as a Hubbard biography, later on the book shifts focus, discussing the suspicious take-over by David Miscavige, the church’s turbulent relationship with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, charges of abuse, and other scandals and lawsuits. Wright fills his narrative with testimonies of members past and present, both famous and not-so-much, providing a variety of perspectives about Scientology, its legitimacy, and where it’s headed.

As the work of a previous Pulitzer Prize winner, I wish the book had been a smoother read. It seemed to jump from here to there at times, probably because there was so much information and so many people to discuss. It made it difficult to remember who was who sometimes. However, I really appreciated how Wright took the time to explain a lot of scientologists’ practices and beliefs. One problem I had had with Hill’s book was that she often seemed to assume her readers knew what she was talking about, and the Scientologese (Scientology unique set of acronyms and vocabulary) is not always easy for a casual reader unfamiliar with the religion to remember.

Some readers might take issue with me calling Going Clear “objective,” and I admit that’s a bit of a stretch. A better word choice might be “fair.” Wright lets both side have their say, while he does betray his own position at times. For example, I think he could’ve been more critical of filmmaker Paul Haggis when discussing Haggis’ upset about the church’s support of CA Proposition 8 (2008) concerning the legal status of same-sex marriage. I thought that Haggis’ correspondence with church officials provided an excellent illustration of how celebrities were accustomed to receiving special treatment. Here was one who thought he had a right to demand a change in the church’s doctrine and political position, regardless of the view of the church’s leaders or other members. Haggis’ behavior shows what problems the church faces when constantly catering to high profile members’ sense of entitlement, and I think Wright was too focused on the discussion about the treatment of homosexual members to make observations like these.

I would like to say that, whatever biases might have penetrated the rest of the book, Wright’s conclusion was quite fair. Christian readers might think of 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 and how Christianity stands or falls on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead when, in Going Clear, Wright notes the significance of a statement made by Scientology’s then-spokesman Tommy Davis. In effect, Scientology stands or falls on Hubbard’s claims that Dianetics helped heal him from his war wounds. As Wright shows, Hubbard unabashedly lied about his war record and exaggerated his health problems. All I can say in response is “Case closed.”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wife Takes Husband’s Name, Race, Ethnic Identity

(My Patient Fusion profile still unchanged as of 12:05 PM, June 16, 2015)

You might think gone are the days when census enumerators would “guesstimate” a person’s race and human resources personnel would “correct” employees’ forms behind their backs. But perhaps they’re not.

As some of you may know, I sprained my knee during an exercise/dance class on April 30 and have been trying to recuperate while juggling appointments with my primary care physician, orthopedic specialist, and MRI clinic. Yesterday, I was tending to some related paperwork and took the time to register on to Patient Fusion, the online platform for sharing medical records that the orthopedic office uses. Just imagine my surprise when I logged on and found my profile completed with the wrong race and ethnic information.

That’s right. “Race” was filled in with WHITE. “Ethnicity” with HISPANIC OR LATINO.

Say what?

I’d blame the Tramadol, but I’d quit taking it weeks before my appointment because it was making me nauseous. I was definitely in might right mind when I checked in and filled out the forms. Thought maybe the office staff had just gone with the first thing I checked off (WHITE) and didn’t notice the second (AFRICAN AMERICAN). That would explain the first mistake, but not the second. And after thirty-plus years of being repeatedly mistaken as Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, et al. - by my own kind even – I’m not about to mark HISPANIC anywhere. This was a medical form, not an appropriate place for jokes.

So I called up the orthopedic specialist's office and alerted one of the staff members to the problem. As we were talking, he said he was correcting it, but there’s no change yet. Maybe the system takes 24 hours to update. But that’s not really what’s bothering me. It’s his excuse.

To relate the conversation in a nutshell: He said that the office didn’t ask patients to self-identify on their forms because some might fear discrimination by staff. (I suppose that’s a valid concern since I think 100% of the staff and a majority of the patients are Armenian. The few nons might be uncomfortable.) However, government agencies request demographic information on patients. (Makes sense. They compile lots of statistics on how often certain groups use certain services, which groups are at risk for certain health problems, etc.) The staff’s solution – and I got it straight from the horse’s mouth – is to check off whatever boxes they deem appropriate based on the patient's last name and appearance on the photo ID.

Never occurred to them to look at me instead of my ID, which would’ve likely led them to think BLACK or even mixed. Never occurred to them to compare my spouse’s name (identified as such and listed under “Emergency Contact”) with mine and look up the national origin of VAUGHN instead of ESTRADA. I suppose they never thought that (1) they’d guess wrong and (2) in this digital age, they’d be found out.

Am I angry? Not really. It’s highly amusing. For years I thought the biggest problem was us “mixies” not being allowed to check off two or more races. Now that I’m married though, I guess people just assume I’ve adopted my husband’s identity.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

‘The Lost Girls’ (Book Review)

At first I was disgusted. Then I became really angry. In the end, I was puzzled. I’m referring to my reactions to John Glatt’s recently published The Lost Girls: The True Story of the Cleveland Abductions and the Incredible Rescue of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus (St. Martin's Press, 2015). The book is a complex piece of investigative journalism highlighted with witness testimonies, court records, news cast transcriptions, and the like. It was highly effective. I got scared of the criminal Ariel Castro. I sympathized with his victims’ families. I got mad at the Cleveland police and the FBI. But this emotional roller-coaster ride was a bit surprising, when I thought about it. Unlike many authors who write specifically to produce a desired emotional response, Glatt takes a “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.

That’s not to say he downplays the victims’ suffering. Not at all. In fact, he shows quite well just how terrible kidnapping, rape, and other atrocities really are. But I got a sense that he was letting me, the reader, come to that conclusion myself. The Lost Girls contains many points of view, many in conflict with each other. Glatt shows that some of the evidence against Castro was rock solid and some was weak. He shows how much effort the police put into the investigations, and yet also how much they – carelessly? accidently? – overlooked. And he even allots space for the defense’s arguments, excuses, justifications.

While “disturbing” is probably the best word to describe this book’s contents, I’m glad I read The Lost Girls. Kidnapping and rape are terrible. It’s mind boggling to think of victims tolerating it for even a day let alone a decade. While that did happen in this instance, maybe it will be less likely in the future. Books like this have the potential to raise public awareness and perhaps encourage us to change things for the better.