Saturday, June 30, 2007

Funny in Farsi

A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

I am not one much for middle grounds. Either I am among the first to read the new new book, or among the last, long after the buzz has moved on to a far distant land. And so it is that Funny in Farsi, published in 2003, has come to the top of my reading list. Firoozeh Dumas (she is married to a Frenchman) describes how her family came from the warm extended family network in Iran to the delights of California. Her affectionate ribbing of her family's maladjustment to American culture brings to mind My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only with Persian instead of Greek sensibilities.

I admit that I put off reading this for a long time because I have an innate distrust of best-selling memoirs; they tend to be dishonest, dysfunctional, or heavily populated with familial sex offenders. Fortunately, this one is the exception. The humor is charming, and the dysfunctionality is all in the culture clash, with nary a felon in sight. I can recommend this to anyone, and suggest locating a reprint with "a new final chapter," so you can get the epilogue.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Extra Large Medium

Helen Slavin tells the story of Annie Colville, who has been talking with dead people since her earliest childhood, and can only distinguish them from the living by their chocolate brown wardrobes. Despite her expanded acquaintance, Annie is very much alone, and struggles to deal with first her promiscuous mother and then Evan Bees, who disappeared one day, as she wrestles with the problem of the restless hoards who come to her with unfinished business, such as the Crown Derby china, who's going to let out the cat, and where the shed keys are. Oh, and the Extra Large Medium is her great-great-something grandfather, who cashed in spectacularly on his apparently hereditary gift. Although he wasn't extra-large either.

I have mixed emotions about The Extra Large Medium.

Good things: well written, pleasant voice that moves the story along nicely without bogging down the plot with detritus. Interesting characters, interesting device of plugging in bits of commentary from other characters, some of whom are introduced long after they begin commenting. Satisfactory conclusion, with some startling developments but which were foreshadowed after all.

Bad things: altogether too much crudeness at the beginning, centering around Annie's mother's promiscuity, which is to say, the bedroom door is pretty much left ajar, and swings wide open once. Fortunately, this tawdry story line fades away Annie grows up, along with one chocolate-brown dressed character with an incredibly foul mouth. Then, too, there is a disconcerting tendency for people to drift into homelessness--and I cannot say more without spoiling the plot--but to me that's a somewhat abnormal reaction to the vicissitudes of life. And Annie has a tendency to set off on quests and then abandon them, not because she's achieved any sort of resolution, even in her mind--she just starts doing something else. Is this a part of the character development, or is Ms. Slavin a sloppy constructionist? And, in reference to the Startling Developments (which I will not divulge here), my discerning son points out--what are the odds?

So...I can recommend this with a pair of rather large "if"s: (1) IF you don't mind the supernatural premise, and (2) IF you can look past the crudeness, you could enjoy this unusual story.

Friday, June 15, 2007

It's All Too Much

An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff

If you are a fan of TLC's Clean Sweep, you may be familiar with Peter Walsh, who authors this book on decluttering. I have read innumerable books on decluttering, and this one includes the time-honored strategies for getting rid of the excess. But there is an important variation here. Walsh requires you to Imagine the Life you want to Live, and then tailor your living space to make that possible. There is, for example, no point in keeping rooms full of needlepoint supplies if needlepoint has no place in the life you want to live.

Having just endured a forced implementation of the principles (six weeks ago we moved into a smaller place), I can vouch for the soundness of Walsh's advice. If you need an impetus to start a necessary decluttering, this could be it. Dig in.

The Culture Code

An ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do

This intriguing book by Clotaire Rapaille posits an interesting premise; that very often we prefer or purchase things for reasons not apparent to our rational minds. OK, actually we all kind of know that, but his analysis and findings are revealing. His background as a psychoanalyst in Paris working with autistic children turned out to be a goldmine when he developed a clientele of Fortune 500 companies. His skills were ideal for getting past the answers from the conscious mind ("alibis", which also matter) so often garnered in market research, and delving into what he calls "the reptilian mind," where the earliest experiences are recorded, as well as the emotions attached to them. Rapaille considers these emotions to be of prime importance, because the emotions determine our preferences, even for such mundane items as cars and coffee.

His means of getting to the reptilian mind is painstaking. First, an hour of playing space alien, getting his subjects to describe to him, say, coffee. What is it? Can you wear it? Oh, you drink it? How? Where? Then, an hour of collaging words about coffee. The third hour is spent laying on the floor on pillows, while he talks them back to their earliest memories about coffee, the first time they consciously experienced it, and their most significant memory of it. Uncovering these imprints, which are formed by age seven, helps determine how to position a product.

The coffee research took place in Japan, where Nestle was trying to sell coffee without success. Rapaille's research showed that most Japanese have no imprint of coffee at all, so trying to replace tea with coffee was doomed to failure. Nestle's strategy, based on this research, was to start selling coffee-flavored desserts for children, which allowed them to literally grow their market, a strategy which ultimately succeeded for them.

Rapaille also explains that these imprints are not only individual, but also cultural, and these cultural imprints have codes that bring the emotions associated with these imprints to the fore. If you tap into the code, you can use it to sell a product. For example, Chrysler was trying to sell the Jeep as an SUV without success. Research indicated that the American culture code for a Jeep was Horse - transportation across rough terrain with the wind in your hair, free-spirited etc. because this was the earliest experience most Americans had with a Jeep. Thus, advertising a Jeep as a vehicle that would rescue you from a crumbling cliff ledge resonates strongly with Americans. In Europe, however, the Jeep is associated with Freedom, based on the European World War II experience, so freedom-based advertising was far more effective in Europe.

So, here are some culture codes for Americans:
toilet-paper = independence
peanut butter = mother's love & nurture (comfort food)
cheese = dead
cars = identity
love = false expectation
seduction = manipulation
sex = violence
beauty = man's salvation
fat = checking out
health & wellness = movement
doctors = heroes
hospital = processing plant
youth (the appearance) = mask
home = the prefix "re-"
also, home = where your "stuff" is
Betty Crocker = the soul of the kitchen
dinner = essential circle
work = who you are
money = proof
perfection = death
quality = it works
food = fuel
alcohol = gun
shopping = reconnecting with life
luxury = military stripes
US President = Moses
American = dream

and for the French:
wedding = gustatory excess
cheese = alive
shopping = learning your culture
Americans = space travellers
France = idea

and the Germans:
cars = engineering
Americans = John Wayne
Germany = order

and the English:
Americans = unashamedly abundant
England = class

and the Canadians:
Canada = to keep

Naturally, all this is presented with compelling evidence. The above notes are to jar my memory. But perhaps they will intrigue you, and if they do, consider reading The Culture Code.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Empty Nest

31 parents tell the truth about relationships, love, and freedom after the kids fly the coop

I happened across this one while I was browsing at the library and, since I'm still in the throes of empty-nesting myself, decided to give it a whirl. It's a compilation of essays, and the variety of stories and styles keep it fresh.

At least, for a while. After eight or ten of them, a certain predictability creeps in. Youngest or only child is going away to college, parent reminisces on the upbringing experience with a dollop of parent's own upbringing thrown in for ballast. At the end of the day (week month year decade), parent and child adjust and life is fine, for richer or for poorer, with or without spouses, in-laws, grandchildren. Oh, and the writer (funny how all these essayists are career writers--what are the odds?) continues to write, once even converting the now-empty bedroom into an office.

I just can't see myself plowing through the other 21 essays right now. Somehow, I don't think I'll see one where the child runs away on a motorcycle half-way through high school, leaving the empty-nester to convert the extra bedroom into a marijuana farm or an espionage center while launching a new career as Katie Couric or Emeril.

But since the writing is good, I may be back. I just need to remember that I've already read "My Cart," so next time start with "Time Traveler."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I have been meaning to read this for well over a year, having received this large, severe-looking volume as a much-coveted Christmas present. But it was too heavy for traveling, and a first-effort convinced me that I wouldn't be satisfied by sandwiching it in between other activities, an hour here and a half-hour there. So I have reserved it for a time when I could clear the decks and really get into it.

The story begins with the emergence of Mr. Norrell, a reclusive magician, from obscurity. Mr. Norrell feels the need to help with the war effort (the Napoleonic War effort, that is), and to restore magic to its rightful place as a respectable profession, to be practiced only by gentlemen such as himself. But when Jonathan Strange turns up, unquestionably a gentleman and equally unquestionably magically talented, the two forge an uneasy alliance that ebbs and flows with events both personal and political, with an ending that was wholly unexpected and perhaps inevitable.

But did I like it? At first I did, charmed by Susanna Clarke's Jane-Austen-meets-J-K-Rowling voice. Then I decided it was too gothic and depressing, but I wanted to finish it anyway since I had to see how it ended. Then, as the storyline began gathering all the threads together, I began to appreciate the Dickensian characterizations more, and by the time I read the last page, I decided to join in the throng of reviewers who have called it "an instant classic," among other lavish praises.

So, yeah. Read it.