Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Highly Recommended: Educated by Tara Westover


Tara Westover's Educated (affiliate link) is an extraordinary book. Immediately upon finishing it late one night last week, I was absolutely desperate to talk about it and the larger conversation surrounding it, including certain public responses from some of her family members. I was determined to convince as many of my friends as possible to read it so that they could discuss and dissect it with me and share in the emotionally harrowing experience of reading it.

Looking at the timeline, Westover must have started writing shortly (certainly within a year or so at most) after the last of some difficult and traumatizing events, only the latest in a long string of highly dysfunctional things that happened in her family. She has a talent for vivid, visceral writing, taking us back to what she felt as a child and then a young adult who'd spent her entire life believing certain things, only to discover, much later on and through great effort, that many of them were not true. She witnesses so many dangerous situations and injuries, both her own and suffered by several people in her family. There were so many times when I was scared that someone was going to die because of her parents' negligence and recurring refusal to involve medical professionals, though that never turned out to be the case. Quite frankly, that may be a near miracle, as her father had a habit of encouraging his children to do construction work or operate heavy machinery without training or observing safety requirements.

In part because of how little time appears to have elapsed since many of the events in the book, Westover's story sometimes feels like one that is very much "still in progress", one in which many of the people involved (Westover herself included) may still be in the process of trying to understand and deal with things. (This long-form essay is a fairly good take on this issue, I thought.) Reading Educated was a frustrating experience sometimes, both Westover and certain people in her family make decisions that seem so likely to turn out badly.

It's the first time I've ever been so desperate to talk about a book right away. It's also the first time that, though the text itself was not too dense for me to read as an ebook, I still wanted to eventually buy a hard copy, so that I could go back to it and potentially get more out of it that way. 

To me, this book contains multitudes. On the one hand, it is what it first appears to be marketed as, a story about growing up with a father who identified as a "Mormon survivalist". (Some skeptics on Goodreads and Amazon say, essentially, that her family wasn't fundamentalist Mormon enough or off-the-grid survivalist enough for them to believe her story, or to think it "special". I think that's generally a wrongheaded view.) Yet, as Tara herself takes pains to note, both in the book itself and in any interview where the topic comes up, any critiques in the book are not about the church. Neither the church, nor even her father's anti-government (she didn't have a birth certificate until she was nine), anti-medical establishment, and survivalist tendencies (and there was a lot of all of those things going on in ways that could and did cause harm to his children) fully account for all that happens. President Obama's brief but glowing recommendation of Educated captures something important and remarkable about all this, Westover writes with an almost impossible empathy and love for a complicated (to say the least) father and family, and their complicated world.

The primary theme, and how Westover characterizes the book in interviews, is that it is about how an education, broadly defined (and including aspects of an informal education that she credits her parents with), made her who she is and helped her ultimately break free of what was abusive and dysfunctional in her upbringing. It also allowed her to accomplish some truly extraordinary things: She had no formal schooling (nor any kind of regular homeschooling with any kind of  consistent schedule) until, at around age 17, she was able to score a 28 on the ACT and matriculate at Brigham Young University. (As she recalls, she initially didn't know how to go to school, what reading assignments in a syllabus meant, how to take exams, what the Holocaust was, and what the Civil Rights Movement was.) It was a long and hard-fought process, to eventually win a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge and earn a history PhD. 

Inevitably, Educated does, like any memoir about something both controversial and quite recent (and involving people who are very much alive, who use computers and the internet, and have their own fresh memories of the events depicted), implicate questions about memory and the sometimes different perceptions of past trauma by other people who were there to witness it, or who participated in it.* To that extent, I find it to be an extremely timely book.

Please follow the link below if you're interested in reading the rest of my many, many thoughts on this book.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Japan and Taiwan Trip 2018

Kinkakuji in Kyoto; You can't tell, but it was actually as crowded as a NYC subway platform during rush hour all around me in the designated photo-taking area where I was taking this!

We had a wonderful time on our recent trip to Taiwan and Japan! K and I took off for a little more than two weeks total, with an extra two days added thanks to Typhoon Trami. We were in Taipei to visit my family for around three days, Tokyo for about five days, and the Kyoto and Osaka area for what turned out to be closer to nine days with the storm delay. Before I get started, a quick confession: Because we had family to show us around and pick restaurants in Taipei and close friends in Tokyo to help do the same, I have less in the way of practical suggestions for those places! 

Taiwan is always lovely, I regularly push for people who haven't been before to consider taking at least a quick trip there, maybe as an add-on to a larger trip elsewhere in East or Southeast Asia. It's generally a fairly affordable destination by US tourist standards, the food is tasty, it's an extremely friendly place, and I'm told by others that it's fairly easy to navigate with English only, particularly in Taipei. I've gone so many times over the years, and I tend to do the same things over and over. A few things I recommend in Taipei:
  • Chia Te to buy pineapple cakes for gifts, as they're the best of the bakeries I've tried. It's normally not too busy at random times on weekday mornings. This year, though, the line was way too long. Apparently, because it was almost mid-Autumn festival, the store had been really busy at all hours for quite some time (this was even discussed in a segment on the local news!), even though I don't think they make traditional moon cakes. They sell Chia Te pineapple cakes at many 7-11s though. We felt a little silly when we saw them at the 7-11 near our hotel after we'd already bought something else for our friends in Tokyo. 
  • Din Tai Fung - it's so good! I always make a point to drop by when I'm in Taipei. The lines can be daunting, but I think it's worth it. (Their soup dumplings have very delicate skins and consistently perfect proportions. It's a solid step above the best I've had here in NYC.) I tend to stick to the branch near Yongkang street (a well-oiled machine, they're quite accurate with estimated wait times, which can reach a peak of 120 minutes, but usually it maxes out at 90), which means we can browse in the neighborhood (lots of souvenir shops and restaurants!) while we wait our turn. 
  • Night markets are a must-do, of course. K and I have been to Raohe and Shilin together, and we want to branch out more next time. When I was younger and visiting with family, we used to go to Shida, and that was also fun. 
  • Taking the Maokong Gondola to visit the teahouses in Maokong makes for a nice change of pace from the rest of the city. They do shut down the gondola quite often due to weather conditions, however! 

Japan was a completely new destination for K. I'd been once before, but that trip was so brief that I didn't see much. One thing we noticed about both Tokyo and Kyoto: touring both cities requires so. much. walking. This is despite extremely robust public transit systems. (In particular, the Tokyo subway system, with JR trains added, boggles the mind in its complexity when compared with any other I've ever used.) Keep in mind that we're NYC dwellers, so we were already accustomed to walking a lot, almost every day. It was a bit of a shock! Our feet were sore every evening, even towards the end of our trip, when you'd think that we'd have gotten used to it. Packing-wise, I hadn't expected that I'd need to wear sneakers every day in Japan.

Some travel tips that were essential to us:
  • The Japan-Guide website gives excellent overviews of basically every tourist site we could think of. There are a good handful of places that are only open on limited days, or require advance bookings, so doing a fair bit of research when mapping out a general itinerary is definitely recommended. 
  • Be sure to plan out whether to get a pocket wifi or local sim card beforehand, and some advance booking may be required. We used JapanWifiBuddy, but I didn't do enough research to know if there were better deals available. 
  • Definitely install the HyperDia app on your phone (may require a licensing fee after 30 days, but it's initially free to download and use) to map out train and public transit routes throughout Japan. Google Maps will not be enough for that purpose. 
  • I'm a little bit embarrassed that I didn't think to do this, but I'm told that people appreciate when tourists come prepared to use a few simple phrases in Japanese (things like "excuse me" or "please" and "thank you" of course, and even "I don't speak Japanese", "how much?", and so on), and that it's very helpful. It's the first place I've ever been where, with only English and my rudimentary putonghua Chinese, I felt extremely... clunky and awkward getting around sometimes, like there was a major language barrier. (Because my particular combination of language skills takes me so far as a tourist in a other countries I've been to, I'm terribly inexperienced with navigating any kind of true language barrier.) 
  • Don Quijote or "Donki", a large discount store that sells absolutely everything, is awesome! People recommend buying Japanese snacks (including special KitKat flavors) there to bring home as gifts. You'll also be able to do all your Japanese cosmetic and skincare shopping there. They also sell groceries, clothes, designer luggage and even some handbags (including some well-priced Longchamp totes in the Dotonbori branch in Osaka)... Literally everything! 
  • Definitely carry a coin purse. I'd accumulated nearly $15 USD in coins just in my first two or three days. 
  • We were also able to use credit cards in a lot of places, by the way, Japan isn't as cash-reliant a society as some travel guides imply. Some places were American Express only, no Visa.

One thing I hadn't realized about Tokyo hotels was that some rooms that technically sleep two (particularly at hotels that likely see many business travelers) are so small that we would actually have been happy to pay more for a slightly bigger room. (Think of a room where one could almost touch every wall while sitting or standing on the bed, or there wasn't enough open floor space anywhere to open up a medium sized suitcase fully, so that both sides of the bag could lay flat on the ground.) Never before had K and I ever been particularly fussed about space in hotel rooms, even in Hong Kong where rooms are quite small (but not this small!). Not a big deal in the end, but something we would take into account next time.

Food in Japan is generally excellent, regardless of price. Famously, even the convenience store food* is delicious and varied, and it is no sad thing to turn to 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart for breakfast several days in a row. (See, for example, this video by Strictly Dumpling, one of my favorite travel and food Youtubers. The convenience stores in Taiwan are also great, but the ones in Japan really take the cake!) We had some absolutely delicious meals that were quite affordable (including conveyor belt sushi and yakitori) but also splurged on some fancy meals where one could see the quality of ingredients, the skill of the chefs, and how that justified the cost (including lunch at the ANA Intercontinental's teppanyaki restaurant). At the fancier restaurants, the prices can jump up dramatically for dinner, so trying to get a lunch reservation may be best.

*In terms of food and ingredient quality in Japan, I may still be thinking wistfully of the packaged hardboiled eggs from 7-11 I had for breakfast the morning we went to the airport. To get the same depth of flavor from eggs here in the US, I think I may have to go through some trial and error with buying the fanciest, most humanely-raised free-range organic eggs ever. 

We had so much fun in Japan that, immediately after our trip, I was already half-making plans for a next one, despite our limited opportunities and vacation time for taking longer trips (once a year, if we're lucky), and how there are so many other places in the world that we also still want to see. Things I may want to do next time include: Staying at a ryokan for a night, probably in Hakone; going to Kamakura and Nikko as part of a trip to Tokyo; and spending more time in Osaka. And that's just the things that occur to me immediately, without any extra research! It'll probably be at least a few years before we can concretely think about taking another trip to Japan, though.

Please follow the link below for more photos from Kyoto and Nara, and more detailed travel tips for the Kyoto area!

Friday, October 5, 2018

September 2018 Shopping Reflections


I had tons of fun on my recent trip to Taiwan and Japan! Although I'd been to Japan before, it was only for a few days, so it was great to have lots more time to explore this time around. I had also never previously been to Kyoto before. I'll write in more detail about the trip later on. We encountered some slight travel delays getting home because of Typhoon Trami, as Kansai International Airport was closed (mostly in an abundance of caution and to prevent travelers from getting stranded) on our scheduled departure date. But I'm back now, and the jet lag hasn't been too bad!

This month wasn't too exciting on the shopping front, with mostly secondhand purchases that I made before I left for my trip. K and I did end up needing to do some unexpected shopping while we were in Japan, though I consider clothing purchases made solely because of the needs or issues that arose during a trip to be part of my travel budget rather than my shopping budget, so I won't list them here. It was all boring/practical items anyway, mostly socks and underthings (which I don't typically document), and all from Uniqlo. It was the first time K had ever shopped there!

As for what I'm expecting from the next few months? I'm really hoping I won't be buying much in the way of clothing or shoes for the rest of this year, except for maybe one really great and luxurious, slightly slouchy or oversized sweater, as described in my most recent "shopping wishlist" post. For the past few months, my savings have been ticking up steadily, right on schedule to facilitate my plans for a certain elective procedure, and I think it's finally starting to hit me that, hey, the way that clothes fit and look on me could change dramatically very soon - maybe it's best not to shop for new clothes? (It's taken a surprisingly long while for that idea to fully settle in.) As for shoes, all my boots and booties are in excellent shape and ready for at least one more winter, probably more, so I'm not expecting any purchases in that area either.

I still am regularly tempted by jewelry, though. One brand that's new to me and that I discovered through a targeted Instagram ad is J. Hannah, a Los Angeles-based brand that makes a few rings that appeal to my current interest in "weighty" gold jewelry, especially their "Form" rings. Oh, and Farfetch is currently stocking a wider range of Alighieri necklaces than usual. (From all my browsing for Alighieri jewelry in recent months, Farfetch generally seem to offer the best combination of price, shipping cost, and Ebates or other cash-back rates). Their selection includes several designs I've been interested in since I first learned about the brand, including the wax seal-looking "Deceptive North Star" and "L'Infinito", and the wonderfully organic and irregular "The Odyssey" pendant on a longer chain (some listings for that one have it on a short chain that I don't think suits it as well). The prices on all the jewelry items I've been admiring should keep them safely in the "window shopping only" and "admire, but not buy" categories though, at least in the near future.

Fashion - (TOTAL: $198.08) 
  • J.Crew Juliette Collarless Sweater Blazer, heather gray - $88.80 - Whatever else one might think about J.Crew's quality issues and questionable business strategy decisions in recent years, they make some awesome sweater blazers. Both the "Sophie" open sweater blazer design and this newer collarless design were ones that I ordered just to try, but that I was sure I wouldn't keep because I already had plenty of other sweaters that filled the same general niche, but in the end I couldn't resist either. I took outfit photographs with this Juliette sweater blazer here and here
  • J.Crew Presentation Dress, black - $32.33* - The rest of my purchases this month were both on the secondhand market. I bought the blue version of this J.Crew Presentation Dress early last year from eBay (after previously rejecting this item when it was originally in stores and on sale around 2016), and it quickly became one of my favorite work dresses. The blue Presentation dress is always one of the first things I reach for after each laundry day. I'd been looking for the black one on eBay for a few months, but never saw it in the right size and at the right price. Finally, I saw this one while browsing ThredUp unsuccessfully for some summer clothing for my Japan trip. This one is a size 8, while the blue is a size 6. Both look about the same on me, at least around the chest and shoulders, though there's more room in the skirt on the size 8. This dress is one of those items that, on paper, shouldn't work that well. It's not a particularly flattering shape on me (it's not unflattering either, just sort of neutral), and the cap-sleeve is a bit restrictive, I can't raise my arms fully. Even so, it's still become something that I greatly enjoy wearing to work. 
  • Tory Burch Tie-Front Square Print Dress - $76.95* - This was also a product of my unsuccessfully browsing the secondhand market for clothing for my Japan trip. I got this from TheRealReal, which doesn't currently have any more of this specific dress in stock, though they always have plenty of other Tory Burch clothing in various sizes. This was a bit of an impulsive buy for me. Any TheRealReal purchase is always risky because their shipping and return shipping charges are quite expensive. I thought the print was pretty, and I was reasonably confident that it would fit me and look good. It's made out of a slightly stretchy cotton poplin, a blend of 97% cotton and 3% spandex/elastane. It's also labeled a "dry clean" item, which confuses me a bit, as I think that fabric composition should be fine if machine-washed in cold water and line-dried. I've only worn it once so far and liked it, but am a bit nervous about future wears and laundering it after because I don't know whether to comply with the care instructions label. 
*Indicates that shipping charges were included in the price.

How was your shopping month, and how's the rest of your shopping year looking? Should I take a chance on machine-washing that Tory Burch dress? I get nervous about not following the care instructions with items that were a bit expensive for me (even if I ultimately got a good deal on the item). I also don't have much experience with machine-washing stretchy cotton-spandex blends!